Censorship is not patriotic

Thanks so much for all the thumbs-up about the outtakes. I’m glad you likee. You guys rock. ☺ I’m lucky to know you.

I just got some disturbing news. My pal, Maureen Johnson, has been fighting the good fight over the censorship in Bartlesville, OK, of her novel, The Bermudez Triangle. This debate has been raging for some time, and Maureen has been in the damnable position of having to defend herself and her work—and intellectual freedom—without coming across as either defensive or reactionary, which is a bit like trying to ride a bicycle while simultaneously lighting a candle and balancing a small dog on your head.

I’ll post the link to the article about it all below if you care to read it in its entirety, but the Readers Digest condensed version is this: A group of “concerned” parents in Bartlesville, OK, objected to Maureen’s book because it explores gay themes. And after many, many months of debate, the school board reached a decision which was to place Maureen’s book on a “reserve shelf” so that any teen who wishes to read The Bermudez Triangle requires parental notification/permission first. Just so we’re clear, we’re not talking about Building Bombs Out of Tampons and Fertilizer for Dummies. We’re talking about a kiss between two teenage girls and its effect on a friendship. We’re talking about doubt and questioning and insecurity and yearning and romance. Gee, what teen could possibly relate to that?

Nevertheless, some people did. One of the parents, Angela Rader, is quoted below:

* * * * *
“For them to create that shelf, they had to know there were books that needed to be on it,” Rader said, adding that she hopes school officials review other books to find any others that may fall under the same category. “I just want the school to be responsible about what they put in front of our children’s eyes and let the parents have a say, and they have done that.”
Because of her success with this book, Rader says she wants to get the Bible back into schools in a history and literature class.
“And I’m working on that because I think it’s important for our kids to know where they came from,” Rader says. “I think the Bible’s a good foundation for our school. I think we’re way far from it and our kids are suffering.
“Promoting righteousness, like having this book taken from everybody, is a step in the right direction.”
* * * * *

To quote Laurie Anderson: “And I said, hmmm…”

I do not wish to demonize Ms. Rader, but I also cannot let her comments go unchallenged. I think that through her misguided efforts, she is promoting the most un-American of values and causing real harm. There are people who cannot live with the ambiguity and shades of gray and existential questioning that make up so much of life. They need absolutes and hard margins and rigid ideology to make them feel safe. I think it must be difficult to feel so powerless and threatened–so fearful–on some fundamental level that one must constantly feel the need to control how other people live, what they read and see and listen to, whom they marry, etc.

It is easy to exploit people’s fears. It is harder to think for yourself and to tolerate people having views different from your own. I do not agree with Ms. Rader’s views, but I can tolerate her having them. It’s her censorship I can’t abide–her insistence on limiting other people’s freedoms. And I am dismayed as well by the school board’s capitulation, by their cowardice.

(As for Ms. Rader’s comment about the Bible, well, color me somewhat bemused. As a Presbyterian minister’s daughter, I’ve read my fair share of that particular tome, and I’ve gotta say, a lot of it makes “Caligula” look like a bedtime story. A whole lotta smiting and begetting and plagues and blood and genocide and God getting super pissed off in ways that are beyond any Bond villain. Also, many passages about men out in fields watching over flocks of sheep while they sleep. But I digress.)

I suppose the quote that chills my blood most is the one about righteousness. I can think of hundreds of other things I would rather promote than “righteousness.” How about civil rights or literacy or fair housing? Here’s some more—peace, hope, love, respect, tolerance, education, equality, justice, Zippy the Pinhead, Opus for President, the return of “Veronica Mars”, microwave popcorn. But please tell me—how exactly does one equate righteousness with taking a book away “from everybody”? Of depriving them of the right to read and judge for themselves? Of infantilizing an entire society? When, exactly, did intolerance become righteousness?

Art is a place where ideas, feelings, thoughts, and fantasies can and should be explored. It is necessary for an enlightened society. When we read books, we are able to try on other personas, to test-drive new ideas and philosophies and examine other lives, which we may find mirror our own in surprising ways. We may find comfort—or transformation. Yes, reading challenges us. It often exposes our prejudices and fears and makes us question the status quo. Certainly words have enormous power. I’ve read books that blew my mind and changed the way I saw life. They changed me. And I’ve read plenty of books that made me want to yak up a hairball, too. (Don’t get me started on a particular trope in women’s fiction wherein the villainess hates children and the heroine has a uterus that throbs at every turn and there are wide-eyed children who speak as no child I have ever known speaks—with cute lisps and wisely and without ever whining for Cocoa Puffs. I always want to see the chapters where these children melt down in the hardware store and the throbbing-uterus-heroine suddenly eyes the duct tape with new ardor. But I digress again.)

The point is, you can’t hold back the light. It will find a way in. And when people “challenge” (read: censor) books, they mean to pull down the shades and keep everyone huddled in the dark under the auspices of “protecting” them.

In my experience, most kids/teens self-censor. They know when they’re not ready for a particular book—and they will put it down. They’ll simply stop reading it. I’ve seen my own kid do this. And really, all you have to do to make a book more appealing is to make it harder to get. That’s how I ended up reading Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar. But more importantly, kids don’t have to read books in a vacuum. There are wonderful school librarians and educators—and parents—who can take the opportunity to discuss the ideas and themes of the books with them: How does this mirror your own thoughts/beliefs? How does it differ? What would you do in X situation? It’s called critical thinking. It’s called education. And it’s a wonderful tool—far more lasting and effective than ignorance. Less costly, too.

There are few things about which I am prepared to fall on my sword, but this issue is one of them. There can be no compromise when it comes to intellectual freedom. To compromise in any way is to collaborate in the demise of an enlightened society. As Gandhi once said, “Non-cooperation with evil is a sacred duty,” and I find censorship to be an evil. Censorship is wrong. It does not protect anyone from anything. It does not foster security or morality, only ignorance. Nor is it a gateway to righteousness but to fascism and intolerance and a culture of fear, anger, and repression.

Anyone can concoct a reason to ban a book. The most frequently challenged books from 1990-2000, complied by the Office for Intellectual Freedom, lists titles as diverse as The Chocolate War, The Adventures of Huck Finn, Beloved, How to Eat Fried Worms, and even Where’s Waldo? (This last one really leaves me scratching my head. Is there an organization of people opposed to bespectacled, hard-to-locate boys in striped hats? Do tell.)

As the fabulous Judy Blume—often banned—has said: “[I]t’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.” Indeed you will.

So here’s my question. What if we said no? What if we smiled sweetly, stood our ground, and said, “I’m sorry that you feel threatened and afraid, that your lives have been made small by your fears and prejudices, but I cannot allow you to fashion that into a weapon. I will not allow you to deprive young people of their right to read, to think, to grow, to change, to flower. I will not allow you to intimidate me into compliance. This is America, and I am exercising my right to be an American. Now, please give me my book.”

What if, what if?

Go ahead. Dissent. Disagree. Fight back. Support your local librarian(s) because god knows they need it—they face this every day, and many of them are unsung heroes. If someone challenges a book in your school, show up and let your voices swell. Don’t take it lying down. Don’t give up; don’t give in. Intolerance under the guise of righteousness is no match for informed, passionate rebellion. If you don’t believe me, go back and read the Declaration of Independence. Show your support for Maureen Johnson at http://www.maureenjohnson.blogspot.com. Better yet, go get a copy of The Bermudez Triangle and read it for yourself, form your own opinions.

And if you really want to feel like a true patriot, all you have to do is just keep reading.

Here’s the link to the article:

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