Word Missouri: On the unsatisfying conclusion to the Republic banned-book controversy

(For some background, head over here to listen to my KBIA feature on censorship, educational standards, and what the next generation of Missouri writers are reading.)

I’ve been following the Republic book controversy since this summer, when I read blog posts like this one. Long story short, after multiple challenges by a professor at neighboring Missouri State University,Slaughterhouse-Five and Twenty Boy Summer (the book pictured above) were pulled from the high school library and removed from the curriculum. Aside from happening here in Missouri (in the part of the state I heard describe by residents more than once as “the buckle of the Bible Belt,”) it’s interesting because of the unconventional and unpopular way the Republic School Board decided to handle the removal. One board member had been absent during the initial vote to remove the books, so he requested the board revisit the case. (This was after it had already drawn national attention.) A compromise of sorts was reached – the books were returned to the library, but students now need parental permission to access them. They’re kept in a “separate area,” much like a Hustler magazine might be kept behind the counter.

MSU professor Wesley Scroggins has been pressing the school board since 2010. Take a look at his complaints, and read his original column, “Filthy books demeaning to Republic education,” in the Springfield News-Leader.

While I wasn’t able to speak with the Republic school superintendent – he never returned my calls – the response he gave to Scroggins’ complaint offers a window into his mind:

Furthermore, Mr. Scroggins’ contention that teachers who instruct in public schools are liberal in their thinking is unfounded. I asked him for specific comments teachers in our district have made that would qualify as liberal. He could provide me with no such examples. I know for a fact that we have many Christians serving in our school district.

And it’s likely not many people have gotten through to the school board. Several Republic residents told me the board doesn’t allow the public to address them directly. To even meet with the board, a concerned citizen must file a request.

From my conversation with Scroggins, I gathered he, at least, was on some level content with the board’s decision. He told me parents should have the right to decide what their kids read. The Vonnegut Library handled things a little differently, putting power right in students’ hands. They decided to give away up to 150 copies of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five to Republic students. Any student who wanted one could get one absolutely free, parental permission or not, with a quick e-mail. So far, the library says 55 students have taken them up on it.

Who should be able to decide what high school students read: the school board, teachers, parents or students themselves?

Countering Pre-Emptive Censorship

By now, you have probably heard that even dudes that have been dead for 100 years and have a new hit collection of musings gets, yup, censored.  With the aid of Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben of Auburn University, NewSouth books is set to release an updated version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the offensive racial slurs “nigger” and “injun” scrubbed out of the text.

The response has been about what you would expect from people who find censorship, cultural revisionism, and political correctness cloaked in the idea of “compassionate advocacy” to be both dangerous and incredibly stupid.  For me, the goodie is from Ishmael Reed:

Instead of doing a gotcha search on Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” I recommend that its critics read it. They will find that Twain’s Jim has more depth than the parade of black male characters that one finds in recent movies, theater and literature, who are little more than lethal props.

The response to this decision by NewSouth has been overwhelmingly negative, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this edition won’t still be released and snatched up by schools.  Both NewSouth and Gribben have little to say on the commercial viability of this project, so who knows what kind of audience there might be for this edition.

Most of the discussion has focused on the lack of good teaching and/or the intelligence of children.  But what else does this suggest about how we now view our art and literature?  Something about our cultural response to the Twain controversy has also struck me as a little … well, ideoglogical.

With no context at all, you probably are against “censorship” and “political correctness.”  But you probably don’t think much about what the words really mean: you’re against them because they have negative connotations.  They just sorta make you instantly think negative thoughts, maybe some freedom of speech and expression stuff.  A scholar like Brennan, who clearly should know better, has thrown all his weight on one word, without any sense of its context.  It’s almost like he never read Huck Finn.  In fact, his justification seems to be entirely because he finds saying these words aloud makes him uncomfortable.

Words matter. Any writer knows that. And yet, words also have no power. Think about it. The word “google” was meaningless twenty years ago – we didn’t “google” anybody until there was a company and a search engine and a common usage to make that word a verb, which has probably annoyed more than a few lexicographers.  Words cannot literally hurt you: you cannot walk down the street and have words crash on your head (like birds in Arkansas) or have someone stab you in the chest with a word. Words gain their meaning and their emotional impact from the cultural context that we create for them. To view Twain’s language as the same as our own 21st century language is foolish.  It seems such a gross misunderstanding of how to approach art, history, and literature that I’m mildly amazed this idea even made it through a single NewSouth editorial meeting.

