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Front Page » Opinion » When Grocery Buying Becomes Literary Litmus Test Beware

When Grocery Buying Becomes Literary Litmus Test Beware

Written by on September 7, 2006

Miami-Dade County school officials, who already are wasting money in court in defense of an indefensible ban of a children’s book for failing to paint the Castro regime as sufficiently evil, have just dumped a second book for the same reason.

One offense: The book depicts a child in Cuba buying groceries.

If that doesn’t seem like a vital reason to banish a book, you’re not plugged in. The politically correct view is that Cubans aren’t free to buy groceries. "There’s no such thing as going to Publix," the mother who filed a complaint that got the book banned was quoted as saying.

She’s right. Publix hasn’t opened in Havana. Food is controlled. Cubans are kept in check by the regime, able to buy only what and when the government allows.

But couldn’t a child in Cuba ever, even once, obtain food at a store? Even if not, we’d never ban a book about the US that showed an improbability. But Cuba is different. Anything that might depict anything but horrors is verboten.

You can sympathize with the decades-long pain of those involved, but not with how they replicate Castro’s authoritarianism in the name of freedom.

However, because the future of Cuba is the most debated civic issue here, it’s easy to assume that fanaticism about what people may read is a Cuban-American monopoly. Sadly, as reference sources show, it isn’t.

Roman emperor Caligula was an early foe of politically incorrect views. In 387 BC, he tried to suppress "The Odyssey" by Homer because it expressed the Greek ideal of freedom.

China banned "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll because the author wrote of animals using human language — though the White Rabbit did no carrot shopping.

Closer to home, US schools have banned hundreds of now-respected books. Usually the ban has been short-lived, the work of well-meaning people trying to force their views on everyone else.

Jackson County, FL, banned George Orwell’s "1984." Mark Twain’s "Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" have been banned over and over, often for depicting two races together. Aldous Huxley’s "Brave New World" was removed from classrooms in Miller, MO, for negativity. "Gone With the Wind" has been bounced, too.

Today, we laugh at those efforts to ensure politically correct thinking. How, we ask — ignoring the Miami examples — could anyone do it?

The district school administrator in Wild Rose, WI, removed Dee Brown’s "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" because it was, he said, "slanted." His rationale: "If there’s a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it?" If so, to judge from the somehow-controversial nature of a child buying groceries, about every book in print ought to be removed.

Of course, what’s controversial in one era may be applauded in another. Four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee in 1983 called for rejection of "A Doll’s House" by Henrik Ibsen on grounds that it propagates feminist views. That alone might get the book assigned in hundreds of classrooms today.

On the other hand, some old quests return to vogue. A textbook called "Earth Science" was challenged in Plymouth-Canton, MI, 19 years ago for teaching evolution and not creationism. The current political climate has brought this one back.

Also topical might be the 1989 challenge at the Wichita, KA, public library of "The Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdie on grounds that it was "blasphemous to the prophet Mohammad."

We can be thankful Miami has only one standard for banning books: views of the Cuban regime. Pity cities with multiple hangups. It took nine months of debate in Oakland, CA, to get school-board approval of Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker. The objections: "troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history and human sexuality." That’s a lot for even a Pulitzer winner to overcome.

Man’s relationship to God is, in fact, a frequent concern in schools. The active Plymouth-Canton book-banners challenged "Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings by D.T. Suzuki" because "this book contains the teachings of the religion of Buddhism in such a way that the reader could very well embrace its teachings and choose this as his religion." Pray tell, just which religious choice should the school system favor instead?

More frequently, however, the concern is that a book offends an ethnic group, as books here offend some Cuban-Americans.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s "Little House on the Prairie" was challenged in a Louisiana elementary school because it was "offensive to Indians." The same happened in far-off Sturgis, SD.

But non-ethnic groups also take umbrage and seek to keep innocent youngsters from being misled. In the Laytonville, CA, United School District, "The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss was challenged for barking up the wrong tree and "criminalizing the foresting industry." Is nothing sacred?

There’s no doubt that books can influence youngsters. I can think of many that influenced me. So, probably, can you. Other books I read later altered some of those influences. That’s how we learn.

Who’s going to decide which influences are legitimate? Our Constitution says it’s the reader, not the book-banners, however well-intentioned they may be. Personally, I think the foresting industry might need a bit of scrutiny.

In the end, most book-banners wind up looking as odd as this list when they bitch about things that to most of us seem quite innocuous, like a child buying groceries.

Oh, speaking of bitch, use of the word to refer to a female dog got the classic children’s horse story "My Friend Flicka" banned in Clay County, FL, schools. We don’t look any worse than that — but it’s closer to home.