Dayton Memorial Library
The Dayton Memorial Library, located in Dayton, Washington, is the library for the Columbia County Rural Library District. (Photo: Will Stuivenga/Washington State Library, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

In the past few days, The Nation and The Seat­tle Times have each pub­lished must-read fea­ture pieces that take an in-depth look at a right wing effort in rur­al Wash­ing­ton to close down an entire library because its staff and trustees refused to relo­cate and remove books deemed objec­tion­able by some local residents.

Ini­ti­at­ed by Jes­si­ca Ruf­f­corn, a right wing par­ent who orig­i­nal­ly want­ed veto pow­er over the con­tents of the library’s cat­a­log, what was ini­tial­ly a cen­sor­ship effort has mor­phed into a bal­lot mea­sure that alarm­ing­ly seeks the dis­so­lu­tion of the library sys­tem. Vot­ers in rur­al Colum­bia Coun­ty, who con­sti­tute the rur­al dis­tric­t’s elec­torate, will decide the mea­sure’s fate this fall.

The Nation’s fea­ture, writ­ten by Sasha Abram­sky, went live first, on August 7th.

“Through­out the coun­try, far-right groups are try­ing to con­trol what books kids can read,” the arti­cle’s sub­head reads. “In Day­ton, Wash­ing­ton, they tried to shut down the library alto­geth­er.” (Using the present tense instead would prob­a­bly have made more sense, since the library’s fate is yet to be decided.)

“Would-be cen­sors were mar­shaled on Face­book by a young moth­er of two—and a one­time library work­er in the near­by town­let of Prescott — named Jes­si­ca Ruf­f­corn,” Abram­sky explains. “Moti­vat­ed by reli­gious and polit­i­cal objec­tions to the con­tent of cer­tain books, Ruf­f­corn and her fol­low­ers are demand­ing that the ‘offen­sive’ mate­ri­als be removed from the children’s sec­tion and placed on the high­est shelves in the adult sec­tion, prefer­ably with warn­ing labels past­ed onto their cov­ers. The effort began with a hit list of a hand­ful of books, which soon grew to a dozen. At last count, the num­ber exceed­ed 100 volumes.”

The library’s for­mer direc­tor Todd Van­den­bark refused to do Ruf­f­corn’s bid­ding. When the library board backed Van­den­bark up, she decid­ed to go nuclear, and insti­gat­ed a peti­tion to dis­solve the library sys­tem. She only need­ed to col­lect one hun­dred and sev­en valid sig­na­tures to qual­i­fy the peti­tion to the bal­lot, and cleared that bar with­out any prob­lem. Because the library sys­tem is set up as a rur­al library dis­trict, its sur­vival is in the hands of only those Colum­bia Coun­ty vot­ers who don’t live with­in the bound­aries of a city or town.

Abram­sky’s arti­cle was appar­ent­ly writ­ten while Van­den­bark was still the library’s direc­tor. He has since left the post, tired of deal­ing with Ruf­f­corn and her ilk.

The new library direc­tor tried to appease Ruf­f­corn and com­pa­ny by elim­i­nat­ing the library’s entire young adult non­fic­tion sec­tion and merg­ing it into the adult sec­tion. Ruf­f­corn’s response? Not good enough. The library needs to go, she says.

“We do not trust their motives to move the books,” Ruf­f­corn wrote in an email to The Seat­tle Times, which ran its fea­ture piece on the library’s predica­ment in today’s wide­ly read Sun­day edi­tion of the news­pa­per. “Now it’s up to unin­cor­po­rat­ed Colum­bia Coun­ty to decide what our com­mu­ni­ty stan­dards are, and whether our library is an asset or a drain on our community.”

Clock­ing in at over 3,000 words, the Times’ fea­ture piece — which like The Nation’s, is well worth your time — nice­ly chron­i­cles the library’s his­to­ry and doc­u­ments how it became the tar­get of Ruf­f­corn and oth­er right wing trou­ble­mak­ers who don’t believe in free access to information.

Seat­tle Times reporter David Gut­man found peo­ple in Colum­bia Coun­ty will­ing to speak in the library’s defense, despite the coun­ty’s Repub­li­can polit­i­cal tilt.

“If you don’t want your kid to read it, don’t let ’em… It’s kind of heart­break­ing that such a few peo­ple can cause such a stir,” the arti­cle quotes Day­ton True Val­ue hard­ware store own­er Mindy Bet­zler as saying.

That’s an under­stand­able sen­ti­ment, but of course, Ruf­f­corn isn’t con­tent with mere­ly being able to decide what her chil­dren can read or not. She wants to be able to con­trol access to infor­ma­tion for oth­er fam­i­lies in the com­mu­ni­ty too.

