Columnist Supports Banned Books Week; Illinois Family Institute Objects

A few days ago, the Chicago Tribune‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic Julia Keller spoke out in favor of Banned Books Week:

That day marked my first encounter with banned books.

I probably don’t need to point out that my mother’s efforts were utterly counter-productive, that her prohibition only made true-crime books seem even more alluring. Human nature, for all of its rumored complexity, is a simple thing: Tell us we can’t have something and we suddenly want it more than we’ve ever wanted anything else in our lives. Put something out of our reach and we grope and strain and pant for it with all of our might.

The groups that keep Banned Books Week front and center want to remind us that freedom of reading, like freedom of speech, is crucial to a democracy. Books are worth fighting for. The release of the annual list of controversial books is a great opportunity to renew our commitment to unfettered access to books.

Books don’t kill people; people kill people. In other words, I didn’t become the ax murderer that my mother feared I might. And if I had, I don’t think we could’ve blamed the books…

Sounds reasonable. If I were a child, I’d be eager to find out what was so dangerous about a book that someone (i.e. probably a conservative Christian) wanted to keep it away from me.

So guess who’s all offended by this article?

Welcome back, Laurie Higgins. We missed you.

Higgins and the Illinois Family Institute issued a rebuttal to Keller’s piece. They don’t find anything wrong with censoring certain books from children.

Here’s what [Keller] fails to address:

  1. Ideas do, indeed, have consequences. Keller’s personal experience that reading about serial killers, ax murderers, and remorseless poisoners didn’t turn her into a murderer is lousy evidence for her unproven implicit claim that literature has no capacity to change people.
  2. Not every novel, play, essay, or short story is appropriate at every age.
  3. Books that never appear on the shelves of libraries, that is, books that the ALA’s de facto censorship protocols (aka “Collection Development Policies”) never allow to be purchased can’t be banned.
  4. Banning a book, or more accurately, making a book less easily accessible to children, may keep dangerous, destructive, deviant ideas and images out of the minds and hearts of children or delay the age at which they’re exposed to them.

Of course literature can change people. Keller of all people wouldn’t say otherwise. But a book alone isn’t going to turn you into a monster. There are always other factors in play. And to shield a child from every potentially damaging factor is to remove that child from the world itself.

Is every piece of writing appropriate for every age? Not necessarily. But no one should be making that decision for someone else’s children.

As for sheltering the children from harmful ideas, we’ll get to that later.

Higgins goes on to talk about “inappropriate” books assigned in school:

Keller seems to employ a red herring argument when she cites To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while, for example, ignoring a play like Angels in America that includes extraordinarily obscene language and graphic sex and whose author Tony Kushner displays some rather virulent anti-religious sentiment.

She makes it sound like some teacher forced that book upon his unsuspecting students. Not true at all.

Some backstory: An Illinois teacher was under attack from conservative groups when he assigned Angels in America last year. The lady leading the charge (*surprise*) once worked with IFI.

The teacher didn’t force the book upon the students and he gave them an option to read an alternative book (Camus’ The Stranger). In addition, parents had to “opt-in” to the play and sign a permission slip if they were allowing their children to read Angels in America.

This is what the teacher wrote in a letter to parents:

“If I have any agenda, it’s this: kindness and compassion are virtues to celebrate, forgiveness is always preferable to revenge, hope is powerful and lasting, and what we do for the greater good is what will define us and our legacy. If any work of literature can be demanding, complex, and nuanced in helping me express those values, then that is an exciting prospect. I believe that Angels in America is all of these things, and that, above all, is why I teach it.”

How dare he…?

(And what’s with Higgins attacking Kushner’s religious beliefs? An atheist wrote a book, therefore it should be banned?)

Higgins finally gets to the part you know she’s been waiting to get to — The Homosexuals:

In addition, [Keller] fails to acknowledge that many of the most frequently challenged books are ones that affirm controversial ideas about homosexuality, and that many of those are picture books intended for very young audiences. The frequently challenged books Heather Has Two Mommies and King and King embody unproven ontological and moral claims that many parents consider radical, subversive, and perverse. The implicit claims are far too abstract and complex for the very young audience for whom these picture books are intended, which leaves just squishy, emotional non-arguments to shape the feelings of young children. I think this could reasonably be called propaganda.

You know what Heather learns in that book?

She learns that “the most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other.”

