Commentary

Banning books

book burning

The 1993 burning of “un-German books” in Berlin/Wikimedia Commons

When and how was it that American journalists became so contumelious toward the U.S. working class?

On second thought, let me rephrase that to head off the comments from conservative critics of the media who imagine a long history of bias.

When and how was it that American journalists judged it publicly cool to badmouth blue-collar America?

Case in point: “Watching the videotape of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough school board meeting on April 22, you can actually see America’s IQ points circle the drain and slip away.”

These are the words of Washington Post book writer Ron Charles pontificating on something he imagined was done by the ignorant, country bumkins of “The Valley,” as other residents of the Anchorage metro area know the land the city’s upper class considers the home of the “trailer trash”.

From reading Twitter – where you can daily find the well-researched and always accurate reporting of one Donald Trump, President of the United States (POTUS) – Charles concluded “the Mat-Su Borough District School Board voted 5-2 to ban five books from MSBSD schools.”

Only it didn’t.

The books in question weren’t banned from schools, and there is no plan to do so.

Charles either failed to watch the videotape he linked or he didn’t watch it closely, because in that recording one of the members of the Board leading the push to remove books from a class curriculum very clearly states that “I don’t want the books to disappear. I think (students) should have a right to go read these books.”

What the Board did do was remove the books from the “High School English Election Curriculum.” That might have been a bad decision – public entities make bad decisions all the time – but nobody was planning a pyre in Palmer, a bonfire in Big Lake, or a war on literature in Wasilla.

The American Nazi party had not succeeded in filling Mat-Su School Board seats with card-carrying party members.

When this was pointed out to the local newspaper – the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman which first Tweeted the inherently inflammatory words “book ban” – it corrected its reporting to accurately describe what happened, and later wrote another story headlined “Not a full ban.”

Whatever a “not full ban” might be.

VIRUSES

By then, of course, it didn’t matter. The book ban version of reality was off and running unchecked like a new coronavirus:

The kicker came when Alaska reporter Dermot Cole, a former columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, lambasted the Frontiersman for correcting its original story.

“The newspaper was wrong to post a correction on its story saying, ‘The original version of this story included the word ban. The books were not banned, but rather removed from the curriculum,'” he wrote.

“The books were banned from the curriculum.”

And what curriculum would that be? Well, according to the teachers who explained things to the Board, it would be the curriculum for an English elective for juniors and seniors that would only be offered if there were enough juniors and seniors interested in the class.

An aged journalist, Cole was playing the favorite word game of old-school journalists called “it might be wrong but it’s not really wrong.” Historically, this was done to avoid the need to write “corrections,” which many thought made their newspapers (if you remember those) look bad because everyone knew how accurately processing huge volumes of information and condensing it into a story in a brief period of time was a task so simple any idiot could do it.

With the internet today revealing just how difficult the job, the myth of flawless reporting is dead. But it has been replaced by the need of partisans to paint black and white the big, American world of greys.

So Cole pulled up his partisan pants, zipped them shut, and took the defense of a journalistic mistake to a whole new level.

You can only feel sorry for someone who can’t tell the difference between books being banned from schools and books being removed from a reading list for a class that might or might not happen.

Wrong-headed

Not that what the Mat-Su School Board did should be celebrated. It can be easily argued the Board’s decision was foolish, misguided, wrong-headed, or itself driven by conservative partisanship or bias. The books in question are well written and in this writer’s view at least one of them – “Catch 22” – should be read by everyone.

The “catch” in that book nicely explains a lot of the inconsistencies in the workplace. But then, I’m not elected to set public policy. If I was, everyone who plans to venture outside of an Alaska urban area would also be required to read Hudson Stuck’s “10,000 Miles with a Dogsled which offers some sage advice on decision making and survival in the outdoors:

“Everything is fine as long as it is fine.”

That observation might also shed some light on what really happened in The Valley.

A school board that last year struggled through a raucous meeting about a teacher’s use of controversial books saw a list of controversial books potentially headed for a classroom and decided to make an effort to avoid another blowup – a dodge being always the better part of valor for most American politicians these days, even the menial ones.

And everything was fine with the Board’s decision until the words “book ban” were Tweeted. Then an inconsequential action at a meeting attended by no one became anything but fine.

Pretty soon Board members found themselves mocked for relying on Cliff Note summaries of the books by an East Coast writer who put his trust in Twitter for a really solid summary while Alaska reporters given the cover of an esteemed peer in the big city piled on.

