Melissa Harris-Perry: You're with The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. On Friday, author Salman Rushdie was viciously attacked repeatedly stabbed, and seriously injured in what appears to be a premeditated attack. Rushdie was preparing to deliver a morning lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. Founded in the late 19th century, Chautauqua combines retreat from the daily grind with an opportunity for intellectual exploration. More than 142,000 people come each year to experience the lectures, concerts, meals, recreation, and community.
On Friday, Chautauqua's idyllic free exchange of ideas was shattered by violence. A 24-year-old man from New Jersey was taken into custody and he's being held without bail after pleading not guilty to charges of attempted murder and assault. The brutal attack against Rushdie is both shocking and utterly unsurprising. Now, 75 years old Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie has lived under threat of death since 1989. When the late Ayatollah Khomeini, Supreme leader of revolutionary Iran ordered Rushdie killed and offered a bounty for his execution.
Rushdie's offense was the publication of his fourth novel The Satanic Verses which includes a fictional account of the life of the prophet Muhammad. The book remains banned in several countries including India where a dozen people were killed in a protest against the book in 1989 and six more perished in a protest in Pakistan that year. In 1991, the book's Italian translator was stabbed and its Japanese translator was murdered. In 1993, the novel's Norwegian publisher was shot.
The young man charged with attacking Rushdie this week wasn't even born until nearly a decade after the publication of The Satanic Verses.
Salman Rushdie: You always remember the bad reviews. You forget all the good reviews but you memorize the bad reviews.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is Rushdie back in 2013 talking with a group of New York public high school students about being a writer.
Salman Rushdie: One of the great things about doing this job for a while is that you begin to be clear about what it is that you want to do. What it is that you're trying to do, where you're trying to go as a writer, and you begin to have a better sense of that. Then you hope that you write those books that go where you want to go and that people will come along. You want everybody-- It's much nicer if people like your books. It's preferable and you want that to happen but then at a certain point, you realize you're never going to please everybody.
It doesn't matter how many people you please, there's going to be people who don't like it or don't get it or that's not the thing that they're looking for as readers. At that moment, you realize you can't make everybody happy you're free.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In his statement released this weekend Rushdie's family wrote, "Though his life-changing injuries are severe, his usual feisty and defiant sense of humor remains intact. We're so grateful to all the audience members who bravely lept to his defense and administered first aid along with the police and doctors who have cared for him and for the outpouring of love and support from around the world." Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses is one of the most banned and restricted books in the world. Many have died and been critically injured because of it. It's a book, a novel, a story, a source of ideas.
When we return I'm joined by Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association's Office For Intellectual Freedom. We're talking about the continuing reality of book bans and a new wave of efforts to restrict stories and ideas.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: The result of their campaigns is the censorship and removal of books that center the voices of groups that traditionally have not had a place in our society but have finally found a place on the stage and on the shelves of our libraries.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Stick with us more takeaway in just a moment. Welcome back to The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Friday's violent attack on novelist Salman Rushdie is a reminder of the real and enduring consequences of banning books and ideas. Earlier this month, voters in Jamestown Township Michigan voted to reject the millage that supports the town's public library. More than 80% of the library's budget is supplied by this local property tax and without it, the library cannot operate.
The voters have effectively chosen to close the library rather than to allow books by and about LGBTQ people to be available on its shelves. I spoke with Deborah Caldwell-Stone director of the American Library Association's Office For Intellectual Freedom. We talked about the decision-making bodies in America's public libraries.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: Public libraries are generally funded through tax levies or millage. Sometimes it's from a grant from a county or a city government and usually, states provide grants to help underwrite the operation of local public libraries. By and large, it's based on local tax assessments that are often voted on by the local residents of a community.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do members of the public or elected officials end up having decision-making power over programming or even what ends up on the shelves at public libraries?
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: Libraries have governing bodies: boards of trustees that broadly guide the operations of the library. Many of the decisions are entrusted to the library professionals that are hired to operate the library on behalf of the community. Library workers are dedicated to the work of building and curating a collection of materials that serve the information needs of the community according to a collection development policy that's approved by the governing body.
Whether it's a board of trustees or the county government. Once books are acquired for the library, there's actually a 1st Amendment obligation to provide access to those books and to not censor those books based on their content or viewpoint. All library users have a 1st Amendment right to enter and use public libraries and all users have a right to access and read the books that have been selected to be on the shelf. It is believed to be a 1st Amendment violation to remove those books because of the views, the topics, the ideas expressed in those books because we are after all talking about a government agency that is governed by the 1st Amendment as much as any other government agency.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I assume that there are very few public libraries who come to sit down in their decision-making and think, "We just have so much money that clearly we can buy everything that we've even dreamed of and maybe should give some of it away." Given that there are limited resources, what are the decision-making vectors for how those dollars are spent in public libraries?
