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Signs Of Life

Columns by Pamela Majteles

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Posted by pam on January 14, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Originally published October 3, 2008

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay.

Lately, I’ve been spending time thinking about bullies. Although I always known bullies are good at intimidating others, I’ve decided they deserve credit for a lot more.

For instance, bullies are smarter than everyone else, which can be seen in “Banned & Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship”, an exhibition on display at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland. I’m referring to the bullies responsible for banning particular books in our country. They must be smarter than all of us, because how else could they advise us on what books not to read?

They’re so smart they don’t need to hear what academics, literary critics, or masses of readers, over generations, have to say. Some authors whose books have been banned in the past are: Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and Walt Whitman.

Over the last ten years, some of the most frequently challenged books, by those seeking to ban them, include: “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain; “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck; “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley; and “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut. Currently, the following books are being challenged: “Beloved” by Toni Morrison (challenged by parents in Kansas); “A Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger (challenged by parent in Maine); “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain (removed from three high schools in Washington, challenged by a student); and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (restricted use implemented by school officials in Michigan town).

These bullies know everything better than the rest of us. They don’t favor “Brave New World” because it’s centered around “negative activity”. “A Catcher in the Rye” should be avoided for its “vulgarity” and “anti-Christian sentiments”. They disapprove of “Beloved” because of its “sexual explicitness” and “violent imagery that is gratuitously employed”. Considering their objections, even their personal values and beliefs must be better than ours.

It’s clear to me they also have all the answers, because they certainly have no questions. There’s nothing to be learned from social history, like that depicted in “Huckleberry Finn”. In fact, nothing from the past is relevant, including a story about WWII, so “Slaughterhouse-Five” isn’t worth reading. What could possibly be gained from a book offering views into the emotions of the human heart, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird”. It’s not worth knowing anything at all about the human condition.

I was really impressed to discover that some of these bullies know so much, they don’t even need a dictionary. In 1978, a Missouri library banned “The American Heritage Dictionary”, because it contained 39 “objectionable” words considered slang or to have sexual connotations, such as “bed”, “knockers”, and “balls”. In 1987, the Anchorage School Board in Alaska banned the dictionary for similar reasons.

It turns out there’s nothing these sorts of bullies can’t do, including running for high political office. In September 2008, The New York Times reported that when Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska in 1996, she approached the town librarian about the possibility of banning some books. The librarian pledged to resist all efforts at censorship and Palin fired her shortly after taking office. Afterward, Palin changed course and rehired her in response to residents who made a strong show of support for the librarian.

When I think about it, those who try to ban books are really much more than bullies. The definition of a bully is “a person who intimidates and domineers others”. (I know because I looked it up in the dictionary.) No, I think people who try to ban books deserve credit for a whole lot more.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

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