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.
“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.