Shortly after September 11, I walked into the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in downtown Montpelier, and there in the middle of the main room was a new display of books: a table with a dozen or so different titles on Islam, terrorism, Osama Bin Laden and so on.
Now, the display has lasted for weeks, and every time I see it, the more I think it says something fundamental about our country — and about the threat we are facing.
It’s amazing to think that this nation – that began so tenuously more than four centuries ago as a tiny huddle of settlements on the edge of a raw, wild continent – is now the richest and most powerful country in the world. That’s a good thing, in some ways and not so good in others. We have the most sophisticated military technology and organization in the world, we have the the vast forests, the immense farmlands, the mines and minerals, the factories and computer technology — all of the overpowering wealth of a society that works more often than it doesn’t work. And it’s nice to fly the American flag and express our unity as Americans… but I believe that our real strength is in our capacity for DISunity — and it’s expressed clearly in that little table of a dozen or so titles at the library.
That’s our true strength, the source of our power: intellectual diversity, the ability to think about and respect more than one truth. The ability to follow our curiosity wherever it leads us. The ability to learn.
The basic premise of fundamentalism — any fundamentalism — is that there is only one truth and all other ideas are literally unthinkable and most likely forbidden. That’s what makes fundamentalism so appealing in our complex, modern world: it offers easy answers. The problem is that easy answers are appealing, but they’re also often wrong. And anything that suggests a fundamentalist world view might be wrong must, by definition, be forbidden.
What that obviously leads to was the Taliban’s rule that reading books and newspapers with the wrong view — even owning a television set — was a crime that could lead to beatings and death. Every repressive regime fears free thinking and easy access to knowledge, and so their first act is always to destroy books and newspapers.
The strength of our democracy is that no single viewpoint – whether it’s a person or a church or a political party or whatever –no one viewpoint has all the answers. Truth in a democracy is not static, not owned by anyone. Truth is the messy process of finding out.
Probably before Sept. 11th most Vermonters didn’t know much about Islamic militancy and the politics of the Middle East. But after that terrible day, there was a rush for information. Bear Pond Books, my local Montpelier bookstore, put out a rack with a couple dozen titles on it. That rack has since been enlarged into a full shelf of books that owner Michael Katzenberg calls his “9/11 shelf”– and sales from it have been brisk.
The same is true at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. After Sept. 11, head librarian Hillari Farrington quickly added to the library’s collection on the Middle East, and the hunger of central Vermonters for those books has been overwhelming. When Farrington came into the library this past Monday, there wasn’t a single book left on the special Middle East table — they’d all been checked out.
I know America has made terrible mistakes in past wars – the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the deceptions and misjudgements of Vietnam, and more. Yet here, in wartime, is an example of the best of our country’s traditions — unbiased, rational information about the people we call our enemy.
In the fundamentalist world, diverse knowledge is a threat and must be suppressed. But in a Democracy, diverse knowledge, even “forbidden” knowledge is strength and life –and when libraries and bookstores bring it into the sun, we all flourish, and grow.
— Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.