My Dirty Hands Problem (Reprise)

Banned Books Week begins this year on September 24. I understand how this annual event can be a celebration for the book-lovers, authors, librarians, and free thinkers of America – a set of folks I’m ordinarily happy to join hands with. Nobody likes a censor, but the more I’ve thought about the bannning of books these days in the USA, the more it seems there’s more to the issue than a simple knee-jerk answer to determining who should read what. So I went into 317am’s vault and pulled out a blog post I wrote about this time last year.

As I said then, it occurs to me that book banning is essentially a dirty hands problem. In the aftermath of World War II Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a play called Les Main Sales (Dirty Hands) in which the protagonist, a true believer in his cause, sets out to assassinate a duplicitous political leader in a fictional country for what seem excellent reasons. Things turn out to be not so simple, however. For one thing the would-be assassin discovers when he gets up close as secretary to the politico that the target is a pretty good guy. This situation, in which morality seems to belong to opposing sides of an issue, has become known in philosophy as “the problem of dirty hands.”

 What does this have to do with banning books? Let me explain. It’s easy to feel righteous in opposing the banning of books. Who in America ever uses the word “censorship” in a positive way? In fact, one subtextual meaning of Banned Books Week is clearly National Librarians’ Feel Good Week.

Photo of Jean Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre, a man who knew about dirty hands.

But maybe things are not as simple as Censorship Bad, Open Stacks Good. Should libraries make all books available to readers of all ages? Should 10-year-old lads, for example, be able to sign out Fanny Hill? Perhaps lines need to be drawn, principles articulated, and tough calls made. Perhaps the role of public institutions in providing content to the masses is inherently different from what we’d expect from private institutions.

These thoughts are rattling around in my brain as I recall a time when I found myself playing the role of censor, one that doesn’t suit me at all. Still, I learned to eat my spinach and liver as a boy, and sometimes you just do what you have to do.

Here’s the background: I was once head of a State Department public-diplomacy office that published books about the USA for foreign audiences. Let’s not use the word “propaganda,” but just say that all our content was designed to create a positive perception of this country. One of the ways we’d done that for many years was to repurpose content from the private sector; we selected the best of what was being thought and said in America and published it overseas – or so I liked to think.

Cover of the Writers on America anthology

The Writers on America anthology.

My troubles arose just after we’d produced an acclaimed book called Writers on America. For this project we’d commissioned 15 big names (the likes of Richard Ford, Julia Alvarez, Billy Collins, Michael Chabon) to write an essay on what it means to be an American author. It was such a hit that five years after publication a pirated Chinese edition was a top ten best-seller in China. The State Department’s field posts that distributed the books – embassies, consulates, information resource centers – clamored for more like this. In the afterglow, my staff and I conceived an ambitious project, an anthology of poetry, essays, and fiction by the best young American writers. It would have been a kind of 20 under 40 project, years before the New Yorker editors cooked up the idea of conglomerating the best fiction by writers under age 40.

We solicited younger writers’ names from experts, hired readers to recommend suitable selections, and filled a filing cabinet with potential content. Excellent stuff in my view. We were just about ready to proceed with buying copyrights to the works we wanted when I pulled the plug. Why?

There was one big problem. About half the pieces we were considering contained more profanity or graphic sex than I was comfortable with. Let me distinguish here between me as myself (virtually unshockable, tolerant of free speech to a fault) and me as a publisher working for the U.S. government in the Bush administration.

Photo of Karen Hughes

Former State Dept. official Karen Hughes and friend.

As I was pondering the profanity problem, a Bush appointee in the Department of Health and Human Services took away a grant to a Vermont public television station that had done a show on the book Heather Has Two Mommies. Karen Hughes, an Under Secretary of State at the time and my boss if you went three levels up, had just declined to continue funding Hi magazine, a State Department magazine aimed at young Arabs. I was not privy to her reasoning on why this project had to end, but I know that it did not help Hi’s chances that the first month Hughes arrived on the job, there had been a fusillade of conservative-columnist outrage at an article about “metrosexuals” that the magazine’s hip young New York-based editor had run.

We did consider bowdlerizing the pieces for our anthology in various ways. But somehow a story with lots of bleeps and blankety-blanks did not do it for me. The profanity and the sex in most cases seemed integral to the literary effects. And what kind of free country would the USA be if our most avant-garde literature were peppered with asterisks?

Photo of book cover of Heather Has Two Mommies

A lightning rod for talk-show hosts five years back.

So I did what all good bureaucrats do: I put the project on hold. Which so far as I know – I’ve moved on to other things since then – is where it sits today.

Analyzing this decision afterward, a decision I still do not feel good about, I realized that while the Bush appointees set a framework for decision-making that influenced me, it wasn’t really an ideological approach to culture that governed here. When the Obamaites arrived years later with a new set of mantras, I did not rush to the filing cabinet to revive our pet project. No, by then I knew that no administration could be expected to attempt to explain the value of a book like this once Rush Limbaugh started ranting about it on the air. In retrospect, I can see that Sophocles might say the whole idea for this project is permeated with hubris.

Years later I read a book by Harvard Business School professor Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. titled Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right, and I began to understand the situation I’d groped my way through. Badaracco is big on what he calls “right versus right decisions.” He plumbs the wisdom of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and other big thinkers to help leaders analyze the thickets of these kinds of decisions.

Painting of Machiavelli

Machiavelli, my kinsman.

Machiavelli was the most helpful. The leader of an organization has a responsibility above all, says Machiavelli, to keep the organization alive. Therefore he does not have the luxury of simply applying his own moral principles, whatever they may be. He needs to analyze the decision from all angles and weigh the interests of all parties and consider the paramount goal – organizational survival. That’s what I did. I only wish knowing that Machiavelli would approve made me feel better.

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