By trying to removed two offensive words, Brennan is actually giving those words more power.  It’s also giving them power in their 21st century context.  Trying to redact and censor only makes the offensive words stronger, more seductive, more (oddly) offensive.  How does Brennan and NewSouth not see that?  We would laugh if someone tried to cover a nude statue with a fig leaf or hold a sheet of paper over an exposed breast in a Renaissance painting.

Only this isn’t funny.  This whitewashing of our books doesn’t, apparently, even need to be done on the sly, like it was with Amazon and Orwell’s 1984 just a few months ago. To be fair, the reporting indicates this was a question of copyright rather than content.  I am making a bit of a leap here, and I acknowledge that.  However, in an increasingly digital world, if people truly believe we do not ban artwork but we can simply revise it, shape and change the content, and truly believe this innocuous and decent and will do so openly, we should be very, very frightened.

Would it do any good to tell NewSouth we don’t want sanitized Twain?  If so, here’s the contact page: let ’em know.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.

Steve Martin Play Shouldn't Be Banned, Says Guy Who Was Just in That Play

Bad news this week for Steve Martin, whose play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, was banned from being performed at an Oregon high school because some parents complained about its content. Martin, various news agencies report, has offered to pay for the play to be produced off-campus. I recommend reading the actual letter he sent to the editor of the La Grande Observer, because it is about as hilarious as a letter to the editor can be.

That Steve Martin! He’s . . . well, you know what kind of guy he is.

It just so happens that on Sunday, my supremely talented community theater castmates and I finished a four-show run of — you guessed it — Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Since I played the title character — Picasso — I feel highly qualified to chime in on this matter. Please imagine that everything from this point on is spoken with an accent that’s one-third Antonio Banderas, two-thirds . . . something else. Accents are hard.

First of all, I can report that there is a moment in the play, just after he shows up, when Picasso announces he’s “been thinking about sex all day,” and that shortly thereafter he drops the play’s sole F-bomb. However, I suspect that if La Grande High (Go Tigers!) has gym classes, study halls, passing periods, or lunch, Picasso’s entrance is probably already echoed at least once a day.

Per student.

Second, it’s true about the presence of adult themes in the play, such as kissing. Picasso kisses girls, and I don’t have to mention what a slippery slope that can be. Let me just pass on, though, for the benefit of the students and their parents, a little tip I picked up during rehearsal. Actor kisses are totally different than regular kisses: no tongue.

Very important to always remember.

And yes, to some degree the play glorifies hanging out in a bar and having affairs and drinking lots of alcohol, but to a greater degree it glorifies being inventive and articulate and prolific. Privilege is placed on the performance of thoughtful comparison and the construction of well-reasoned argument.

In his 2007 memoir Born Standing Up, Martin only mentions Picasso at the Lapin Agile once — he’s got a pretty full life, after all, with all the stand-up gigging, the SNL appearances, the movie career, the banjo playing — but he writes that the play was one of the only things he ever did that won the approval of his late father, who said it should have gotten the Nobel Prize.

It doesn’t deserve the Nobel Prize, nor does it deserve to be banned.

However, at least having a work banned would put Martin in the company of a certain other sharp-witted, white-haired American humorist, who also criss-crossed the country and liked to perform in an all-white suit: “Censorship,” quoth Mark Twain, “is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

Maybe, with regard to doing Picasso at the Lapin Agile in a high school, Martin is a little ahead of his time, not unlike the enigmatic messenger who appears close to the end of the play.

It’s good that Martin is prepared to fund the production at its new location, anyway. That way, like that aforementioned messenger, he’ll be ready to deliver his funny, insightful message to those who’re open to receive it.

On a side note, while there’s sadly no video of our performance other than a scene we did for the morning show, to which I linked above, curious fans will be happy to learn that several members of our the cast — and our amazing director — have been admitted into TMR‘s bank of voice actors. Listen for them in upcoming TMR audio issues.