Damn radical, subversive, perverse propaganda…

And then, as she’s done before, Higgins goes down the slippery slope and brings in false analogies (like racial superiority and paraphilias):

The epithet “book banner” is hurled at conservative parents as a tactic to humiliate them into silence. Would parents who object to picture books that explore the sorrow of children who have been deliberately created as motherless or fatherless children be called book banners? Would parents who object to picture books that affirm polyamory be considered book banners? Would parents who object to public school teachers enthusiastically and positively teaching a play that affirms and celebrates racial superiority be considered book banners? Would parents who object to public school teachers teaching a novel that graphically depicts and celebrates paraphilias as normal variations of sexual practice be considered book banners? Would parents who object to the teaching of a book whose author attacks or ridicules Orthodox Judaism or Islam be considered book banners?

Of course, no teacher is encouraging racial superiority or celebrating paraphilia. Just because a book discusses those ideas in a certain way doesn’t mean it’s an endorsement of said ideas. (And what the hell is wrong with affirming polyamory?)

We can argue over the phrase “book banner.” Maybe “book denier” is better.

The problem I have with Higgins throughout her piece is that she and IFI are not simply concerned with what their own children read.

Their goal is to control what your children read. If they’re offended by it, then they don’t want your kids exposed to it. That’s why we raise a fuss. And that’s why we should be embracing Banned Books Week. Parents have a right to control what their children should read (key word: THEIR). I would hope they don’t censor anything, but it’s each parent’s decision.

And smarter children will find their way around the barriers surrounding them. Children, with their almost unlimited sense of curiosity, ought to read books they think are interesting. If someone else is trying to stop you from doing it, it’s all the more reason to find out why that is. (Want some advice? Try Judy Blume. She’s fantastic.)

I do agree with Higgins when she implies that parents should be concerned with what their own children read.

The way to handle that, though, is not by censoring their kids from tackling controversial subjects. Let your children read what they want. But keep an eye on what books they choose. Read it yourself, if you can. Discuss the subject matter with them. Don’t let the book be the last word on the topic.

You know, If IFI were truly concerned about children being exposed to violent imagery, graphic sexuality, and complete fabrications about the world around us, then they would focus on banning the Bible.

When they get around to that, maybe I’ll take their other concerns more seriously.

Julie Clawson, a Christian, has a few thoughts about Banned Books Week and how it relates to her faith:

There’s good reason why people lose their faith in college -– when confronted with the messiness of religion, or theology, or textual studies their sheltered minds are taken by surprise and they feel lied to and betrayed by the church that did it’s best to keep them from encountering reality. But some still think it’s better (or at least easier) to pretend than to deal with the messiness that is reality. Instead of wrestling with church history or helping our kids respond with love to all the people they encounter, the very discussion gets banned. So kudos to Banned Books Week for forcing us to face those fears instead of hiding from them. For not letting ideologies be used as silencing weapons of oppression.


  • Justin jm

    Banning a book, or more accurately, making a book less easily accessible to children, may keep dangerous, destructive, deviant ideas and images out of the minds and hearts of children or delay the age at which they’re exposed to them.

    As you implied, Higgins doesn’t want to ban the more graphic parts of the Old Testament.

    And why do these people always equivocate homosexuality with racism or anti-religious sentiment?

  • cathy

    It’s shit like this that really makes me appreciate those ladies who run the local library in my hometown.

  • http://doubtfuldaughter.wordpress.com/ Doubtful Daughter

    I was thinking the same thing. Rape, murder, etc. is in the bible, and goodness knows she wouldn’t have that banned. She probably feels it’s perfectly acceptable reading for children.

    And isn’t it the parent’s responsibility to know what their children are reading (or watching, or playing)? I have an 11 year old that is a prolific reader. I have slowly let her read more novels written for adults. Yet I am careful about what the content is in those books. However, I will often let her read them with a warning that there is some content, the meaning and impact of which she might not fully grasp at her age. And as always, I let her ask questions if she has any.

    I never fully understood the beef with To Kill a Mockingbird or Huck Finn. Those are two of my favorite books that were required reading.

    Interesting how this is just an extension of telling people they don’t need to think. Just read these approved books and you will be just fine.

    One of the joys of reading a book that is controversial is the conversations and debates that they can spark, and the fact that they actually cause me to think.

    The idea that books are “banned” for anti-religious sentiment seemed utterly ridiculous to me. Because they would probably also want to ban anything anti-christian. Just their agenda to make us a christian country.

