Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Revolting Reading!

Today, when I asked a group of middle school students why they thought books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian had been banned, one student said it was probably because “they tell the truth.”
I love my job. Especially during Banned Books Week.
My first interaction with the banning of books was through the baseball movie, “Field of Dreams.” Amy Madigan and Kevin Costner go to a school board meeting where the Iowa townspeople are, as Madigan’s character Annie says, “talking about banning books again! Really subversive books, like ‘The Wizard of Oz’... ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’...”
I always thought that those particular books were hyperbolic examples, but it turns out, both have been challenged and banned at various times. The Diary of a Young Girl was challenged earlier this year in Michigan because some parents found the unedited descriptions of a girl going through puberty to be “pornographic.” This irritates me to no end—the hushing up of the messy corporeal reality of being human, adding a strange level of shame towards the normal bodily development of a person, of a teenage girl who is remarkably reassuring in her honest addressing of the confusion of growing up.
Otto Frank didn’t want those parts of his daughter’s diary published and edited them out of the first editions of the diary. Also the bits about Anne’s rocky relationship with her mother were taken out. It seemed too personal to him. In that light, I lean towards censorship, towards a parent protecting the privacy of their child, the public image of someone who did not survive to tell us how she feels about her teenage scribbles being shared throughout the world. Barring her voice, respecting her father’s wishes seems respectful.
But, I don’t know, really. I like honesty, and I like privacy.
Questions like this is what I really savor about Banned Books Week. Not that we get to point and accuse and judge different groups who believe different things, but that we have a chance to examine the merits of a pushed envelope and to explore our own preferences and choices. I like that people have deep enough values that they’ll make something of a passionate ass of themselves to try to get Harry Potter or Julie of the Wolves banned, although I do wish that these same people could expand their worldview a tetch and see more good than harm in such works. The whole idea of banning and censorship gets into ethics, and what sort of world we want to live in, want to build. This conversation, under any cover, makes me as happy as a pig in shit (or a librarian in Banned Books Week.)
Let’s take Anne Frank. Her descriptions of going through puberty are (presumably) honest observations and explorations of the fact that her body is exploding and changing, even as her life remains hidden and static. The sticking point is how normal she is—that there is something eternal and companionable in her way of being. That is part of the power of the whole diary. We read her diary, visit her life, and try to extrapolate it out over six million to understand the human weight of persecution, of war, of living with fear, under a repressive regime.
It is the quintessential “there but for the grace of God go I” book.
Oh fuck. Now I’ve gone and mentioned God. That’s another touchy subject this time of year. Because if a book isn’t being banned for pornographic reasons, it’s usually somehow either too religious—like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books—or not religious enough—like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Or you get something really tricky like Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time that manages to—variously and allegedly—promote witchcraft, be too Christian, and also bother some religious conservatives with the sci-fi aspect. 
Goodness. What nasty books, putting ideas like kindness, questioning authority, and exploring the world into the minds of readers!
I don’t like to argue, but I love to question answers far more than answer questions. I like knowing why the books were challenged. One of the reasons that both Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye have been found questionable is because of their derogatory statements about and portrayals of women. Certainly, that evidence is there in both those books (and a lot of others.) But less so, I think, than the unsubtle misogyny in an average twenty minutes of television. Besides, what either of those books offer is worth far more—to me—than whatever offense they also give.
Life, as we all know, is messy and all the unknowns are hugely frightening. I suppose I understand the sort of fear and hunger to protect children from all the mess that drives people—mostly parents—to challenge books in school districts and public libraries. However, removing Anne Frank from seventh-grade curriculums will not stop puberty from happening to all those kids. Banning books that dance even lightly around homosexuality will not stop people from living “alternative lifestyles,” as the Merrimack, NH school district termed it when banning Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 1996. Keeping Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Maya Angelou, Jean Craighead George, Alice Walker, and Sherman Alexie off bookshelves will not eradicate racism, sexual violence, or classism. Jay Asher and John Green do not cause or glamorize teenage suicide or substance abuse in their books—I think they just deal honesty with the realities of being a teenager, which is pretty fraught and shitty at times, and for many does involve death, sex, and illicit substances. Getting rid of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series will do nothing to curb the tide of elementary school potty humor.
Books are, like dreams, artifacts and articulations of our past and our present. They are not prophesies of the future. If, in reading Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, people are disturbed by the repressive violence of the Iranian Revolution, I believe the answer is to educate more, act on and work for peace, justice and freedom, not ban the book as the Chicago Public Schools did in 2013. We need to stop shooting these wordy messengers, and look at the lives we lead outside the pages.
We cannot pretend that the pieces of life we do not like and do not agree with are nonexistent. We will not change the world for the better by remaining still and silent, by banning books that make us ethically uncomfortable. Ask Anne Frank what happens when the world remains still and silent, when censorship is accepted and freedom of expression ignored. We change by learning to ask questions, to expand perspectives, to juggle truths. Nothing is as powerful as the truth.
And, in that, nothing is more subversive and revolutionary.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Lessons From a Party of Whales

