You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.
This post will go out on the first day of Banned Books Week, September 21-27, in honor of those who fight to protect our right to read and write.
YCRT! Banned Books Week Editorial
Every year conservative pundits line up to tell us Banned Books Week is a hoax, claiming books aren’t banned in the USA. In the years I’ve been writing these YCRT! posts, more than one reader has called me a liar for saying books are banned. Here’s my response:
I find I have to explain my use of the word “banned” every now and again. My position is this: any time people try to keep other people from reading a book, they’re trying to ban it.
Not a week goes by in this country without parents in one state or another showing up at school board meetings to demand certain books be removed from reading lists and libraries. Not a week goes by without some school board caving to parental pressure and pulling controversial books from the shelves.
Whether or not the same books are available on-line or in local bookstores, the intent of parents and school administrators who take these actions is to keep others from reading the books in question. That is the very definition of banning.
We no longer ban books at the national level, but we used to. Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer, for example, was banned in the USA from its publication in 1934 until the Supreme Court overruled the ban in 1964. Even during the days when books were literally banned in the USA, though, conservatives advanced the argument that such books weren’t really banned, because you could always hop on an ocean liner, go to Paris, and buy copies there. Conservatives today are merely recycling the same argument: you can still buy Captain Underpants and Heather Has Two Mommies at Barnes & Noble, so what’s the problem?
The problem is people who disapprove of books trying to keep other people from reading them. They may no longer be able to ban books nationwide, but they’ll do whatever they can to get the books they hate removed from local school libraries and reading lists. Sometimes they’ll even try to prevent fellow adults from reading books they disapprove of, targeting public libraries and commercial book stores.
There’s only one verb for that. That verb is ban. There’s only one adjective for books that have been removed from school libraries and reading lists. That adjective is banned.
But fine, if you don’t value my opinion, here’s what Merriam-Webster says about the word “ban”:
… to prohibit especially by legal means (ban discrimination); also: to prohibit the use, performance, or distribution of (ban a book) (ban a pesticide)
And under examples, they include this:
The school banned that book for many years.
Yes, Virginia, books are banned in the USA, and they’re banned all the time. When people quit trying to prevent me or my children from reading books they don’t like, I’ll quit using the word, but not until then.
This is horrific: a Maryland middle school teacher was given an involuntary “emergency medical evaluation,” suspended, then barred from setting foot in any other public school. What did he do? He wrote a science fiction novel. Under a pen name. Set 900 years in the future. Containing a school shooting scene. A word from another science fiction novel springs to mind: thoughtcrime.
As reported in a previous YCRT! post, pastors in Austin, Texas are trying to ban 75 books from public libraries, saying the books in question have occult or demonic themes and will corrupt young readers. Local citizens are fighting back, along with First Amendment supporters around the country, and Austin’s head librarian is standing firm: the books remain. In a baffling compromise, however, Austin libraries will not observe Banned Books Week this year. Sure, that’ll get the pastors off your back!
In another YCRT! post, I asked this question:
What if book banners, after challenging books on school and public library shelves and being defeated, start demanding balance as compensation? One Chick tract for every YA novel, one copy of The Turner Diaries for every copy of To Kill a Mockingbird? Hey, you read it here first!
Just such a demand is being made by the Illinois Family Institute, which previously tried, and failed, to have books taking a neutral view on the nature and morality of homosexuality removed from public libraries. Now they propose adding explicitly anti-homosexual-themed books, some little more than religious tracts, to library shelves to provide “balance.”
Qualified good news: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, banned last year by the West Ada School District in Idaho, has been reinstated, albeit with restrictions more appropriate to the handling of AIDS-infected biological waste: if it is assigned alternate choices must be offered, students must have signed parental permission to read it, and teachers are not allowed to read from it out loud in class.
YCRT! Arizona Update
In Arizona, the two leading elected officials behind Tucson Unified School District’s notorious 2012 book banning and sudden cancellation of Mexican-American studies classes, Attorney General Tom Horne and Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, have been ousted in primary elections (though both are still serving until the end of their respective terms in office).
Horne had been Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction before being elected attorney general. When he held his previous office he came out against Mexican-American studies and related textbooks, calling such teaching civilizational war. He went on to characterize Mexican-American and Native American history as being something other than “Greco-Roman” and thus not part of Western civilization. At one time he announced his intention to fire public school teachers with Mexican accents.
Huppenthal implemented his predecessor’s policies, forcing Tucson schools to cancel its Mexican-American studies program and impound all related textbooks and study materials. At his direction, in January 2012, TUSD officials walked into MAS classes in mid-session, confiscated books (literally crating them in cardboard boxes marked “banned books”), and sent bewildered students to study hall to kill time until TUSD could figure out what to replace the MAS classes with.
Apart from that, Huppenthal apparently spent his time in office shilling for private charter schools, editing his Wikipedia entry, and posting what he thought were anonymous sock-puppet comments to political blogs, including these gems:
“The Mexican American Studies classes use the exact same technique that Hitler used in his rise to power. Take an historical example of injustice, cast it in racial terms and fan the flames of resentment. This technique is the exact technique of Mexican American studies. Complete with fueling resentment of stolen land. In Hitler’s case it was the Sudetanland. In the Mexican American studies case, it is Aztlan.”
“We all need to stomp out balkanization. No spanish radio stations, no spanish billboards, no spanish tv stations, no spanish newspapers. This is America, speak English.”
“I don’t mind them selling Mexican food as long as the menus are mostly in English. And, I’m not being humorous or racist. A lot is at stake here.”
Charming, no? Good riddance to them both.
Update (9/25/14): Reference the story about the Maryland teacher who was suspended after writing a science fiction story under a pen name, see the comment below for additional information that throws an entirely different light on the story.