Saturday, September 25, 2010

In Defense of Name-Calling

Yesterday I tweeted this:  “Which one of you pseudo Mensa teabaggers wants to tell Sherman Alexie that you’re going to take your country back?”  Almost immediately I received a response from what sounded like a reasonable woman saying she keeps an open mind, doesn’t think Sherman’s book should be banned, and by the way, Chris, why the name calling?

It sounded like a legitimate question from a legitimately concerned person, that I could not answer in a 47-word tweet.  So I directed her here.

First, a disclaimer.  I didn’t say it because Sherman’s stunningly accomplished novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, gets challenged and banned in “conservative” communities with chilling regularity because of realistic language, a hilarious masturbation scene and a mirthfully scathing indictment of the difficulties of a young outsider finding his way through institutional racism.  I said it because Sherman is a member of the only group in our country who can legitimately lay claim to taking their country back.

I admit using the term pseudo Mensa teabaggers is indeed name-calling. I admit I meant it to be.  I did it because the tea party is better at name-calling than anyone in the business, and they do it without actually using the names.  They carry posters of our president with a Hitler moustache, or looking like a monkey.  (And yes, I know there were plenty of pictures of W looking like a monkey, and those were also inappropriate, but anyone who doesn’t know the racial aspect of doing that to a black man as opposed to doing it to a white man, has been listening to way too much Dr. Laura.)  They have so many code words for folks of different races or (avowed) sexual preferences or political beliefs than their own, they could publish an alternative thesaurus that would end up on the NY Times bestseller list.   

But my name-calling was tongue in cheek; throwaway.  My point was that, whether my Twitter follower considers herself a part of it or not, she is represented by “leaders” who are simply not very smart, in the sense of having information or even wanting information.  Sarah Palin will say anything.  Well, almost anything.  She won’t say anything of substance, backed by fact and she won’t put herself in the position of being challenged by anyone to the left of Fox Entertainment.  Glen Beck is literally too dumb to insult, to paraphrase a line from “The Hangover.”  Those two, along with Jim Demint, Michelle Bachman and Dick Armey are the daily faces of the tea party.  Twitter lady, they represent you. As levelheaded as you might be, if you decide you are a member of that group, that is your identity.   And if you are a Republican in this country, they are the folks dragging you to the right.  They are not you.  They are the folks dragging you to the right.

I’m in Chicago today, hosting the American Library Association’s Great Chicago Readout, kicking off our celebration of Banned Books Week with authors of some of the top ten banned books of 2010.  I look over the list of reasons for the challenges and bannings: religious perspective, homosexual content, sexual content, offensive language, suicide.  Human things.  Things the people who want to “take our country back” don’t want kids to talk about; human things the “conservative right” doesn’t think should be part of human education.  Wow.

If I’m speaking to any tea party members today it will be saying “excuse me” as I politely move through their picket line.  (That’s facetious; it’s a little cloudy and windy in Chicago today, too inclimate for them to come out and stand up for their “Christian” principles.  That’s facetious, too.)

But see, it’s those “Christian” principals I have such an issue with, because those principles are anti-freedom and it ain’t s’posed to be that way.  There will be a lot of Christians in the audience and they don’t need quotation marks around their name because many of them will also be true patriots.  They understand the reason the founders used specific language in the Constitution to separate church and state.  They understand the complexity – and the intimacy – of spiritual belief, and know why it is personal and not to be included in the making of democratic law for all men and women.  They understand equality.

The Glen Becks and Sarah Palins of the world are not Christians; they’re “Christians.”  They hide behind bastardized versions of scripture to make money and get cheap attention and gather a following of people who don’t want to take the time to truly understand the complexity of freedom.  They’re a bad reality show.  My hope – and my belief – is that they’ll have a relatively short shelf life.  It’s fun to be nasty and mean and dismissive toward people who are not like you, but eventually the thrill of that meanness gets old and more and more of your followers discover you aren’t there for them – you’re there for your own celebrity.  Eventually they’ll walk away and you’ll be crying like a third grader who’s best friend just found a new best friend.

Since September 11, 2001 I’ve heard over and over, in reference to our two wars, “Freedom isn’t free.”  That’s not just true about war.  It’s also true about everyday life in a real democracy.  If you don’t have the courage to bring out the tough issues, debate and explore and learn, and invite your free countrymen to do the same, then maybe you don’t have the heart to live in a free country.  You can continue to live here, however, because it is a free country, where you can choose to be lazy and under-informed and hold your discussions in sound bites with your like-minded friends. 

My conservative father went to war to be sure you could do that.  (My conservative father would also have run a nail through his eye before allowing children to be barred from information that would make them understand their world, and he was a school board member from the time my older brother entered the first grade until my younger sister graduated from high school.He also went to war for my right to call you names when I’m feeling tired and lazy and just want the cheap, good feeling one gets doing just that.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

My humble Opinion about Humble

Recently the annual book festival held in Humble, Texas, a posh Houston suburb, had to be canceled because the Superintendent of Schools "disinvited" bestselling author Ellen Hopkins after a small number of parents and a librarian warned him of questionable content in her books.  The majority of authors who had also been invited to the festival, "disinvited" themselves and the festival was no more.  I was not a part of any of that.  To be disinvited, you have to first be invited.  But I did spend some time on a blog discussing with other YA authors, our thoughts about the incident.  Many were authors who had gone through what Ellen went through or who had found themselves in a situation where one of their number was censored.  When asked, I simply said that if another author gets bleeped from a conference because of language or content of his or her stories, I pull out.  Policy.  Far better writers than I came into the discussion on both sides.  Some said boycott, others said, go and talk about it; we don't want to cheat the kids out of the experience of meeting and talking with authors they admire.  As my cats often say to me, that gave me, pause.  I don't like cheating kids out of anything.

But the authors aren't cheating the kids.  The Superintendent is cheating the kids.  Blaming the authors is like blaming the fearful young wife for bashing her face into her abusive husband's fist.  This might well be a time for those kids to have an experience that is a whole lot more fulfilling than meeting their favorite wordsmith.  This could be a time for them to stand up and feel empowered; to write letters to the editor, and picket, and demand answers to why a few ideologues, who are not educators, by the way, get to decide for everyone that they shouldn't see and hear Ellen Hopkins talk about writing books to which many of them connect.  And it's time for the people who put that festival together (I've been there, they are an exemplary group of people; it takes major time and energy to organize a festival that is so well run) to stand up and challenge those few loud parents and that superintendent to a verbal dual.  "How many contemporary books have you read?  How many kids have you stood before, trying every creative trick you know to get them involved?  How many stories have you looked for that will tickle those students' imaginations and get them reading and writing and discussing.  How dare you put your philosophy ahead of our humanity.  And our professionalism.

The conservative (read Christian) right is stealing the careers of our most creative educators.  That's how kids are getting cheated; by having their best mentors crippled.  The best teachers and librarians don't go into their profession to be conduits of propaganda.  They go into education to help students discover.  It is, in my opinion, incumbent on administrators to create a safe haven for that discovery.

I guess I think that the folks who believe in the First Amendment, who understand why it's there and why it's the first one, need to be as aggressive as those who believe that amendment was written only for their free expression.