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Sometimes, ACLU Card Is a Comfort


I am, as Jesse Helms would term it, a card-carrying member of the ACLU. This is no National Enquirer confession, since most writers belong to the American Civil Liberties Union, the collective voice of proponents of freedom of speech.

The sneer in Jesse's voice suggests that there's a hammer and sickle on the flip side of every card plus a gore-red border around its membership.

Actually, the card looks no more subversive than membership tokens from the public library or Blockbuster Video.

Whatever Jesse's beef with the ACLU, as the Constitution promises, he's welcome to his view as long as I'm allowed mine.

Like most people, on a daily basis I undervalue this freedom. Even though the writer's expression is shaved and whittled or altogether muted in some parts of the world, I feel confident that the right to free speech enjoyed by Americans remains rock steady.

At a recent librarians' convention in Baltimore, however, I got a better view of the forces that would curtail our rights.

For hours, I strolled the tinsel, Disneyish aisles of the exhibit hall and fondled the last publications of hundreds of companies.

Under the current multicultural drive, they were offering a cornucopia of adult and children's books celebrating human diversity in costume and language, food and crafts, customs, songs, and folk tales.

No book burners lurked among the faithful. I was amid friends.

On a break from the exhibit hall, I took the escalator upstairs to Room 320, where the American Library Association displayed books that have known the censor's knife.

It was a low-key event. In fact, I had the whole shrine to myself.

There were no handouts, no hoopla. Just two tables heaped with books and loaded with implications.

I saw the titles I always expect on right-wing hit lists-Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, the works of Judy Blume, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Cormier, and, ironically, Ray Bradbury, who wrote Fahrenheit 451, a classic revelation on book burners.

On down the row, the list grew more bizarre-The Dictionary of Slang, Webster's Ninth Dictionary, American Heritage Dicitonary, and a sweet child's book titled Where Did I Come From?

America's finest weren't spared. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, a graphic novel about compassion and love, reposed alongside the most moving accolade to working-class Americans ever put on the stage, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

In such august company, I teetered between laughing and crying.

The victims were so ludicrous an example of no-minded suppression that I could only guess at the motives of their suppressors.

The sad fact that books are banned anywhere in America kept me from chortling out loud.

On my way down the escalator, I pictured the interior of my wallet with ACLU card tucked into its slot between Social Security number and photos of my husband and daughter.

For the moment, that symbolic cluster seemed reason enough for giving thanks.

Charlotte Observer
"Catawba Valley Neighbors"
November 22, 1992

 

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Mary Ellen Snodgrass Tel/Fax: (828) 324-0155