Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Wyoming is a magical place. I was fortunate to spend the first five years or so of my military career stationed at FE Warren Air Force Base, just outside Cheyenne. There I sat nuclear alert as part of our nation’s ICBM force and enjoyed the vast and beautiful vistas that are everywhere in that gorgeous state. Wyoming has a proud history, including being the first government anywhere in the world to allow women the right to vote, when in 1869 the territorial government legalized female voting. Wyoming is also home to the nation’s first national monument, Devil’s Tower, which achieved that status way back in 1906.  The indigenous locals, the Lakota, called it Bear Lodge or Bear Tipi, names that have a rich and wonderful history that, frankly, make a lot more sense than “Devil’s Tower,” but for the moment, we are stuck with that name.

If you haven’t had the chance to visit the monument, I urge you to do so. It is first spotted on the distant horizon, and as you near, it grows in both scale and majesty. When you arrive at the base of the tower, you are stunned by the sheer size and by the remarkable and awe-inspiring flutes that run vertically up the sides of this amazing bit of geologic history.

Which, of course, brings me to Donkey Town, Wyoming.

If you visit the Tower, you may well find yourself spending the night in the lovely and charming city of Gillette, the biggest city in, and county seat of, Campbell County. The town got started back in 1891, when a railroad passed through. It was first named Donkey Town after the nearby Donkey Creek, but was later renamed Rocky Pile, after a nearby rocky draw. In 1892, the town was again renamed after the surveyor of the railroad in the area, a gentleman named Edward Gillette. In 1895, a fire ravaged Gillette, leaving only two saloons, two stores, and a restaurant behind. The town would rebuild and become a lovely place to visit in a state known for its beauty.

I mention Gillette because of a recent news story in Colorado Politics, in the Out West section, a personal favorite of mine. The story screamed out at me because the title began with the words, “Librarians under fire.” As the son of the founding dean of the School of Library Science at the University of Michigan and an avid lover of books, I was, well, pretty shocked and not a little bit horrified to read that some locals in that very conservative community are demanding that certain books be removed from the shelves of the local library. These books, dealing with sex, LGBTQ issues, and heck, even where babies come from, have apparently offended the delicate sensibilities of some of the good people of Gillette. Such material is, they righteously insist, obscene and doesn’t belong in the library, and certainly not in the children’s or teen sections of the library. And while there can certainly be a legitimate argument about which books should be available to kids at what ages, that doesn’t seem to be the issue here. 

The library listened to those objecting and reviewed the books in question. After that review, the staff decided that the books did, in fact, belong in the teen section. But that wasn’t enough for some, who filed — I kid you not — a police report about the supposedly obscene materials. The local sheriff and local prosecutors are reviewing the case.

My dad, the aforementioned librarian and library educator, was also a soldier in WWII. You may recall from history books you were allowed to read that the Nazis and their ilk were notorious for many, many bad things, including book burnings of publications deemed not suitable for the citizens of Germany. You know, books with bad thoughts like people are equal and that freedom of thought is vital. I think he would be horrified to learn that a library in this country is being asked, in the 21st century, to ban books. 

I’ve often leapt atop my rickety soapbox of idealism in past columns to rail against any efforts to suppress free speech. The cure for so-called “bad speech” is not silence nor is it banning the books and magazines and such that are “spreading” these ideas. Rather, the cure for such speech is more speech. We do not honor our Founding generation when we reject the very freedoms they fought for. If books are banned because some segment of the population finds the notions and ideas within them to be dangerous or obscene, the cure is to ensure that there are lots and lots of counter ideas put forth in other, additional books. If your only response to an “attack” on your point of view is to demand that your critics be silenced, it is highly likely that the ideas and ideals you are seeking to defend are, well, pretty vacuous. The good ideas out there (you know, freedom, liberty, and such) can easily defend themselves against attack. 

Oh, and parents should be the ones who decide what books a kid gets to check out of the library, not some self-appointed morals vigilante. 

I will be very disquieted if the library in Gillette is forced to remove books due to the supposed moral outrage of a few. I will be outraged if the law enforcement officials of that lovely town take action against the librarians. We do not live in a nation that believes in crushing thoughts and ideas we find offensive. 

The best reason not to burn the American flag is because you can, if you want to.

So go check out Devil’s Tower, and maybe drop by the library to see what books are available. I hope you will find lots and lots of them from all different perspectives. That’s actual freedom.

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.