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Bad Takes: Even as we celebrate Banned Books Week, Texans keep asking for school board censorship 

click to enlarge "The Handmaid's Tale," which became a Hulu television series, has been removed from school classes. - COURTESY OF HULU
  • Courtesy of Hulu
  • "The Handmaid's Tale," which became a Hulu television series, has been removed from school classes.
Bad Takes is a periodic column of opinion and political analysis.

“There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.” — Ezekiel 23:20, 6th century BCE



"I can feel his mouth O Lord I must stretch myself I wished he was here or somebody to let myself go with and come again like that I feel all fire inside me or if I could dream it when he made me spend the 2nd time tickling me behind with his finger I was coming for about 5 minutes with my legs round him I had to hug him after O Lord I wanted to shout out all sorts of things fuck or shit or anything at all". — James Joyce, Ulysses, 1920

To ban a book in the internet age is one of the cheapest exercises in futility conceivable. Yet as the Divine Republic of Texas more and more comes to resemble The Handmaid's Tale, with forced childbirth now the law of the land, Margaret Atwood's iconic novel has been removed from English classes in a school district northwest of Austin for the offense of being "inappropriate literature." And Atwood is far from alone.

As many teachers can attest, Hell hath no fury like a Christian conservative parent of a teenager taught to think for themselves. Since last Fall, the board of the Leander Independent School District has been forced to absorb this lesson the Torquemada way. ("No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!") Earlier this month, one of its members resigned in protest over his own inability to shield young minds from provocative reading material.

The brouhaha arrives just in time for Banned Books Week, which runs now through October 2. Dozens of compelling authors can count on the free publicity of censorship while the rest of us receive a sobering reminder of why indefatigable defenses of free expression are as urgently needed in 2021 as they were a hundred years ago when every copy of Joyce's Ulysses being sent through the mail was incinerated by the U.S. Postal Service.

The public commentary at Leander's school board meetings, like so many across the nation, has been the acme of respectful disagreement and discretion. Back in February, one parent very tastefully brought a pink strap-on sex toy  to the speaker's table to forebode the debaucheries awaiting readers of Carmen Maria Machado's memoir of domestic violence, In the Dream House. This prompted the author to pen an op-ed for the New York Times, "Banning My Book Won't Protect Your Child."

"Book bans in America are nothing new," Machado wrote. "As long as there have been writers, there have been reactionaries at their heels. (Boston held its first book burning in 1650.) Today in the United States, books that feature characters who are Black, Latinx, Indigenous, queer or trans — or are written by authors who identify that way — frequently make up a majority of the American Library Association’s annual list of the top 10 books most often censored in libraries and schools. These book bans deprive students of a better understanding of themselves and one another. As a writer, I believe in the power of words to cross boundaries at a time of deep division. Now more than ever, literature matters."

Traversing the borders of her own private Gilead was not what another spectacularly humorless Leander parent aspired to when she took the mic on September 9 with her poor son in tow — a child who looked old enough to have watched Pulp Fiction at least once. Nor was he spared the embarrassment of hearing his mom refer to "dicks" 11 times in a mere three minutes, usually in conjunction with "sucking" or "tugging." She also dropped a couple of "fucks" and "shits" — profanities she meticulously counted in the first 66 pages of Jonathan Evison's Lawn Boy.

Turns out the novel she apparently never finished can be dismissively reduced to a single sentence wherein the now-adult main character recalls a previous childhood sexual experience: "All I could think about while he was chatting me up over the rim of his cappuccino was his little salamander between my fourth-grade fingers, rapidly engorging with blood." That's it, folks, that's all you need to know, nothing further to see here. Except, if she had no qualms about repeating that verbatim in the presence of her son, surely she believed at least one high schooler sufficiently mature to handle such language without their brain shattering into a thousand pieces at the sheer depravity?

For the record, the School Library Journal, an American magazine for bibliothecaries published monthly since 1954, praised Lawn Boy with the advice: "Give this exciting coming-of-age story to teens eager to engage with heavy and timely political issues." Depressingly, those do not seem like the kind of young adults this genre of parents wants.

This particular parent's self-nullifying presentation concluded with a poster parading the misspelled word "PEDOPHIL" in all-caps, but not before she accused the school of "sexual harassment" for stocking the shelves with such an abomination and, instead of filing a complaint through the usual channels, promised to contact the police. Which she did. And, according to news reports, cops are investigating the affair. Over a book. In a library. In America.

Let's hope nobody alerts this mother to the existence of James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, still the most poignant and moving portrayal of homoerotic love between two young boys I've yet to read.

Point is, anyone can cherrypick some obscene passage out of an otherwise worthwhile work of fiction. Would the devoutly religious deprive youths of the chance to read Jesus's Sermon on the Mount on account of the donkey-sized genitals and horse spunk spewed in the Bible verse cited above? In this atheist's opinion, that's a bad take.

Wish I could tell you Leander's 42,000-plus students are the only ones caught in the crosshairs of unforgivably needless controversy, but moral hysteria of this kidney has been ascendant of late. In Eanes ISD just to their south, Kyle Lukoff's Call Me Max, a wholesome book about a trans kid, was censored in March, as it was in Utah back in February. Two weeks ago, the grandstanding mayor of Hudson, Ohio issued a fatuous ultimatum to the entire Board of Education there to either resign immediately or face prosecution over a book of collegiate writing prompts — yes, writing prompts — which the high school principal had already seized from students. Officials with Amazon, which carries that book, may be surprised to learn they traffic in "child pornography."

The tenor of these manufactured scandals is more performative than protective, but there's a very real worry that accusations such as "sexual harassment" and "grooming" and "child porn" may begin to lose their sting after this latest round of reckless trivialization. From Citizen Dildo to the Spelling Bee Champ, we must admit, however, these parents have a point, as the late Professor Richard Rorty conceded in the 1990s:

"Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in symmetrical communication when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. The racist or fundamentalist parents of our students say that in a truly democratic society the students should not be forced to read books by such people — Black people, Jewish people, homosexual people. They will protest that these books are being jammed down their children’s throats. I cannot see how to reply to this charge without saying something like ‘There are credentials for admission to our democratic society, credentials which we liberals have been making more stringent by doing our best to excommunicate racists, male chauvinists, homophobes, and the like. So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.’ I have no trouble offering this reply; rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent authority of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents."

On the crest of that same wave, not all the news has been dispiriting. Last Monday, after weeks of student-led protest, the Central York School District in Pennsylvania rescinded its so-called "freeze" on anti-racist educational resources, including Beverly Daniel Tatum's marvelous Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race.

Score one for Black voices mattering.

Maybe the generation that has lived through George Floyd's murder and COVID does not require coddling. What's beyond dispute is conservatives can put together quite a damn fine reading list, however unwittingly.

Another author who shares Atwood's honor of having her book, Out Of Darkness, removed by the Leander Inquisition is Ashley Hope Peréz. She will sit down with columnist Chris Tomlinson in celebration of Banned Books Week this Tuesday, September 28 at The Carpenter Hotel in Austin. Click here for more information.

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