Monday, September 29, 2008

Banned Books Week 08

One of yesterday’s posts connected GOP Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin to the issue of book banning. I’m aware this is a controversial issue, & that Robert Frost’s Banjo readers may include persons of various political stripes. I’ve tried to steer fairly clear of political discourse, because it’s not part of my agenda to offend or rile anyone up; nor can I say I definitively know that when Palin asked the librarian how she’d react to a book banning request, & then subsequently fired the librarian, what she (Palin) intended by either the question or the action. I guess Ms Palin is the one who could answer that question, but I’ve found over the years that it’s best to take politician’s answers (whether the politician is an “elephant” or a “donkey”) with more salt than I typically use when cooking pasta. I’ll also say that over the years I’ve found the adage “where there’s smoke there’s fire” is true more often than not; there’s also the more surreal adage: “If it walks like a duck & talks like a duck, it probably is a duck.” On the other hand, while I don’t have the inclination to surf the blogosphere looking for all the various nuances of the issue as it pertains to Palin, I do notice some reasoned voices who don’t seem to be in Palin’s camp are willing to be open-minded, & that also seems fair.

However, Sarah Palin aside, the banned books issue is a serious & ongoing one. Culturally, we claim to value freedom of expression, but my observation has been that this value often is put aside when it includes embracing contrary views—& to some extent, this is true for folks on either side of the left-right political dichotomy we have going on—in spades—in the U.S. right now; “needles to say,” (as Eberle would say) I’m not a fan of those maps on all the news networks with their grid of red states & blue states. I’m more a believer in something along the lines of this Will Rogers’ quote: “The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other.” I don’t entirely agree, but I do get his overall point.

One thing worth noting about book banning: it always stems from power, & power that’s energized by fear; & for my money, these are two of the most negative motivations there can possibly be. It’s interesting, too, to note that which set of books might get banned is completely dependent on who’s wielding the power at a given time. If we look at the history of book banning, we’ll note that the lists of banned books in the old Soviet Union & the list of banned books in the U.S. aren’t all that similar—what is the same is the practice of book banning. This reminds me of the observation by some conservative commentators who weren’t consistently enamored with our current chief executive as regards the expansion of executive powers (an expansion which, in fairness, has occurred under both recent Republican & Democrat administrations)—namely, they realized that whatever new powers were granted to a Republican would also be available to a Democrat. In other words (in an attempt to preach to the uncoverted, if any such actually show up here), you’d best think about all the ramifications of a policy that endorses censorship, (or other forms of power assertion) because it may come back to haunt you at some point down the line.One thing that disturbs me—to get on the soapbox just for a moment (hey, I am a blogger after all), is the way the “culture war issues” (if you can call them that) tend to obfuscate serious problems that need to be addressed: an apparently crumbling economy; & a related topic: a Mid-East war that—whether you agree with it or not—has to be seen as a potential “generational” conflict—i.e., it could last a loooong time, with all the consequences inherent in this—are we willing to buy this? How willing? Are we willing enough, say, to accept rationing as was done during World War II? Or a draft, as in Viet Nam—so that not only poor kids are dying in Iraq & Afghanistan? If not, why not? & if not, perhaps this is a sign that even the folks who drape themselves in the flag about this issue really don’t believe in it all that strongly…. & a related topic—like what are we going to do as oil dwindles as a fuel source & all the “drill, baby, drill” rhetoric about Alaska, etc looks to be about as effective a remedy as slapping an ace bandage on a broken back; & related to that—hey, have you noticed the interstates are getting pretty old & dilapidated, & that it’s real difficult to get anywhere by railroad, while meanwhile the government is sinking lots of $$$$ into a kinda crumbling airline industry? Infrastructure, anyone? Or the current chaos of the public school system, a system that provided education— & thus made citizens—of several generations in this country (including yours truly’s dad, who came from a poor, second generation immigrant background); & no, an escape to private schools is not the answer if we want to maintain democratic institutions (because those private schools don’t account for the folks nowadays who are in my dad’s situation)…. Thomas Jefferson said “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”Which leads me back to banned books. Because this is an issue about information & the ability to think. When one can learn only from a limited perspective, one’s mind can’t embrace difference. It’s disturbing to me that so much of the official discourse about difference has to do with its supposed corrupting influence rather than ideas such as freedom & tolerance—which I believe is practically impossible to achieve (to the extent we’re capable of achieving this) without knowledge & understanding. One thing to remember (going back to the Jefferson quote); being “well-informed” doesn’t just mean keeping up with news & current events… it means having an understanding of human diversity; having an understanding that there is a dynamic fluidity of world views & life experiences, & just because “that’s the way we’ve always done things around here” doesn’t mean that’s the only way to get them done.It’s an important “issue”—I hate to use that over-used term in this context—so if you can, spend some time this week researching it, or better yet, reading a thought-provoking book. You can find out more about banned book week here, & can see a list of 10 banned classics here (some surprises, so check it out).

The pics show some books I selected belonging to Eberle & I, all of which have been banned at some time & place. I didn’t make an exhaustive search of our shelves—I just wanted to find a handful that were well-known &/or had been important to us as readers & writers. In case I got too clever by half with the pictures & you can’t read the titles, they are:

Top pic (l-r): Ladies Almanack-Djuna Barnes; Naked Lunch-William S. Burroughs; The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas-Gertrude Stein; Ulysses-James Joyce
Middle Pic (l-r): Moll Flanders-Daniel Defoe; Candide-Voltaire; The Rights of Man-Thomas Paine; The Scarlet Letter-Nathaniel Hawthorne
Bottom Pic (l-r): The Grapes of Wrath-John Steinbeck; The Well of Loneliness-Radclyffe Hall; Howl-Allen Ginsberg; As I Lay Dying-William Faulkner

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