  • Jen

    I didn’t realize it was Banned Books Week! It always bugs me to read the list of banned books and realize how many of them I have read. I don’t recall any local book challenges when I was growing up, and my parents never banned any books from my book-loving self (except for a sex book aimed at 70s-era teens that my mother got from my grandmother which she wanted to read first, which I then stole when she wasn’t looking- see, banning books leads to crimes).*

    As for Laurie Higgins, she should go ahead and read Angels in America, or better yet, go see it. Kushner is an important playwright to be familiar with, btw, but who cares? If you don’t teach children about gays, they don’t exist. I went out to seek the book And Tango Make Three, which was banned for the hot dude penguin on dude penguin sexing, and I was disappointed to find my copy was a tame, beautiful story about gay penguins in New York (I think) who raise an egg that would otherwise be tossed away by the biological parents- which is a lot more terrible than love.

    Would parents who object to picture books that affirm polyamory be considered book banners?

    Heather Has Two Mommies, A Part-Time Daddy, and Long Distance Mama? If there are kids with this family structure, why shouldn’t they get to see that reflected in their literature?

    *The book was totally awesome, and the only teen sex guide I ever read that suggested that parents should allow their kids to lock their doors when their bf/gf is over, so they can engage in mutual masturbation. The 70s must have been fun.

  • Siamang

    Their goal is to control what your children read.

    Ding ding ding.

    The implicit claims are far too abstract and complex for the very young audience for whom these picture books are intended, which leaves just squishy, emotional non-arguments to shape the feelings of young children. I think this could reasonably be called propaganda.

    I actually agree with this. Urp. Threw up in my mouth, but I agree with Higgins when she says this.

    However, and this is key, children need to learn to treat their schoolmates well, and indeed at a much younger age than they are able to evaluate abstract and complex moral arguments.

    Laurie Higgins seems to imagine a world where kids with two mommies don’t sit next to hers in kindergarten. Well, excuse me, they do. In my public school, I am very aware of the kids with two mommies and the kids with two daddies. My daughter has a pair of married grandmothers.

    I’m sorry, but my daughter has plenty of squishy, emotional feelings about love and acceptance of same-sex couples. Sorry, she’s biased. She can’t help but love grandmothers who love her. I know. Terrible moral upbringing there. I’m not instilling her with all those abstract complex arguments against homos. (I think there are two complex abstract arguments I’ve ever heard from right-wingers: they’re icky, and God says ‘NO!’)

    This is a coping book. It’s teaching kids how to not beat up, or taunt, or otherwise freak out just because the kid in the seat next to you has parents that you don’t approve of.

    Hell, I don’t approve of Laurie Higgins. But I wouldn’t want my kid to tease her kid.

  • http://cousinavi.wordpress.com cousinavi

    Damn it, Mehta!

    If you’re going to continue to be reasonable and insightful, I’m going to have hard time maintaining you as my enemy.

    For fuck sakes…do something outrageous!

    I hate you.

    Coldest Regards,
    Cousin Avi

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Iason Ouabache

    I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that Mrs. Higgins has never read any of the books that she wants to ban. She probably got info second hand, collapsed on her fainting couch, and when she finally came to decided that no one should ever read that sick filth.

  • Lynet

    There is one point that I have to concede and that is that not wishing a particular book to be offered to children in the library is not exactly the same as trying to ban a book altogether so that parents cannot, say, buy it for their kids. The name probably does promote a false equivalence.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    Anybody else notice that Higgins’ objections to Angels in America relate partly to its anti-religious sentiments, when the religion that it’s against is that of homophobic, judgmental, hateful people and of Fred Phelps?

    That’s right. Higgie just took the side of the “God Hates Fags” guy.

  • http://3harpiesltd.org/ocb Judith Bandsma

    The biggest problems about “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huck Finn” are the use of racial stereotypes and the word ‘nigger’…and the biggest complaints come from the African American community. Which is truly a shame.

    How do you know how far you’ve come if you hide where you were? …Mockingbird is one of the very best novels for teaching tolerance of both skin colors and disabilities. Atticus lives his beliefs and tries to teach his children IN SPITE of the local bigotries.

    And Mark Twain wrote in a time when the words he used were common and accepted. How far we’ve come since then. Which needs to be noted.

  • Spurs Fan

    Would parents who object to picture books that affirm polyamory be considered book banners? Would parents who object to public school teachers enthusiastically and positively teaching a play that affirms and celebrates racial superiority be considered book banners? Would parents who object to public school teachers teaching a novel that graphically depicts and celebrates paraphilias as normal variations of sexual practice be considered book banners? Would parents who object to the teaching of a book whose author attacks or ridicules Orthodox Judaism or Islam be considered book banners?

