Funding Public Libraries Crucial to Diverse, Free Society

I am writing this letter in support of, not only maintaining, but increasing, the 2024 budget for the Marathon County Public Library. It seems strange that the budget of such a valued community resource should be threatened. We live in a complicated age where diversity of people and ideas should be celebrated, not condemned.

The public library system makes all kinds of books and ideas available to everyone. Public libraries are one of the safe places where people of all backgrounds, economic class, race, gender and ideology can gather and quietly go about their business, enjoyment and research. It is the epitome of community, where people of all different backgrounds can come and follow their own interests without fear or harassment. A well-informed citizenry is more essential to a truly democratic country than a well-armed one.

Most religions are social in nature. They model loving one’s neighbor as a key virtue taught by their leaders. Loving one’s neighbor may sound simple, but it has profound implications. We are taught to love one another, and to forgive those who attack us. That doesn’t mean that we have to like each other. I certainly do not like those who are attacking our most cherished public institutions, but I do try to love them in the spiritual sense. That means, even if I do not like the opinions of some others, I must respect, listen and try to reach agreements with them, as I hope they would do for me. That is the spirit of both religious and democratic institutions. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Banning books and defunding public libraries are the first steps in setting up an autocratic, rather than a democratic system. If the poorer sectors of society are denied the opportunity to advance themselves through free public institutions, then there are few barriers to oligarchy, or the rule of the wealthy few. The free flow of ideas is threatening the accumulation of wealth and power. The danger is, of course, if your group is out of power, the opposing side will ban your books and institutions. Freedom of the individual exists when we recognize and respect the freedom of others.

People can choose what they, and their families, can read or see. What is spiritually and democratically crippling is when they appoint themselves as arbiters of what other people read and see. All real education is disturbing to some degree. We take classes, pick up a book or watch or listen to news to learn how to interpret a complex existence. We can only learn when we recognize our limitations. “Certainty” is the opposite of education. Well-funded organized groups, “certain” that they have the truth, are attempting to install their own version of “political and religious correctness,” by shaping the history and media we have access to.

In a democracy, listening is a virtue. I recently looked at some political comments on a political posting. They would have been funny if they weren’t so tragic. One said that Democrats were in favor of Antifa, Hamas, Marxists, China and other extreme leftwing causes. The other said Republicans were fascists, white, Christian racists, lovers of autocrats such as Putin of Russia, and other extreme rightwing causes. These writers were using the age-old technique of using extremist views to define the moderate democratic pragmatists of each party. It is the painting of any political position, other than one’s own, as extreme that leads to measures such as book banning and library defunding. The enemy of extremists are the moderates who are willing to find workable compromise to make government work. Extremists want the rest of us to stop listening to each other.

Democracy is built on the idea that no one, nor any group, has the whole truth. It relies on the collective wisdom of the interactions of a well-informed citizenry.  Those opposed to democracy, because they believe they have a monopoly on truth, oppose public access to alternative ideas. Free and open consideration of alternatives threatens their belief in a world built on “certainty.” Funding public libraries, public education and free and open access to books and media are crucial elements of a diverse and free society.