Meanwhile, the Tweet that rocked the valley had the participants on the Mat-Su Valley News Facebook page – not a one of whom had bothered to offer testimony at the internet-connected Board meeting despite the number with nothing else to do in these COVID-19 days – going at each other over the meaning of the word “banned” until moderator Kersten Safford made the observation that “you can say it’s not a ban all you want but the rest of the world thinks it is.”

Having the thus defined the new definition of factual – what you perceive the majority believes whether accurate or not – she turned off comments. Cole and some others appeared to be relishing all of this.

“The Mat-Su school board draws national ridicule for banning five classic works of American literature,” he trumpeted after joining in the effort to help stir the pot with a distortion of what happened.

Why he stopped with a claim to a ban on “five classic works” is a bit baffling. If one considers what is lacking from the Mat-Su curriculum a ban, the Mat-Su school system has essentially banned dozens of classic works.

The curriculum for the district’s English 1 class contains no “classic works of American literature” whatsoever. As in most school districts across the country, it is heavy on short stories and speeches, including Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” and President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”

It also features Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and writings from the African-American columnist Leonard Pitts and an Oprah interview with the late Elie Weisel, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Jewish author who survived the Nazi death camps during World War II.

English 2 lists three, tame for these times American classics:  “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. There is nothing by Mark Twain, generally agreed to be the greatest American writer of all time, or Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, Henry James, William Faulkner, Arthur Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Tony Morrison or many others on a common list of great American writers who penned classic novels. 

Also missing are “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by  by Junot Diaz, “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote, “Tales of the City” by Armistead Maupin, “The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin, “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisernos, and “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk, which top the New York Public Library’s list of “Modern American Classics.”

The first five on that list could as easily comprise a curriculum list as the five allegedly “banned.” Suffice to say, the only crime the Mat-Su School Board committed in this case was to veto a list of books arbitrarily put together by people who work for the school district.

Those happen to be the people whose actions the school board is elected to oversee.

If the residents of the Mat-Su don’t like what their school board did, they can vote the sitting members out and vote new members in. Meanwhile, young people – if there are still young people reading – can go to the library and read what they want to read.

It is quite possible that given this little brouhaha, there might be more kids in the Valley choosing to read the books in question. There is among the naturally inquisitive a certain taste for the forbidden fruit.

I can personally recommend four of these five books – “Catch 22” having already been mentioned. As for the rest, most kids who think their lives crap now might find “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou a good primer on just how bad things can get.

Much the same for Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”

Growing up is difficult for most, but it is made hell for a few. Life often gets better, but there are no guarantees.

Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” only underlines the last observation. Young people today – especially young men – have little understanding of what it was like to have hanging over your head the threat of a military draft plucking you from your comfortable, everyday, American life, putting a rifle in your hands, and sending you off to fight a war in a Southeast Asian jungle for reasons clear to no one.

As for the “The Great Gatsby,” I always found it overrated. There are a dozen books better, and for Alaska students, tending to be largely ignorant of both the history and prehistory of the state in which they live, a strong case could be made for putting on any reading list James Michener’s “Alaska,” which features, among other things, some Alaska Native characters. 

“The most remarkable of Michener’s people are women, who dominate the book by their strength and desire to transcend mere survival,” Sam Cornish added in a 1988 review. “They are creations not of a poetic vision but of circumstances in which people must be self-reliant or perish.”

Few today understand the old Alaska where every day was a real-life episode of Survivor. Fewer still understand the importance, not too mention the toughness, of the women who helped build a society that came to be largely defined by its “manliness” for lack of a better word.

But then some of the elites don’t like Michener’s Alaska, and in a society where those who get dirt under their fingernails are to be looked down  upon by much of the media as IQ deprived that could be a problem.

Why just as this was being written, the voice of the national correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR) emerged from Alexa to inform that he was at a public rally against Idaho’s COVID-19 lockdown attended by “hundreds” to which he felt the need to add assurances that “hundreds of thousands” of Idahoans failed to attend.

There was little doubt as to what he was trying to suggest: the ignoramuses are loose in the streets again. This surely plays as well to his constituency of listeners as Cole’s proclamations of a “book ban” plays to the elitists among his readers.

