LESSON PLAN: My full scale attack on censorship

“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”          

John Milton

“The Areopagitica”

The thought police are at it again. Throughout the course of US history, they have emerged  during periods of hyper emotionalism, ignorance and paranoia in their frenzied quest to dictate what books, movies or music is permissible for others. The current obsession seems to be with some novels penned by Nobel Prize winner Tony Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye seems to top the list of items that draw the ire of the munchkins of the contemporary far right, those who lack the discipline and acumen to  attempt learning anything of consequence but who treasure their ignorance and have shown themselves eager to defend it violently when they fail, like impudent children, to get their own way. The Bluest Eye tells the story of a young girl’s tragic victimization involving racism, alcoholism, rape and incest.

In the course of my nearly forty years as a classroom teacher, I served for 34 in the English and social studies departments of my old alma mater in Ashland, Ohio, a quiet, conservative college town of perhaps 21,000 citizens. For years, one of my assignments was a course bearing the designation Contemporary Fiction.  It was generally a popular class that attracted students of nearly all levels of ability. Assigned texts included Ray Bradbury’s dystopian sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451.

Fahrenheit 451 depicts  a future society whose citizens are basically forbidden to think about anything that isn’t trifling and trivial, a nightmare world approximating that of The Stepford Wives. All of this is enforced by an oppressive government fostering a shallow, saccharine concept of happiness upon a simpering, spiritually toxic citizenry. Special government enforcers called Firemen are dispatched to burn the books of any rebels. The population is addicted to round the clock television and brief sound bites that trivialize complex issues and realities.

In order to deal with the subject of censorship in a more concrete manner, I decided early on to round up as many books as I could find that someone somewhere had attempted, with varying degrees of success, to ban. I came up with a large collection. I would set up two tables in the front of the room and spend perhaps two periods explaining why certain groups at certain times had attempted to ban them. The display included the Holy Bible, the Koran, Huckleberry Finn,  John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, The Diary of Anne Frank, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, All Quiet on The Western Front, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, The Communist Manifesto, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Margaret Sanger’s My Fight for Birth Control, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

Most objections seemed to center around profanity and references to human sexuality. Some were humorous, like E.B. White’s children’s book Charlotte’s Web, removed from one school library because a fundamentalist sect argued that animals do not talk in the Bible. They should have read Numbers 22:21-39, the incident involving Balaam’s unfortunate donkey. In another case, some angry parents insisted that a children’s book entitled Rolling Harvey Down the Hill be removed from an elementary school library because it made fun of fat people.

In the course of my research, I learned that Voltaire’s Candide was once banned by the Roman Catholic Church and that 500 copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses was once confiscated and burned by the US Postal Service.

I never received any criticism from parents or administrators with regard to the way I taught the course. The response could very well be different in today’s much more toxic climate. Still, I would conduct my censorship unit in the exact same way. 

Book censorship is doomed to failure. Mark Twain said it best when he received news that Huck Finn had been banned from one library, “They (the Concord, Mass. Library) have expelled Huck from their library as ‘Trash and suitable only for the slums.’ That will sell 25,000 copies for us sure.”

In 1956, when author Grace Metalious’s novel Peyton Place first hit the newsstands it was widely condemned. The story stripped away small town hypocrisy and pretense and exposed to the light of day the dark beings fleeing from the light. To add insult to injury, it is a tale that includes such forbidden subjects as incest, rape, adultery and abortion. The book was, according to a popular song at the time, “Banned in Boston, Condemned in Cleveland and Banished in Buffalo.”

Of course, every kid had a copy. Stand the paperback up on its spine and it would immediately fall open to all the “good” parts. I read it cover to cover in my parents’ living room. They may have been relieved to see me reading something other than my monthly copy of Field and Stream.

Today, books by black and minority authors or books involving any reference to sexuality are most likely to earn the ire of the book banners. Someone, perhaps a local wag, demanded the removal of the Holy Bible from the Keller, Texas school library, as it contains references to murder, sexuality, violence, rape, human sacrifice, misogyny, homophobia and discrimination of numerous kinds. Apparently, the local politicos complied.

One target of contemporary book banners seems to be anything smacking of so-called critical race theory, a term repeatedly blathered by many but which seems to have no recognizable definition other than to replace history with a pack of lies regarding slavery, racism and our record of genocidal practices directed at Native Americans.

The book banners currently take aim at books that might cause a reader to think, terrified as much by thought itself as by the books that might encourage it. That is why there is such a widespread effort to diminish the role of critical thinking skills. As my fellow correspondent Frederic Mittag has observed, retarding developmental critical thinking skills is a form of child abuse.

At this time in our nation’s history, one can easily empathize with St. Augustine when he received word that Rome had been sacked  by the barbarians. His world was vanishing, and he had little confidence in what might replace it. Today, our own world teeters on the edge of ruin. We do have some idea of what dark and perverse society may replace it. What Churchill once condemned as “The odious apparatus of Nazi rule” has reared its ugly head once again and threatens all that is civilized and good, to which the slavering hordes of latter day brown shirts  who desecrated and befouled the U.S Capitol on January 6, 2021 so blatantly attest. This past week, an armed mob entered an Idaho library and demanded the removal of 400 books, including some that the library did not even have. This time the barbarians are not at the gates but walk among us.  

For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com

Lorin Swinehart
Latest posts by Lorin Swinehart (see all)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *