Thursday, October 18, 2007

Texas Teacher Could Face Criminal Charges


A Texas teacher could face criminal charges for handing a book to a student that her parents deemed inappropriate for a 9th grader.

The book, Cormic McCarthy's CHILD OF GOD, is described this way on . . . "In this taut, chilling novel, Lester Ballard--a violent, dispossessed man falsely accused of rape--haunts the hill country of East Tennessee when he is released from jail. While telling his story, Cormac McCarthy depicts the most sordid aspects of life with dignity, humor, and characteristic lyrical brilliance."

Texas Penal Code 43.24 prohibits selling, distributing or displaying harmful material to a minor. Since it is alleged that the teacher placed the "harmful material" in the hands of a student, he may be subject to a Class A misdemeanor, which under Texas law is punishable by up to one year in county jail and/or a fine up to $4,000.

What is happening? Can this be for real? It was not required reading, yet the teacher could get jail time?

What do you think about this?

For the complete story, as reported by the Abilene Online ReporterNews, click here.

Oh, and ever since the hoopla, the book has been sold out in stores all over town.

Four Paragraphs

Novelist and memoirist Diana Abu-Jaber visited the college where I teach yesterday where she told us the story of her recent experience with a high school in Texas. The parents of three students objected to the teaching of her novel, Crescent, which has been praised for, among other things, presenting Iraqi-American characters "as real people."

This wasn't what bothered the parents, though. Rather, it was the presence of four paragraphs of sexual content.

The principal at the school ordered the teachers to stop teaching the book. The teachers protested and were offered a compromise: black out the four offending paragraphs and you can still teach the book. The teachers asked Abu-Jaber's permission to do so, arguing that while they were loathe to succumb to such pressure, they felt that there was so much else to be gained from this book, they hoped she would understand and assent to the practice.

As she considered the bargain, Abu-Jaber consulted with writers and "publishing people." The writers were adamant in their insistence that she say no. The publishing people, and even her own husband urged her to accept the compromise.

In the end, she came up with a compromise of her own. She would not give her permission, but she would not stand in the way if the teachers themselves wanted to do the blacking out. And if they did choose to black out the paragraphs and continue teaching Crescent, she would post the excised text on her web site.

Here's the story, straight from Diana Abu-Jaber's website:
Awful as censorship is, I’d always thought there was a reassuring familiarity about banned books—Huck Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Lolita—classics powerful enough to frighten people into wanting to silence them.

After all, isn’t that’s what censorship is all about—fear—of controversy, sexuality, difference, of questioning the status quo?

Then I received a sensitive, beautifully-written email from Texas. It was from a high school teacher, informing me that my novel, Crescent, had been banned from her school due to the objections of the parents of three students over the sexual content of four paragraphs in the book.

Her principal was behind the ban, but after teachers protested he offered a compromise. This is an excerpt from the teacher’s letter:

“If we obtain your permission to black out the four offending paragraphs … we are allowed to include the book in our curriculum….I am willing to ask you to do the unthinkable – will you allow us to mark through these four paragraphs in the interest of introducing a discussion of a culture so frequently demonized and belittled in our part of the country? Will you help me bring into a politically conservative community a sympathetic view of Iraq and Iraqi people?”

And so, after much thought and much asking-for-advice, I thought I’d share the response I gave the teacher:

October 2, 2007

Thanks so much for your thoughtful and insightful email. I've spent several days considering your question.

Ultimately, I find that I can't condone your principal's offer to censor my novel in order to make it more acceptable. That said, you do have my permission, to do what you think is right for your students.

In a strange way, I suppose, I think this discussion is an encouraging thing. I find it fascinating that, in our culture of war, macabre violence, and shocking cinema, a literary novel could still carry enough of an impact as to make someone want to silence it.

My husband pointed out that censors are always with us, determining the limits of morality and conventions, in every source of art and information, from books to film to music. He argues, along with you, that it’s better to allow students to read some of a book—indeed most of a book—rather than none at all.

Even though I see the excellent sense of this argument, I couldn’t find a way to feel right about crossing out text. I became a writer in large part because I felt like I couldn’t otherwise make my voice heard. To agree to blackening out such passages feels like colluding in my own silencing.

