Nonsensorship

This has been an angry week, between the abortion flap in state news and the debt ceiling flap (do I really need to provide a link?) in national news. Almost everyone I know — including myself — is stewing over one view or the other (or even both). And hypocrisy abounds…

Hey, D.C. Democrats, remember 2006? That’s when Sen. Obama said, “Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that ‘the buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.” Flip-flopsBut when your side does it, it’s more compromise than failure, right?

Hey, N.C. Republicans, remember January? That’s when Sen. Berger said, “Republicans will not stand idly by and watch as citizens’ rights to make their own health care decisions are taken from them by the federal government.” Why was that — because you figured only state government should have the fun of taking away those decisions?

So yeah, people are upset. Toss in the fact that the temperature’s been a hundred and plenty in the shade, and tempers are flaring. I’ve been trying to unplug and forget these issues for a while, so I was glad when my friend Don Vaughan gave me some other news to fume about; it seems book-banning is back….

The Republic, Mo., school board voted 4-0 Monday night to remove Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five from the curriculum, and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer from the library, of Republic High School. Before we go any further, I must admit I have yet to read either of those books. (I think I just heard Don gasp somewhere.)

But why should I bother to read them when three of the four voting board members didn’t? At least I’m not sitting in judgment of the content I don’t know. But hey, that’s alright — rigid school board members needn’t think for themselves when others are willing to do it for them. According to one story, “Several people read the books and provided feedback.”

Oh. Well. That’s okay, then — as long as you at least discussed their gossip before you voted on it. I suppose the most objectionable passage was the one where Holden, a boy wizard, suspects his deaf-mute Greek friend Lennie has accidentally killed an unwed pregnant teen, so Holden jostles the tree limb over the river and causes Lennie to fall onto a raft with a runaway slave, who sails him to an island where children live in anarchy and the only person willing to defend him is Boo Radley, who just got her first period — am I right?

The banning came courtesy of Wesley Scroggins, a Republic resident who last year raised the red flag with an article he wrote for the Springfield News-Leader: “Filthy books demeaning to Republic education.” Hey, thanks for the objective journalism, Scroggins. How about I pitch a story that’s every bit as unbiased? Maybe I could title it, “Ignorant hillbilly demeaning to American literature.”

Scroggins objected to several elements of local curricula, and was shocked that Christians would allow those elements in public schools. (I’m guessing the First Amendment had been banned wherever he went to school.)

Scroggins stares back at you.

He called out three titles after having “spent considerable time over the past couple of years reviewing various curricula across numerous grades in the school district.” This is an odd way for him to have spent his time, considering it’s not his job — he’s actually a university professor, which is even scarier to think about.

Scroggins has no discernible link to secondary education. His kids aren’t even part of the school system in question — they’re home-schooled, which means: 1) They won’t be exposed to the alleged filth; and, 2) They’re doomed.

Nope, Scroggins seems to have taken up curriculum-scouring just for the heaven of it. This tells me he’s either a self-appointed ombudsman, or just a huge buttinski. Whatever the case, Scroggins wrote his manifesto and warned readers that in Republic’s high school curricula, “children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography.”

This included Laurie Halsey Anderson’s Speak, which depicts teen sex and the rape of a 14-year-old girl, among other things. Um, Dr. Scroggins, pornography relies on eroticism, and if you consider child rape to be erotic, I submit that Republic would be better off keeping you out of their schools.

In the end, though, Speak made the cut. While Scroggins was disappointed with that, he applauded the board on their decision to ban the other two titles. After all, as he wrote, one of them “contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame.” And in the other, “drunken teens also end up on the beach, where they use their condoms to have sex.” Tell me, Mr. Stilted, what other use had you envisioned for said condoms, that you were disappointed so?

I understand that people have vastly different levels of tolerance to offensive language and subject matter. I have no problem with someone being offended easily, or wanting to shelter their kids — I’m a prudish parent, myself. But no one should try to force their standards on other families.

Books often depict real-life situations and themes, without necessarily condoning them. The only people who should judge whether kids are ready to read about such things, are their parents, their teachers, and the kids themselves — not some crazed crusader or a group of local government milksops.

If you don’t approve of the books your kids are reading, take reasonable action within that sphere only — opt out, but leave their friends out of it. Preview your children’s assigned books, think about them, rate them if you will — but don’t ban them.