Here we have some whales, all dressed up and ready to party. They are, from the pages of Vanity Fair in 1861, celebrating that the world is tilting towards running on fossil fuel, rather than whale oil. 

Huzzah! Down with the harpoons and up with the oil derricks! For whales, this is awesome.
For the rest of the world, well, I can only hope that no one knew where fossil fuel extraction and reliance would get us a hundred and fifty odd years later.

We get stuck, too often, in thinking that how things are is how they always have been and how they always must be. The world was once peppered with wooden sailing ships full of barrels of whale oil. At present, we’re thick with oil tankers, trains, and trucks. I believe those infrastructures are phasing out—I throw something like the whale’s party whenever I see solar panels. Mostly, this involves grinning as another piece of grim despair evaporate from my heart. The world can change, will change, is changing.

In all the changes and transmogrifications, I feel we are getting closer to understanding what and who is behind the curtain. The clearer we know this, the less our lives and actions for a better world become random shots of hope in the dark, and the more effective we become at building the world we want to see, that we know in our hearts is possible, is real.

One of my favorite professors in grad school was endearingly fond of explaining the root of a wide variety of world troubles—from migrant children’s health problems to monopolies among food suppliers—was “because Capitalism never sleeps!”

I don’t believe she is wrong, and have certainly taken to brandishing the phrase while I pound my fists on tables and revel in attempts at revolution.

All melodramatically serious joking aside, some corporation making money at the expense of the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness does seem to be at the root of many of the world’s troubles. Why, really, are coal plants shutting down?

Because fracking and natural gas is cheaper than upgrading old infrastructure to new environmental standards.

This is the same switching dinosaurs for whales—trading one destructive form of energy for another—and someone is making money off the killing of the planet. It’s not that I don’t delight in the approaching end of coal, or towns like South Portland, Maine soundly rejecting a tar sands pipeline through their homeplace. I love all of that the same way I do solar panels and CSAs.

But this isn’t against one or another form of dirty energy, or even, really, a fight against corporations that value their bank accounts over all else. It is a fight that is resoundingly for something we don’t quite have the words for yet. Fighting for, pulling together towards the better unknown, this is what we are doing.

I like to think of all the efforts of people trying to and succeeding at doing good in the world as tree roots converging and thickening into a trunk, the little trickles of streams joining into rivers and oceans. The more small battles and old causes are fought and won and put aside, the more ages of whales and fossil fuels can be celebrated as over, the more focus and force comes into the adventure of what comes next.

We are, I believe, too smart and too wearied by the mistakes of history to believe in one single silver bullet solution to anything anymore. What comes next will be strange and diverse and multifaceted—there are so many good things to be done to live into better, cleaner, kinder ways of being. Some might say it will be complex, but I believe that the doing of the many right things to live well among each other on this still beautiful planet has the potential to be the simplest and most joyful acts we've ever undertaken as a species. 

We’ve got that going for us too. I had three high school students talk to me this week about going to the People’s Climate March happening this weekend. I am as delighted that they are going as I am with my own choice to be a witness elsewhere for a branch of the future I want to see—solutions are in everything we do. And, to know that none of us are alone in remaking the world in a kinder and saner fashion is where the trickles seem to come into a wider river, with the delight and relief and celebration of the whales at the dawn of a new era. Along with the growing clarity, we’ve got a marked increase in joyful momentum.

This is our most sustainable fuel source.