I once had a debate with a student from Saudi Arabia. I’d complained to him that the problem with America was that nothing was sacred. He’d laughed at me and said, on the contrary, that the great thing about America was that nothing was sacred.

I worry, though, that the American problem is that the wrong things are sacred.

I won’t belabor pointing out the obvious irony of blacking out scenes of love-making in a book that’s concerned with the depiction and the violence of unjust wars and dictatorship. We all already know this—in America, love gets bleeped, the violence stays. The two main characters in Crescent are in love, the few sexual passages in the book are far from graphic. Indeed, the scenes in which they cook and eat together are nearly just as suggestive as the contested passages.

But a friend, upon hearing about this debate, postulated that the real reason the students’ parents are upset is because the book gives a human face to Arab Muslim people.

That might be the part of this that unnerves me the most – and like so many forms of subtle discrimination and racism, we’ll never really know if that’s the case or not. The people who want the book banned may not even be entirely conscious of it themselves.

So I thank you for giving me the chance to think out loud a little about such an important issue. If you decide to proceed with blacking out hte passages, I'll be happy to post the offending text on my website, so those students who might be curious, can decide for themselves if they'd like to see what the fuss is about.

Please feel free to share my response with your principal, the parents, and even with your students. It’s a wonderful object lesson in the free and open exchange of ideas vs. book banning, especially during this, Banned Books Week.

With great respect for wonderful teachers, like yourself,

Diana Abu-Jaber

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Catholic League takes aim at The Golden Compass

Well, the attacks on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials

are about to begin in earnest. There have been several controversies about the books since they first appeared on store shelves, but now that they are set to be released as movies, certain organizations are getting up in arms. Someone might actually see the movie! And after that they might read the book!
To quote the Catholic League's press release: “We are fighting a deceitful stealth campaign on the part of the film’s producers. Our goal is to educate Christians so that they know exactly what the film’s pernicious agenda really is.” A pernicious agenda? A deceitful stealth campaign? Pullman's trilogy was, apparently, "written to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism. The target audience is children and adolescents." This is what my ol' philosophy prof used to call an “appeal to fear.” If you see the movie, then read the book, soon everyone and their children will be an atheist.
Now, full disclosure here, I'm a happy agnostic sitting on the fence, swinging my feet. I have no ax to grind with the Catholic church. In fact I’ve always been impressed by classes I’ve spoken to in the Catholic school system. It appears to me to be a church that values intellectual debate. That’s partly why the press release was so shocking to me. The difficulty with it and the corresponding video is that it denigrates the book and authors in general. His Dark Materials is a story, plain and simple. It is inspired by Paradise Lost and uses Christian elements to tell the STORY. Pullman is an atheist (actually if you want to know more of his beliefs read the interview with the The Literary Review) and he is writing from his own point of view. That’s his right as an artist. As an individual or a parent, make your own choice on whether you want to read these books or whether you want your children to read them. A group or organization that speaks with one voice attempting to blot out other views of the universe, that’s a problem. Can artists only write books that are supportive (or at the least, not offensive) towards Christianity?

Philip Pullman's own words on the agenda of the book are: "The problem for those who think there's an anti-religious anti-moral bias in the books comes when they haven't actually read the books: of course there's a criticism of organised theocratic tyrannical religion but who can disagree with that?" I’ve read the books. I felt the church he was criticizing was more the church of the 15th Century (or Inquisition times) than the modern church. If you want to see Pullman debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury visit this link.

(If you look close you can see Pullman's horns).

I do tire of arguments that use the “children” as the flag to wave to rally the troops. We don't want the children tainted. They must be protected. God forbid we let them read an imaginative book and then discuss it with them. How about we try not to limit their imaginations? Children are hardy. Their minds are questing for information about the universe around them. Give it to them. Don’t lock up their minds in a trunk.

As a final point I found it interesting that the League made sure to call Pullman a militant English atheist. There’s some incite-full language. No one likes militants (they use suicide bombs, right?). Atheists are to be feared. And finally, he's English! He's an outsider. Don't trust him. He probably drinks tea.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Find a Banned Books Week event near you here!