Sadly, collectively, it all serves to do little but make even more shit of the credibility of journalism unless the profession is henceforth going to apply some sort of new rules across the board. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine coverage of the next Million Man March on the nation’s capital noting that hundreds of millions of men are not marching.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

31 replies »

  1. “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
    ― Joseph Brodsky

    Bet these clowns -Tom Bergey, Jim Hart, Ole Larson, Ryan Ponder and Jeff Taylor- will be added to Dunleavey’s educational advisory board, unless Dunny has already acquired their intellectual services.

  2. And the we have that EXTREMELY liberal organization, Military.com, who the Medred leaves out of his scath, who called “Catch-22” and “The Things They Carried” iconic works of literature about war and castigated the board for trying to shelter teens from concepts like satire and flawed authority figures in a state with the country’s largest percentage of veterans per capita.

    • Military.com which is a private organization having nothing to do with the military and whose purpose is to make a profit simply published articles from liberal newspapers.

      My father was a pilot in Korea and Vietnam. I also served in the military and was enthusiastic to begin reading Catch 22. The language was so course in the first 10 pages, I closed it and never opened it again. The course, crude language was exponentially worse than I ever experienced in real military life. No matter what other good may be found in those pages, I wouldn’t recommend it to an adult much less a teenager.

  3. Congrats to Medred for winning the prestigious “AARF, AARF” award from the S. Downing School of Dog Whistle Journalmalism. And jeez, all you need to read is the first two sentences. Atta boy, Craig!

  4. Well articulated. Just because a book is well written does not make it qualified to be read. Well written doesn’t mean the content is worth reading. We all make selections based on our time, money, and goals.

  5. “There was little doubt as to what he was trying to suggest: the ignoramuses are loose in the streets again.”

    That’s because it’s true, and drinking bleach….

    • Monk, are you confusing Dementia Joe with Trump again? Try a little less CNN/MSDNC and more FOX. Makes you shine a little brighter..
      Pity the poor fool who watches CNN/MSDNC propaganda.
      “Following Trump’s suggestion that disinfectant could potentially be used as a treatment for the coronavirus, former Vice President and presidential candidate Joe Biden tweeted about his comments. “I can’t believe I have to say this, but please don’t drink bleach,” Biden said. “

  6. Ironic, methinks, all the feigned outrage over removing certain books from a course curriculum…while teaching children that words have no meaning and do not matter.

  7. It’s possible this book banning controversy is a genius conspiracy that will have the opposite effect. Instead of “banning” books, people will be inspired (perhaps out of spite) to make the effort to read those books. Am I right? Only time will tell. This whole thing has gone viral, thus creating a spike in interest for these books. I heard there might even be some kind of cash scholarship contest open to students who read these books and submit a winning report. The cash outlay is probably cheaper than the actual cost of conducting the class with much higher “attendance”, too! The Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again…or maybe, just maybe that outcome was planned from the start.

  8. Disagree. Michener’s Alaska is one of his worst works (besides his reference to Alaska as the 50th state). John McPhee’s Coming Into the County is a much better choice.

  9. You’re nuts. Completely nuts. An uneducated school board telling teachers they can’t teach certain titles in an ELECTIVE class (which means it’s parent/student choice to even take in the first place) AGAINST the advice of the committee whom they enlisted to look into the matter IS a ban and shows the horribly wrong turn education has taken. Those books have been banned from that curriculum. It doesn’t matter where else those books may reside that students may read. They are banned for teaching for the foreseeable future. I think you’ve lost touch with what education is like today. If students aren’t given the opportunity to read those books in a class, it’s slim to none that they’ll read them otherwise. Why? Because students in those elective classes have super busy lives – many of them so involved in school extracurriculars that they don’t even go home till 9-10 or later at night. When will they find time to do extra work on the side that won’t benefit their grades or transcripts? Obviously you’ve never been a teacher. Take it from someone who has spent the last 20 years teaching English. Dermot Cole is right on….and you’re not worthy to tie his shoe laces. BTW…I don’t even allow my STUDENTS to use CliffNotes/SparkNotes/etc. It’s called teaching them to think vs. robotic academians who can copy/paste. The bar should be quite a bit higher for those implementing school board policy that will so drastically effect many students’ educations. In the end, “white old guys” decided them young’uns don’ need thet iffen I can’t ev’n make heads er tails outta ’em.

  10. Not Mat-Su but does lend some credence to Steve S and the conspiracies and censorship. Digital “Book burning” if you will.