Censorship creates a void, and when people react naturally by trying to fill it, they might just come up with something worse. A few well-placed beeps can make even Sesame Street sound suggestive.

Or, if we’re lucky, people will fill that void with what was supposed to be there. I’m sure at least a few high-schoolers in Republic are curious to know what all the fuss is about — I hope they’ll seek out those books elsewhere.

That’s the effect the article had on me — I’ll probably hit the book store tomorrow. As a supposed man of letters, I’m long-overdue for some Vonnegut, anyway. (And somewhere, Don breathes a sigh of relief….)

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About Dan Bain

Dan is an award-winning humorist, features writer, emcee and entertainer from Raleigh, NC. His collection of humor essays, A Nay for Effort, has earned him fans from one end of his couch to the other. Why not join them and buy one? (You won't have to sit on his couch.) Dan will donate 10 percent of the book's proceeds to education. You can check it out at www.danbain.net; thanks!
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11 Responses to Nonsensorship

  1. Silly. I read “Slaughterhouse Five” in high school. A Catholic high school, by the way. And since I can’t really remember much about it other than the jokes my friends and I shared, I apparently don’t remember being offended or finding it particularly astonishing. Maybe that’s because I was young and relatively pliable. But the irony of book-banning is that it generates interest in the books and thus encourages people to read them. Everybody likes taboos. Hehehe.

    • Dan Bain says:

      Glad to see you here again; thanks for commenting! I still need to comment on your post about the mean co-worker. And I’m glad Vonnegut didn’t scar you.

      I like taboos. I’m thinking of having one done on my shoulder.

      – DB

  2. I don’t know how to feel about this. It’s terribly upsetting that the school board is making morality judgments about books, which they haven’t even read, based solely on the presence of profanity and sex. (I suppose the school board members would have been fine with the book if the teens had used their condoms to make water balloons on the beach.) At the same time, though, I do think that school boards have an obligation to make informed decisions about what’s age appropriate. So it’s not so much the decision that bothers me, but the reasoning behind the decision.

    What’s most disturbing to me is that the word “Christian” has virtually become synonymous with “bigot” in the U.S. right now. I was editing the synopsis of my novel-in-progress this evening, and when I came to the part where I had mentioned my protagonist’s Christian beliefs, I cringed. I’ll probably end up removing “Christian,” and instead talk about her belief in forgiveness and redemption. Because I don’t want agents or editors mistakenly thinking that my protagonist is an “ignorant hillbilly,” or that I’m promoting an agenda. The fact that these people have made me fear being discriminated against because of my religion is infuriating.

    • Dan Bain says:

      Thanks, Andrea. I don’t know if anything can really be “age-inappropriate” for advanced level high school seniors. Unless they’ve been sheltered, they’ve heard the words and they know about the acts (at the very least). But you’re right, it was clearly a morality judgment (even though they claimed it wasn’t). What bugs me is, unless it’s a how-to manual, book content is generally amoral. A book might portray bad acts, but that doesn’t equate to condoning them. Even the Bible had tales of prostitution, depravity, drunkenness, theft and murder.

      And I know I said this to you on the forums already, but for anyone else reading this, I want to make it clear that my “ignorant hillbilly” remark is criticizing his attitude (specifically, calling the books “filthy” and “demeaning”), not his religious beliefs or even the fact that he was offended. It’s what he did with that offended spirit that bothers me.

      – DB

      • Dan, I didn’t take your “ignorant hillbilly” remark as a slam against anyone’s religious beliefs. Passing judgment on a book you haven’t read is virtually the definition of ignorance, yet some people wear it as a badge of honor.

        While I agree that advanced-level high school seniors are worthy of being treated as adults when it comes to the books they read, other high schoolers aren’t. If the book is in the library, it’s more difficult to keep it out of the hands of kids who may not be ready for it. And if the book is required reading in an advanced placement English class, then the sensibilities of the kids has to be considered. If it’s on a list of books the kids can choose from, then it’s fine. Just make sure they know that it contains profanity or explicit sex or other things they might find objectionable. Don’t force them to read something that offends them. And keep in mind that girls are often more sensitive to this stuff than boys are. 16- and 17-year-old boys have all that testosterone to protect them from finding things emotionally disturbing. Girls don’t.

