Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Here we go again: Another instance of censorship in Texas

When I first saw the title of this post at Bookshelves of Doom-- "There is BIG trouble a'brewing in Humble, Texas"-- I knew I had to look it over. I pretty much had the reaction of "now what are the locals making a fuss about?" When I went over, and I read some of the links provided, I was able to say, "no big surprise." This is Texas, known for its intolerance when it comes to literacy and reading. The Bookninja, who mentioned the story simply had this comment to say: "People, it’s Texas… Why do you think?" I think that little snarky remark says it all. Now some Texans may want to say that not all their brethren behave that way, but overall the state is developing quite the reputation for being anti-education and anti-reading among other things. That a school librarian was instrumental in mobilizing three or four parents who think their will has to be imposed on everybody else did not surprise me that much either. I've had to deal with librarians who are, to put it politely, less than enlightened. The point I am trying to make is that when something like what is happening in Humble, TX comes out, I am not really surprised anymore. If anything, it does make me just a bit more ashamed that I live in Texas, a state that supposedly prides itself on its hospitality, friendliness, the fact that people are independent and self-reliant, not to mention its scenery. That the state has become yet another right wing sanctuary does create some concern.

So, what is the issue? According to School Library Journal, which is linked in BoD above, "A handful of YA authors who were scheduled to attend the Humble ISD Libraries' Teen Lit Festival in Texas this January won't be going after all. Organizers uninvited writer Ellen Hopkins--and most of her fellow presenters withdrew to protest the censorship." To put it in plain English, a school librarian who did not like Hopkins' books (and that is her prerogative) decided to take it upon herself to get her removed from the YA Book Fest in Humble.  In the fine tradition of public schools everywhere, she found a few busybody parents to gripe to the school. Naturally the school district folded like a cheap suit wanting to avoid the appearance that they were somehow coddling an author who writes about issues that are relevant to teens: issues like teen sexuality, substance abuse, and mental health. Things that teens probably need to consider and develop awareness for at some point. I call those parents busybodies for a simple reason: they want to prevent their kids from reading Hopkins' books or seeing her presentation, that is their right as parents. What is not their right is to dictate to the rest of the community what it may or not read. It is arrogant on their part that they think they can decide what our children read or view. That's the job of the other parents, and I am willing to bet there are a few parents who would be more than willing to welcome an author like Hopkins (actually they have done just that since Hopkins has been to Humble on two previous school visits that went along fine).

The situation gets more interesting because other YA authors have chosen to stay away from the festival to express solidarity with Hopkins as well as to protest censorship. Now, I am sure some of the local busybodies will argue this is not censorship, that no one is removing the books from the local libraries. Make no mistake. This is censorship at its worst, and I am willing to bet that this forced removal of Ms. Hopkins is a preemptive strike to have her books pulled from the local school libraries. Pete Hautman, one of the authors who chose to withdraw, responds to one of those "this is not censorship" detractors on why this is indeed censorship. "Nate" is a commenter on Mr. Hautman's blog. His words are very appropriate:

"To 'Nate': You are technically correct about my misuse of the term “censorship.” My use of the term is deliberate. We all know that the “uninviting” of Ellen H. was not literally censorship. It would be more accurate to say it was “the active suppression of an author to discourage teens from reading her books.” (Can we find an acronym in that? Wait a sec…okay, how about Activist School Suppression of Hopkins’ Access to Teens. I’m sure there’s an acronym in there someplace!) In any case, elephant or mastodon, it’s still a pachyderm. We all know what we're talking about. They may not have literally “censored” Ellen Hopkins, but their actions point to a similar intent." 

 To try to spin it and say this situation is not censorship is just plain hypocrisy. You can try to spin the truth, but you cannot hide behind a technicality.

So why am I writing about this? I write because someone has to say something. Sure, the conservatives will play the victim and say something along the lines of "we did not like the writer's books" or "we are standing up for our values" or my personal favorite, "we are protecting our children." What they are really doing is expressing their intolerance for any diverse or differing viewpoints, then playing martyr when they get called on their intolerance. I write because I want to express support for the authors and for the freedom to write and express ideas freely in a nation where, supposedly, one of the cherished values is freedom of expression. I believe it is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a document that conservatives love to call upon. What those busybodies are doing is saying, "we know better. We think this way, and so should you." I write because I have to ask, "who do they think they are? Who died and made them king or queen?" When someone says, no matter what their political stripe, "I know better. This you cannot read" that is just a step down to the road of tyranny. Whether you like or dislike Hopkins' work, whether you think your child should read it or not, the books should be made available to everyone so they can read and decide on their own. It is how you build critical thinking; it is how you make an informed citizenry that safeguards democracy.

Now if calling out those censors earns me the label of "intolerant" (talk about missing the irony), then yes, I will wear that label proudly. I will go so far as to say it clearly: I do not tolerate censors nor tyrants, and those people in Humble, TX who are keeping Ms. Hopkins out for the sake of an ideological and moralistic agenda are just petty tyrants. As such, you deserve to be denounced. As such, you deserve to have the light of scorn from the rest of the rational people upon you.

I don't like picking on this state, but I do get tired of seeing stories like this one coming out of this state. I do get tired of other states pointing at Texas as if it was some retrograde backwater. Those people in Humble are not doing the state any favors. They are not doing themselves any favors. Because in the end, in addition to looking like retrograde folks fearful of a few books, their actions will just inspire other youths to seek out and read the books. Whether they check them out from another library or go out and buy them, all these people do, as many censors usually do, is stimulate curiosity. I am betting a good number of people will go out and find the books just to see what the "big deal" is all about. Sounds like a good outcome to me. Heck, I may have to see if I can order some copies of her books for our library's YA collection.

I would like to end with some words by author Tera Lynn Childs, another writer who chose to withdraw from the event. She wrote a letter to that school superintendent, which she posted to her blog. The part I want to quote and leave for my two readers is the following:

"The books Ms. Hopkins writes are not the kinds of books I write, there are no mermaids or goddesses or other elements of teenage fantasy. Her books reveal a truth about the lives of modern teens and the world in which they live, no matter how much we wish the truth were otherwise. To exclude her from an event because the topics of her books might trouble some attendees (or, more likely, their parents) does not make our world any more ideal. Covering teens' eyes and ears does not remove them from the realities of their world. And to suggest that you could do so is the epitome of conceit and naivety."

 An update note (same day): It seems I cannot go very far without yet another story about Texas and education (or rather the many ways in which Texas comes across as retrograde). This story out of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is worth a look. In brief, the situation, according to the article: "Last month, Sagal learned that his play, about a confrontation at an executive boot camp, would be included in a test given to students in Texas schools. But a problem arose when the state wanted to edit out 'for God's sake' and Sagal objected." In the end, the play was not used, and the TEA official interviewed claimed that the testing agency was being overcautious. Anyhow, Sagal had the best line at the end: "Sagal complained on his blog that the request was irrational and indicative of Texas' reputation as 'the state that's leading the charge back into the middle ages in terms of educational standards.'" It is becoming a well-earned reputation for Texas.

Update note (8/27/10): The festival has been cancelled. And even then, the author still graciously says she will come, paying her own way, if invited. Hopkins has more class than those busybodies in Humble will ever have. 

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