Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Censors hush voices students need to hear

Here's my column from today's Greenwich Time on the censorship of "Voices in Conflict" at Wilton High School:http://www.greenwichtime.com/news/opinion/columnists/scn-littman0403,0,1742290.column?coll=green-opinion-columnists

At Wilton High School, 15 students in Bonnie Dickinson's theater class are creating a play about the Iraq War using the words of veterans.

Aware of potential sensitivities, Ms. Dickinson ran the idea before Principal Tim Canty."I said I'm thinking about doing a project about the Iraq veterans. This is a book ("In Conflict: Iraq Veterans speak out on Duty, Loss and the Fight to Stay Alive" by Yvonne Latty) that has their exact words. It might be a little controversial," Ms. Dickinson said. "And he said, no. I think that's great."

But after one student, Gabby Alessi-Friedlander, and her mother, Barbara Alessi, complained that the play, "Voices in Conflict" was one-sided and "insulting" to currently serving soldiers, Mr. Canty told students that the play could not be performed on school premises, despite efforts to modify the script to address the family's concerns."We were looking to make sure that the script... would present a fair and balanced overview of the many perspectives and points of view that exist," Mr. Canty said.

Hmm. "Fair and balanced." Perhaps he'd be satisfied if the play were performed with a Fox News ticker running along the bottom. "We're not part of the entertainment industry," Canty said. "We have to make sure we don't express any bias...that we are exposing students to all points of view.

"I find it ironic that Principal Canty has forbidden the performance a play comprised of the words of Iraq War veterans on the basis that it doesn't expose students to "all points of view," when he allows military recruiters to set up shop in the school's cafeteria. Surely a play reflecting the reality of war in the words of veterans who've served in it would provide "balance" to the rosy picture of military life presented by recruiters?

Perhaps more surreal is a recent press release from Gary Richards, superintendent of Wilton Public Schools, which states objections to the play on the grounds that "the script contains language that, while realistic, is graphic and violent."

So let's get this straight - it's OK for kids to enlist and be shipped off to Iraq but heaven forbid we should let them hear about what soldiers are actually experiencing in there because the language is too "graphic and violent." This is beyond nonsensical - after all, war is graphic and violent. Richards goes on to complain "This approach turns powerful material into a dramatic format that borders on being sensational and inappropriate."

Hello?! This play was written for a drama class. What's more, I struggle to see how anyone could consider our veterans' own words "inappropriate."

"Any real discussion of the situation in Iraq is going to be controversial. The stories of troops coming home from war will not be pretty or pure, and will rarely be black-and-white enough to align with extremists of any political persuasion," said Paul Reickhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "But however ugly and uncomfortable, it is our duty as Americans to understand the truth about the war in Iraq."

"Voices in Conflict" was a step towards doing just that. What's more, it served to motivate students to read and learn more about the war and current events."I'm not sure if working on the play changed my opinions, but it has certainly made them more informed," said student Sarah Anderson.

Clearly adherents to the Bush/Cheney/Lieberman "if you criticize the war you're giving comfort to the enemy" school of thought, some students at Wilton High have been telling actors in the play they are "faggots" who should be "hanged for treason" having been brainwashed by their "liberal pig parents."

Last October, the Fort Drum Blizzard published an article by 2nd Lt. Zach Alessi-Friedlander, Gabby's brother, about how soldiers of the 1st 89 Cavalry Regiment were helping two schools near Baghdad. Lt. Alessi-Friedlander wrote: "Quality education teaches students how to think critically about their own lives." He goes on to quote former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky's warning against "societies that restrict intellectual freedom and prevent the free exchange of ideas," favoring instead those that "unleash the creative potential of their people."

Lt. Alessi-Friedlander is risking his life to bring intellectual freedom to Iraq. It's supremely ironic that his mother and sister are working so hard to restrict it at home.

"Please tell your readers that soldiers' voices need to be heard," student James Presson told me.

We honor our troops by preserving at home the intellectual freedom they're fighting for in Iraq.