Con­trol and obe­di­ence are key val­ues in her right wing world­view, which includes a moral hier­ar­chy that pro­gres­sive lin­guist and strate­gist George Lakoff mem­o­rably described in a 2017 essay (archived here).

The hier­ar­chy, as described by Lakoff, is:

  • God above Man
  • Man above Nature
  • The Dis­ci­plined (Strong) above the Undis­ci­plined (Weak)
  • The Rich above the Poor
  • Employ­ers above Employees
  • Adults above Children
  • West­ern cul­ture above oth­er cultures
  • Amer­i­ca above oth­er countries
  • Men above Women
  • Whites above Nonwhites
  • Chris­tians above non-Christians
  • Straights above Gays

And so on.

It’s also impor­tant to under­stand that a lot of Repub­li­cans, in addi­tion to sub­scrib­ing to this strict father based world­view, also sub­scribe to the notion that no one should be able to tell them what to do, but they should be able to tell oth­er peo­ple what to do. Yes, it’s a mas­sive dou­ble stan­dard. They don’t care.

Ruf­f­corn is lying when she says the bal­lot mea­sure she cre­at­ed is an effort “to decide what our com­mu­ni­ty stan­dards are.” This isn’t ulti­mate­ly about stan­dards or age-appro­pri­ate con­tent — it’s about pow­er and control.

Osten­si­bly, Ruf­f­corn claims to object to the pres­ence of books in the library such as “It’s Per­fect­ly Nor­mal: Chang­ing Bod­ies, Grow­ing Up, Sex, Gen­der, and Sex­u­al Health,” a title that med­ical pro­fes­sion­als have assessed to be accu­rate and well writ­ten, as you can see here. But, of course, the Bible has pas­sages that men­tion sex­u­al inter­course, and Ruf­f­corn isn’t cam­paign­ing to get the Bible banned.

What she real­ly wants is to dic­tate what oth­er peo­ple can check out of her local library. (Top­ics like sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­ti­ty evi­dent­ly aren’t wor­thy of dis­cus­sion unless LGBTQ+ peo­ple and their rights are being condemned.)

Ruf­f­corn lacks the influ­ence to impose a cen­sor­ship regime more broad­ly across the state or region, so she’s mak­ing a pow­er play in Dayton.

This would­n’t fly in a big city, so Ruf­f­corn is try­ing it in a small town.

Read­ing these arti­cles brought to mind a scene from one of my favorite movies, Field of Dreams, which came out in 1989. Field of Dreams, as many read­ers like­ly know, is set in rur­al Iowa, and it’s about a farmer who decides to plow under some of his corn after hear­ing a voice say “If you build it, he will come.”

Mid­way through the movie, the farmer, named Ray Kin­sel­la and played by Kevin Cost­ner, goes to a PTA meet­ing with his wife Annie, played by Amy Madigan.

Ray is dis­tract­ed by the lat­est voice he’s heard, telling him to ease his pain, but Annie is ful­ly dialed into the meet­ing. We don’t get to see the meet­ing in its entire­ty, but that does­n’t mat­ter, because it’s evi­dent from the part that we do get to see that the meet­ing is a con­fronta­tion between cen­sor­ship-obsessed par­ents like Bula Kessinik and offi­cials try­ing to respond to an effort to ban books, specif­i­cal­ly those authored by Ter­rence Mann, played by James Earl Jones.

It does­n’t take long for Annie to get involved, and after trad­ing insults with Kessinik, she even­tu­al­ly turns the room against the would-be book ban­ners by engag­ing in some elo­quent, quick refram­ing. Here’s the scene:

This is what I hope hap­pens in Colum­bia Coun­ty this fall.

I hope that thought­ful, good-heart­ed peo­ple in Colum­bia Coun­ty stand up against this absur­di­ty. I hope the com­mu­ni­ty suc­cess­ful­ly ral­lies to save their library and stand up to bul­ly­ing and cen­sor­ship. Mindy Bet­zler told The Seat­tle Times it was heart­break­ing that a small num­ber of peo­ple could cre­ate such a stir. And yes, it’s true that there are Jes­si­ca Ruf­f­corns out there. But there’s also Annie Kin­sel­las who can inspire peo­ple to reject cen­sor­ship and uphold our core freedoms.

Here’s hop­ing that Colum­bia Coun­ty finds its equiv­a­lent of Annie Kin­sel­la and pre­vails over this ridicu­lous attempt to abol­ish one of its essen­tial pub­lic services.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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