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Censorship and Other Bad Words

I recently read an article from Lehigh University’s First Amendment Site regarding book censorship. Written in 2009 by a journalism student, the article chronicles a brief history of censorship and book banning. One quote struck me: “The most effective antidote to the poison of mindless orthodoxy is ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies. There is no danger from such exposure. The danger is mind control.” That was the 1978 decision of Judge Joseph L. Tauro of Massachusetts in Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea.

Thinking about a few amazing works of literature that have been banned over the centuries, including To Kill a Mockingbird (racism), Call of the Wild (banned and burned in Nazi Germany), Ulysses (obscenity), Of Mice and Men (profanity), Fahrenheit 451 (uses God’s name in vain), The Giver (drugs and suicide), The Color Purple (people have sex), and even Dahl’s The Witches (move over J.K. Rowling because Roald Dahl was inspiring wizardry first)…parents, legislators, and school board committee members love to stoke the literacy funeral pyres when students read anything besides censored textbooks or that one book that begins with the line, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Why is this relevant now? In my county in Virginia, where I live and teach, there is a mother who homeschooled her child. Then she sent that precious snowflake to public school and became very concerned over the county’s suggested summer reading lists for secondary students. Last month, that mother took her complaints to our county’s weekly newspaper, who published her story. In that article, this mother threw words around like “pornographic,” “vile,” and “trash” to describe the books Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. Yet has this mother ever read the books herself? No. What concerned me most was her bragging that four titles on the 2015 summer reading list for one county high school were removed after she contacted the school’s administration. Why administrators cave to the whims, rants, and aggressive nature of bulldozer parents is beyond me…it not only undermines teachers, but also feeds into the mind control that Judge Tauro warned against. By allowing one parent to dictate the summer reading list for an entire school of 1500 students, she came back for round two this summer with an even bigger chip on her shoulder. In the case of fundamentalist mother versus administrators without backbone, mother wins.

As if the original story wasn’t infuriating enough, the following week The Chesterfield Observer published a follow-up article that included an interview with our State Senator, Amanda Chase. In the interest of full disclosure, I do not care for Mrs. Chase, nor did I vote for her. I consider myself politically moderate (despite the fact I’m wearing my “Feelin’ the Bern” t-shirt as I write this), but I am wary of politicians aligned with the inflammatory and fear-mongering tea party. Mrs. Chase defeated our previous out-of-touch senator in the primary and there was barely a contest in the Republican stronghold of District 11 in the general election. She won with 64% of the vote. Our Virginia General Assembly notoriously passes what I call “Do-Gooder” laws, and Amanda Chase is one of those do-gooders. A family friend described the problems of our General Assembly this way: there are too many do-gooders and not enough lawyers. However, I am grateful that our Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, vetoed two bills in particular while in office so far–one requiring public schools to notify parents before using sexually explicit books in school, and he twice vetoed a “Tebow Bill” that would open public school sports to homeschooled children. So that tangent aside, in the June 29th article, Mrs. Chase calls for firing certain librarians, stating, “If librarians are not recommending books that line up with Chesterfield County Public Schools’ core values, they should be dismissed.” When the Observer presented the idea that parents should help their children pick out books, Chase says parents are too busy.

What. The. [Censored].

Dear fellow parents and Mrs. Chase… I do not claim to be a perfect parent, or even a patient one. I swear in front of my children, and the f-word flows pretty freely in these parts. I listen to SiriusXM’s Backspin in my minivan while shuttling my children around town. I know you mean well, I really do. “Save the children!” It’s a noble thought, but my children and many like them do not need saving. Granted, my kids are young and autism keeps them blissfully innocent and unaware of many of life’s harsh realities, but they know there is profanity and obscenity in this world. Nonetheless, my kids mind their manners, follow directions, and do not hit, bite, or swear. And here is an outrageous idea…I am not too busy to be a parent. I know what they watch on YouTube, I know what book characters they like, and I take time to help them choose books and activities. I even talk to their teachers about their interests and ask for suggestions for books and games. If and when the time comes that I am not comfortable with them reading, hearing, or viewing something, then I will make that call. Please, please stop telling us how to parent. Any middle- or high-school kid wanting to read Eleanor and Park will find that book tamer than what she hears in your average school hallway, bus, or locker room. Bad habits are not curated at the public library. Instead of sheltering kids from controversial things and hiding from reality, we need to teach them how to cope with adversity, make good choices, consider other viewpoints and experiences, and learn from good and bad consequences. If my senator Amanda Chase wants to protect my kids in a meaningful way, she can introduce a bill that will erase the age cap from the autism insurance mandate rather than call for the dismissal of public school librarians who foster curiosity, imagination, and creativity in young adults. To these micromanaging legislators and the parents who seek to impose their will on all of us, don’t you have anything better to do? Maybe you should read a book.

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(Image source: http://quoteaddicts.com)

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