    Now, why would YouTube censor this?
    YouTube has taken down a video of two doctors from Bakersfield, California, who held a press conference calling for the reopening of the country. According to the Google-owned video platform, the doctors “violated community guidelines.”

    The doctors, Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, operate out of an urgent care clinic in Bakersfield. Citing fatality statistics in California, the doctors argued that the Chinese virus has proven less deadly than anticipated.

    “We have 39.5 million people, if we just take a basic calculation and extrapolate that out, that equates to about 4.7 million cases throughout the state of California,” said Dr. Erickson. “Which means this thing is widespread, that’s the good news. We’ve seen 1,227 deaths in the state of California with a possible incidents or prevalence of 4.7 million. That means you have a 0.03 chance of dying from COVID-19 in the state of California.”

  11. Somewhere I heard that the most contentious book in the Mat Su borough school district curriculum is the Bible, yet the school board made no decision to remove this book from classroom teaching?
    What ever happened to seperation from religion and state?
    This new book “ban” (from classroom lesson plans) shows the highly contrived systems these public school districts have become.
    Teachers are nothing more than government bureaucrats delivering a narrow perspective that is orchestrated from “top down” leadership…the paradigm our entire country has taken.
    Joseph Heller’s words speak loudly in these days of constant forgein wars and increased government surveillance…
    “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
    (Catch-22)

    • Steve, I get where you are coming from, but just to clarify, the U.S. Constitution says nothing about the “separation between church and state”. Just leftist hogwash.
      Are you referencing the establishment clause which separates church from state, but not religion from politics or public life. Individual citizens are free to bring their religious convictions into the public arena (public schools). But the government is prohibited from favoring one religious view over another or even favoring religion over non-religion.

      • Bryan,
        This is not “individuals” bringing their religious feelings into the schools, but more like government organized, government funded, government dictated educational systems choosing one religion over another.
        I can bet you that there are no readings from the Quran or the Verdas in mat su classrooms…I also doubt that atheism or agnostic beliefs are discussed with these students.
        How about “Transcendentalism”??
        I understand teaching Theology and religious beliefs to students, but it is not the government’s job to decide what faith these children should follow.
        This is where I feel it steps over the line of separation of religion and state.
        I understand that this is debatable and different states and local school districts all have different guidelines.
        My point was a lot more people (and parents) complained about the teachings from the bible than from books like Catch-22.
        Why were these books removed from the curriculum while the controversy over the bible remains?
        Is this just more “top down” government we are seeing leaking out throughout the state?

  12. Craig strikes again! The bain of drama and dishonesty is factual information. Good job Mr. Medred . Very important note is these books are still available in those schools library. I also really liked catch 22 . Thankfully those kids can go check it out if they choose ,from of all things their school library. Is it just my own perception or are good authors getting more rare ?

    • This all goes deeper than Mat-Su “burning” a few books. This all comes down to some liberal shaping the “narrative”. Rewriting or distortioning history. We see the same thing with Dems destroying their Confederate hero statues during the night. Like their racist past never existed. To future generation it will not have. Just as planned. Take the rapist and Presidential Candidate Joe Biden. Currently defended by Nancy Pelosi, Alyyssa Milano, #MeToo, feminists, and every left leaning, newspaper rag, full of hypocrites out there shaping or omitting the “narrative”. The younger gen can read alright – Instagram/Snapchat..

      • “Credibility of the media”? They are a bunch of vile, disgusting, bootlicking, goose steppers of the Party. All in one incestuous bowl of smelly soup.

        New York magazine Washington correspondent Olivia Nuzzi responded angrily to criticism from former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer on Monday evening, tweeting at him: “Oh shut the f*ck up.”

        Fleisher, who served under President George W. Bush, criticized Nuzzi after a Rose Garden press briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in which she asked President Donald Trump: “If an American president loses more Americans over the course of six weeks than died in the entirety of the Vietnam War, does he deserve to be re-elected?”

        The “Vietnam” talking point has been repeated among mainstream media journalists for several days.

        One example is a “fake news” viral photograph of President Lyndon B. Johnson, which was presented by many Trump critics as if Johnson had been expressing grief over the deaths in Vietnam. (The idea behind the comparison is to suggest Trump has shown less empathy.)

        In reality, Johnson was trying to hear a tape recording made by his son-in-law, who was serving in Vietnam at the time.

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