  3. Dan – You ask on Twitter if any of my books had been banned. They haven’t been “banned” to my knowledge, but libraries in certain areas of the country have arbitrarily decided not to carry them. Sometimes books just aren’t made available, despite demand, because of the decisions of a district librarian or library administrator. This doesn’t make the news, because editorial decisions are made all the time. Libraries simply don’t have the funds or space to carry everything. Sometimes what they carry will come down to the tastes of the librarian, or perhaps more important, his or her job security. You’ll find a much bigger ratio of close-minded asshats on a county board or a city council than you’ll find in libraries, and those are generally the people the librarian has to answer to. Most librarians, especially those running a system, have a Masters in Library Science, which means they’ve spent a lot of time around books and ideas, and aren’t likely to have their head explode over the odd use of the f-word or a less than ideal portrayal of a religious figure.

    I’m told that my books were on the famous “list” that Sarah Palin asked to have banned in Wasilla, but I have no proof of that, simply an e-mail from a pissed-off Alaskan from that area. For the most part, high-school teachers know better than to try to teach my stuff, and I support their decision. There’s no reason for a teacher to risk his or her job and possibly the quality of the education of many students for defending my goofy books. If there is a special student with whom they think my work might resonate, they may suggest it to that student on the sly, as my own teachers did back in the day with Richard Brautigan and Hunter S. Thompson, acts of quiet rebellion for which I’m still grateful.

    So there you go. My book Lamb is taught in many colleges, including several seminaries, as well as Harvard Divinity, a college where I wouldn’t qualify to mop the floor, so ideas will out. Despite the determination of the American electorate to exercise its right to remain ignorant and uninformed, ideas will out.

    Hope that helps.

    Christopher Moore
    Author of Lamb, Fool, and eleven other novels.

    • Dan Bain says:

      Chris/Christopher/Mr. Moore/The Author Guy —

      First, thanks for even taking the time to answer my question, let alone here, where I can prove to everyone that you did. I’m a long-time fan of your work, and have read … whatever percentage 11 out of 13 is, of your books. (The only reason Fool and Bite Me are still in the queue and not in my hands is, the past couple of years have presented multiple obstacles to buying and/or borrowing the books I want.)

      Second, yes, this does help. Your final paragraph is especially encouraging; I’m glad that ideas find a way to break through in spite of the morons, and am downright tickled that Lamb is taught in seminaries and colleges. It deserves to be.

      I don’t know what to say now that won’t sound trite or more obsequious, so I’ll just close with this: “Yum.”

      – DB

  4. Live Bravely says:

    “The Boo Radley, who just had her first period” paragraph is brilliant. You got more than a gaffaw out of me on that one!

    This past year I volunteered in an elementary library and the banned book list subject arose. Apparently the previous librarian had taken it upon herself to take home books she felt were inappropriate and burn them. I wonder how many people would take this upon themselves if they had the chance.

    On a trip to Berlin a couple of years ago, my host took me took Bebelplatz (the sqare where Hitler burned books; the library is adjacent to the square and some of it’s rooms lay under the square). A piece of plexiglass has replaced one of the square stones so you can look down into an empty library room, with vacant shelves stretching up to the ceiling. There is an inscription which translated says, “Any country who burns their books, will eventually burn it’s people.” The quote was made hundreds of years before the Third Reich was a thought. I guess it’s proven true.

    Just further thoughts on the subject. Do with them what you will….and thanks for reading my blog 🙂

    • Dan Bain says:

      You’re quite welcome; thanks for reading mine! Glad you liked that mash-up paragraph; I was worried I might have overdone it with the banned books homage.

      It’s hard to imagine someone objecting to books in an elementary school library, unless someone really didn’t know what they were doing when they stocked it. Then again, I’ve read about a couple of controversial books that were written for the 10-and-under set. Regardless, it’s scary to think of someone unilaterally deciding to remove the books. At least with a school board, it’s open record, so people know what they’re up against.

      That’s a chilling quote at Bebelplatz, but how cool that you got to go see that! Sounds like you’ve had some unique adventures; I look forward to reading more of them.

      Come back any time!

      – DB

  5. techsnoop says:

    A lively and informative post. Smutty doesn’t read, but he is a staunch advocate of all humans’ rights to choose their reading material. Parents should be the only censors of children’s reading, but many have chosen to turn over the entire role of parenting to school and the government.
    Stand up parents and take back your families and this kind of small minded manipulation cannot succeed. thesmuttychronicles.wordpress.com

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