Bonus Rant: Banned Book Week

The self-appointed Office for Intellectual Freedom has accumulated a list of the most-banned books of the last decade.  Surprisingly enough as an author and the proud owner of a paper that says BA in English, Banned Book Week really pisses me off.  I have derailed both my Advanced Literary Criticism class Sr. year and my Advanced Writing class Jr. year over this topic.

Point one: Intellectual Freedom.  From?  Freedom from what?  Ethics?  Morality?  Decency?  Accountability to the public?  Freedom to what?  To expose pre-adolescent and adolescent children to ideas best considered later?  The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the books that I have read, found well-crafted and morally devoid of all value, but enjoyed reading.  The format was ground-breaking, the prose above average, and the characterization was spot-on.  I’ve got a copy of it in my Nook library.

I have bought, read, own, and will probably re-read this book again.  NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS would I put this book in a grade school or junior high library.  NEVER.

Don’t lecture me about the free exchange of ideas.  I have been reading and around education for more years than I want to think about, and the truth is that the ideas aren’t to be put out there for an open exchange.  They’re laid quietly in a book trusting that the lax absentee parents of our generation will be too ignorant to know about, much less engage the concepts presented.  If a librarian openly told a single mother the content of this book while handing it to their son or daughter they’d get fired.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is USC- (big surprise his training came from the University of Southern California) -educated Stephen Chbosky’s revision of his own adolescence, a fact for which he has my undying pity if he made less than 80% of this up.  The son of a pair of 1%-ers, Mr. Chbosky tells a story I can see happening in the prep-school crowd I grew up around, but will largely be foreign to the 99%ers who know that lifestyle only through caricatures in film that were popular in the late 80’s as Hollywood hated on the rich.

Charlie, the main character, writes exquisitely in his diary that is composed of a series of letters to his probably-imaginary friend.  He’s a freshman in high school and the content of the story deals with the circle of upperclassmen who adopt him into their own clique of the rich and ostracized.   Charlie is one of several colorful, memorable, and likable characters in this one of many, many banned books.

What do these likable, memorable, and fun characters do in the story?

Well, the correct response to homophobic bullying is to commit aggravated assault in public, which is what Charlie does and that proves that he’s a good guy.
And the boy he’s defending is the boy, four years his elder who teaches him to masturbate.  That’s probably a felony as well in most states, by the way, or at least a gross misdemeanor.
All the cool kids get together to drink and do drugs, because that’s how we bond and have fun.
After Charlie nearly hospitalizes someone in an act of liberal gay-friendly tolerance, Patrick repays his friendship by taking Charlie to a park where older gay men pick up teenage boys, because that’s where Patrick goes to find happiness, where he tells Charlie every time that this time he will really be happy.  I remember being on the edge of tears because of the sad, fucked-up pain-seeking cycle of victimization that Patrick’s character accepts as completely normal.  But hey, it’s a book, so Patrick doesn’t end up HIV+, raped, kidnapped, OD’d, or dead by suicide when this nightmare of a lifestyle doesn’t pay off.

When I was a freshman in high school most of these issues existed.   I don’t have a problem with this book talking about masturbation, alcohol, sexual experimentation, bullying, homophobia (genuine homophobia here not just disapproving of a liberal position, there is physical assault on both sides of the issue in the story), drug use, dating, relationships, belonging, and the search for identity.

All of those things are pretty much issues that every teenager has to at least make a decision about, if they don’t directly encounter it.

But Chbosky presents the most amoral and horrific answer to every one of those questions that I have ever found in one place.  The answer to finding happiness as a homosexual teenager is to go park-tawling for semi-pedophiles?!?!  WTF?!?!?!  HONESTLY I was so shocked when I read this plot point, because that’s the sort of thing that I would expect the Westboro Baptist Chipmunks to falsely accuse homosexual teenagers of attempting but none of the gay guys I knew in junior and senior high school would ever have dreamed of, much less actually tried.  But this isn’t a bit of anti-gay propaganda it is placed as a sympathetic and embraced as an authentic part of Patrick’s chosen lifestyle.

Let’s just stop on that single point.  If you wouldn’t want some random stranger to tell your son or daughter that this is a normal, healthy, admirable way to seek happiness…  If you wouldn’t let one of your friends at church or your neighbors tell a story about gay-trolling for older men in parks with high school freshmen in tow…

Then you really, really need to shut up about book banning in America.

This isn’t even real book banning.  It’s restricting access of material to minors.  The books aren’t illegal.  I can’t remember any non-nut-job saying that the writers should be arrested/shot/what have you.  If you think saying “I don’t want my tax money to pay for my child to read this” is oppression, then I invite you to try and take a Bible to Cuba and see how much prison time your intellectual freedom costs you.  Any of these books is available at a book store or online for less than a week’s worth of paper-rout money.

But don’t get up in my grill about how horrible and oppressive it is for the parent of some 12-year-old boy to NOT WANT their child to have a book available or taught in class that involves having high school seniors giving children under the age of consent sex ed lessons, handing them drugs and alcohol, some of the most dangerous sexual activity a kid could EVER try short of auto-erotic asphyxia… And having this be the best and most fun time that the high school freshman has ever had…

If you would put a man in prison for handing a “how to get picked up by older gay men” pamphlet to your under-age son (and please, please put that dude in prison), don’t you dare lecture, bitch, or moan that someone protests that the message is still wrong when you take that note, put a pretty cover and a publisher’s imprint on the back, and make it into a major motion picture.  Also, by the way, what is wrong with you that pretty prose and inventive narrative style would ever, EVER make you think that book would even BE appropriate to place in a junior high kid’s reach in the first place?!?

THAT BEING SAID…

The knee-jerk reaction is just as stupid on the other side.  Some of the books on the banned book list are great, noble, worthy, and true.  Paula Danziger’s The Cat Ate my Gymsuit is another young adult story that also features a freshman character who feels ostracized, longs for a way to fit in, has an influential teacher, infrequently discusses masturbation, wants to have a boyfriend, feels insecure, and has an abusive home life.

All of those items in common with The Perks of Being a Wallflower but Mrs. Danziger addresses them with tact, respect, humor, and her own crisp and narrative voice.  I would stand up and argue for that book’s inclusion in any high school or junior high library because the same topics, nearly universally relevant to the age, are dealt with in a non-destructive, humorous, and non-felonious fashion.

That isn’t even addressing the idea that parents and communities might have more rights to determine what their children should and should not read than a teacher’s union.

My point is that banning a book is as morally repugnant as restricting whom your 14-year-old may or may not date.  It depends entirely on the object of the judgment, but the judgment needs to be made if you have any interest at all in your child’s well-being.

Liberals, you really need to stop equating people who want their kids to be safe with police states, Nazis, and the Salem witch trials.  Conservatives, you are going to have to get off your lazy butts, stop relying on Boundless and read your kids’ books yourselves.  It isn’t ever going to work or be enough to just ban a book because of WHAT it discusses.  You need to know HOW and WHY it discusses those issues before you can make an informed and respectable choice about your child’s educational options.

Both sides on this issue have a LOT of work to do before they get any respect from me at all.  I’m going to go re-read Harry Potter, the #1 series in the banned book list for the last decade.

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