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: That's where you rely on the expertise of the library professionals that are operating the library but they have a collection development policy that identifies the broad mission of the library to serve the needs of the businesses, the students, the self-learners, also simply entertainment, and self-improvement. They look at book reviews. They gauge what circulates in their community based on what books are checked out. They respond to reference requests. They respond to requests for literature from their community to build a collection.
Generally, there's a consensus that books should be included fiction books, non-fiction addressing particular topics but in the end, the goal is to build a broad collection representing a diversity of ideas, topics, and viewpoints so that people can educate themselves, improve their lives, access literature, understand the world. In general access the information they need to function as citizens to engage with their neighbors and with the world around them in an effective way.
The theory, of course, is that democracy depends on individuals who have the information they need to participate in that democracy effectively, but libraries do so much more these days. They're portals to the internet. They're places to do homework, places to acquire credentials so you can improve your employment and to simply engage with your neighbors or learn new skills, learn new knowledge to gain an understanding of other people's lives.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you talk to us about the Patmos Library in Jamestown Township, Michigan?
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: That's a library that's been engaged in some controversy over the fact that the collection includes books that reflect the lives and experiences of LGBTQIA persons. There has been an effort to remove those books from the shelves of the library which the library board has resisted. They feel that it's their mission and their correctness, it's their mission to serve everyone in the community and that they need a range of books, including books that address the lives of LGBTQIA persons on the shelf that are available to everyone and to all the families, all the individuals in the community to be able to effectively serve all the persons in the community.
The persons, the advocacy groups that wanted to remove the books from the library, because they disapproved of the idea of books that were affirming of LGBTQIA persons and young people on the shelf, mounted a campaign to defeat the pending levy that would have funded the library. It really got to be a little bit ugly. Words like brewers and pedophilia were hurled at people who supported the idea that people should be able to make their own choices about what they read and access in the library. That LGBTQIA persons in the community deserve to be represented in that collection.
In the end, those who were advocating for censorship carried the day, and the levy that would have provided the funds to keep the library open was defeated. The Patmos Library faces closure in a year. They'll run out of money in about a year unless the millage is approved again. I think the result of the vote was a wake-up call for the community. There were many people who said they wanted to send a message of disapproval about the LGBTQIA books, but they didn't realize that their vote would close the library.
When they were confronted with the thought that they would lose this essential community resource, this institution that serves so many purposes and so many needs in the community, I think it was reflected in some commentary in the library board meeting that followed the election last week, that they would be rethinking their position. It's fair to note that this is a community that is fairly conservative and its approach to these issues, but nonetheless, there are families and individuals in the community that are gay, queer, or transgender and have asked for these books to be available.
The library board is still committed to upholding the right to read, the right to choose what one reads, and having a variety of materials available to the community. They're going to put the levy on the ballot again in November. We're fairly hopeful that there'll be a different result in the November election, but I think it's a wake-up call about the harm that can happen when individuals feel that their views should prevail and dictate what is available for the entire community. It really is a tragedy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are there organized efforts to protect libraries?
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: Absolutely, groups that came together around these issues. suddenly, were really a wake-up call. We realized here at the American Library Association, that there was very few organized opportunities for individuals to support libraries, to support the freedom to read, to support the ability of individuals to make their own choices about what books are in their homes, and in the hands of their children.
We've organized a campaign called United Against Book Bans. Actually, it's a grassroots advocacy campaign for individuals and communities to use, to come together and resist censorship to help hold the idea that public libraries are for everyone, that they should reflect the lives of everyone in the community, and serve everyone's information needs.
There is a website called uniteagainstbookbans.org, all one word, and there you'll find toolkits and information.
You'll find information about the harms of censorship and what we're observing across the country, this effort and what's actually been a successful campaign to take these books out of libraries and out of the hands of readers, and how you as an individual and as community groups can come together, support the local library board, speak out against censorship, and work to end this effort by a vocal minority to limit and narrow education and limit and narrow what's available to read in your library.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is the last question because I've got a librarian on the line here. What are you reading right now?
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: Right now? I'm just finishing up a great book called The Appalachian Trail, a biography. It's a new history of the Appalachian Trail, how it got established, how it got funded. I'm an avid hiker. I love going out to the woods to hike and canoe. Finding out the history of what are deemed to be wild places. It's interesting to note that the Appalachian Trail is not really all that wild anymore but to learn about that, and a few mysteries here and there, but that's the book I've just finished reading right now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. Thank you.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: Thank you.
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