    Some of you have alluded to this, but I’m quite certain that most or all of these are not only spoken of in the Bible, but advocated for (Islam hadn’t been invented yet!).

  • Eric

    The hypocrisy of the conservative right never seems to end and amaze me. These are the same people screaming that they want their country back from the socialist. Who talk about freedom and compare our president to Hitler! How dare they! But I guess they are not aware of the book burnings that took place during the Nazi take over of Germany. It is soo dangerous to allow these people to run around without someone opposing them. We can’t forget that there has been censorship in the U.S. before. Good thing we corrected our ways and didn’t allow this to continue.

  • Andy S

    The teacher didn’t force the book upon the students and he gave them an option to read an alternative book (Camus’ The Stranger).

    The Stranger is overtly anti-religion, so from the IFI’s standpoint it may not have been a good alternative.

    I loved it, though. The teacher should have had them read both. The Stranger is an excellent (and short) novel. Never read Angels in America, but now I want to.

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    Books made me an atheist. I’m so glad my (born again Christian) mother never censored what I read.

  • Laura Lou

    As Atris says, “Separation from evil is no protection from it.”

  • Miko

    The goal isn’t to control what children read, per se: the goal is to control what anyone reads. It’s just easier for them to make the argumentum ad “do it for the children” and pretend that banning the books for everyone is just an unfortunate side effect.

    It’s about shaping an entire society to fit their narrow view of what society should be: don’t read this book, don’t take this drug, do say the Pledge of Allegiance daily, pay a special tax to drink a soft drink, fork over money to a health insurance corporation or go to jail, etc. Banned books are one of our leading forays against the provincialists, but really it’s a much larger battle of pluralism vs. communitarianism.

  • http://. Marsha in TN

    As a librarian, I was proud to put up my Banned/Challenged book display this week. I’m at an academic library, and some of my kids have said, “Why would anyone want to ban that…..?”

    I’m in east TN, and this summer there was a church (Baptist of course) that had a book burning with free hot dogs and soft drinks. They could not understand why some people in the community were incensed about it. They were “only burning books we don’t want our children and grand-children to see.” Several us threatened to show up with our old bibles to see if they would burn those too.

    Religion mixed with ignorance=total stupidity. Hopefully some of those kids will have enough sense to decide for themselves. I’ve seen it here at this small college, all of them don’t swallow this crap and do question and make up their own minds.

    I have a bracelet I wear it says “Open books, open minds.” That’s what the fundies are terrified of. Here’s hoping the smart kids get out, and open their own minds.

  • JulietEcho

    I *totally* relate to the wanting-to-read-a-book-specifically-because-it-was-banned phenomenon.

    My mom said plainly once, when I was a teenager, that she didn’t want me reading “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and I always remembered the name of the book so I could read it when I got a chance.

    Fortunately, my parents weren’t fans of science fiction, so they had no idea what sort of stuff I was reading in Heinlein – or I’m sure that would’ve been taken away.

  • http://www.wheatdogg.com wheatdogg

    When I was a kid, my parents wouldn’t take me to the Sean Connery James Bond movies. But they did let me read Ian Fleming’s 007 books.

    The books were way more, um, educational, than the movies were.

  • lurker111

    The only problem I ever had with Huck Finn was that the reintroduction of Tom Sawyer late in the novel made the plotline totally unbelievable, and I stopped reading at that point. (I think ol’ S. Clemens wrote himself into a corner & couldn’t write himself back out of it again.)

  • http://rebeccas-opinions.blogspot.com Rebecca

    There is a lovely post by Jamie Larue, a librarian refusing to remove a book from his library after a complaint.

    http://jaslarue.blogspot.com/2008/07/uncle-bobbys-wedding.html

    Neil Gaiman linked to the post today in discussion of book banning week. I’m really glad that we don’t have these types of issues in Australia.

  • Ana Apurada

    It seems like most of you have failed to notice that Laurie Higgins always takes the high road when she is defending her convictions. It’s unfortunate that most of you are unwilling (or unable) to extend the same courtesy. Are you all so fragile that you can’t tolerate someone who disagrees with your opinion. Maybe you’re not convinced that you’re right. They say that if you throw a stone into a pack of dogs, the one that gets hit first will yelp. Maybe you’re all yelping so loud because you feel stung by her words of truth. I suggest you learn to disagree with a little more class.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X