Many people are bemoaning the lack of civil discourse in this country. Most of us get our news and information from sources which reinforce what we believe. We do not seek input from people or organizations that challenge our beliefs.
Commentators talk about information “silos.” So, what happens when a public library gives us a chance to break out of our comfortable opinion ruts? All hell breaks loose.
I was disappointed to learn that the Worcester County Library had canceled a program about impeachment that was scheduled for March 6 at the Berlin Branch. I do not question the library’s decision to cancel, but I very much regret the reason for the cancellation.
The library, in the persons of the library director, Berlin branch manager, trustees, and others, received complaints, protests, and in some cases threats from people who objected to the subject matter of the program. There were demands that specific library employees be fired.
“Impeachment: Article II, Section 4 of the United States Constitution” was designed as an informational and educational program to explore a topic that is bandied about, often carelessly, in the news and social media. I assume it would have dealt with the history of the process, in which only two presidents have ever been impeached by the House of Representatives and both were acquitted by the Senate.
The program description mentioned emoluments, a word that is frequently referenced in news broadcasts and cable TV chatter but often not well explained. What constitutes a “high crime and misdemeanor?” Why were the writers of the Constitution so vague about such terms? Were there definitions and understandings that were common in the late 18th century that have been lost or muddied over the years? What are involved in the steps of the impeachment process, from committee hearing and vote to consideration by the House, to trial in the Senate?
The program was not planned, advertised, or promoted as advocating the impeachment of President Trump. Such a position would be clearly out of line. Why then the fierce opposition? Have we reached such depths in this country that straightforward discussion of an admittedly controversial topic cannot be tolerated?
One of the troubling aspects of this incident is the profound misunderstanding of the role of the public library in a community. Public libraries are not vehicles for partisan politics. Providing information and education are cornerstones of a public library’s core mission. People who govern, run and work in public libraries are not hapless pawns that can be used by political groups.
Some people who voiced strong objections to the program focused on the presenter. The man is a retired attorney, who has taught a multi-session course on the Constitution for the library several times in the past few years. His major flaw, apparently, is that he was once the chairman of the Democratic Party in Worcester County.
To some this was a clear indication that the program would be tilted toward the Democratic Party position on impeachment (as if there is a single position). What is the basis for this assumption? How do we know for sure if he is for or against impeachment of the current president? Is it impossible for someone to subordinate his personal political views in the process of presenting information on a topic?
Perhaps those who objected to the program would answer that no, someone cannot keep his personal feelings from influencing his presentation. What does this mean for how we view teachers, clergy people, journalists? Does everyone who deals with ideas need to pass a “political acceptability” test?
If supporters of the president were convinced that the program would be a partisan, one-sided affair, a reasonable response might have been to encourage people who had a different view to attend and voice their beliefs. In fact, there is evidence that this was one early response – to make sure that people who could keep things balanced attended the program. That is a far better, more civil, and healthier response.
Suppose the program had proceeded as scheduled. And suppose that in the course of the discussion a genuine disagreement had surfaced among those in attendance. Some might have advocated impeaching the president. Others may have strenuously objected to this idea. Each side might have cited arguments for its position.
Emotions might have been stirred. Voices might have been raised. People might have become uncomfortable. In all probability neither side would be convinced by the other and no consensus would have been reached among the group.
Is this the worst outcome we can imagine? What is wrong with such an exercise in democracy? What are we afraid of? Vigorous, even emotional discussion of contentious issues should be the hallmark of a free and open society. Let us learn from this unfortunate incident; let us embrace our freedom and exercise it confidently and responsibly.
Former Worcester County Library Director