Brave new book banning

Author Peter Stark will read from his new book, "Astoria," at Town Hall and Third Place Books. Credit: oblongbooks.com

On KUOW this past week, the Friday news roundtable took up the topic of a proposed “suspension” in Seattle Schools of the book Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The members of the news panel, consisting of me, Joni Balter of the Seattle Times and Eli Sanders of The Stranger, were quick to call the ban absurd. I would expect no less from any panel of journalists. It’s like poking a stick in a bee hive.

Calling to give her perspective on the situation was Melissa Westbrook, who writes regularly on the Save Seattle Schools blog. She said that the effort was not a ban, but an attempt to suspend the book from the district’s high school curriculum until teachers received better instruction on how to teach the book. This was an issue of “professional development.”(How come every schools debate turns into how to spend more money teaching teachers to be teachers? Aren’t they supposed to know this stuff when they’re hired?)

The panel took exception to Westbrook’s characterization; she objected, and later wrote about the radio debate on the blog. She began by stating categorically that no “ban” was being requested: “What this situation in Seattle Public Schools and its use of Brave New World is NOT about is banning a book. That one word is so loaded and has been used over and over and it’s just not true.” Her view: it’s a “suspension,” not a ban.

I said on air that this incident was a case of political correctness getting a hearing. Westbrook says no, anyone can follow the proper steps to challenge books in the district, and that was being done in this case. In other words, anyone with an objection has the right to a hearing, PC or not PC. True, but my point was that the objection to Brave New World in this case is based on complaints by a Native American student and her mother who were offended by references Huxley made to characters who live on reservations as “savages.” And this gets to the heart of the offense. Let’s turn to a story by KIRO FM’s Linda Thomas:

Sarah Sense-Wilson’s daughter was required to read the novel for a class at Nathan Hale. She is Native American, and her heart started to sink as she turned the pages to find more than 30 references to “savage natives.”

“She was very upset and she said, ‘Mom I need to tell you something, but I don’t want you to get mad. There’s a book I have to read in my class and it portrays Indian people as being savages and living on reservations,'” Sense-Wilson says.

She tried to read the book for herself.

“I was outraged when I read through the book. I had to keep putting it down because it was so hurtful,” says Sense-Wilson. “It was traumatizing to read how Indian people were being depicted.”

The text has a “high volume of racially offensive derogatory language and misinformation on Native Americans. In addition to the inaccurate imagery, and stereotype views, the text lacks literary value which is relevant to today’s contemporary multicultural society,” she wrote in a complaint earlier this year to Nathan Hale and district administrators….

The chair of the language arts department, Shannon Conner, defended the merits of the book calling it a “superb warning book about our future. Huxley cautions his future readers from becoming too reliant on, and compliant with, technology.” But at the same time, the high school apologized and determined that the “cultural insensitivity embedded in this book makes it an inappropriate choice as a central text in our 10th grade curriculum.”

They are no longer using the book. Sense-Wilson says she’s “proud of” the way Nathan Hale has responded.

So, Nathan Hale has dropped the book under pressure and for reasons of racial insensitivity, “apologizing” for teaching it in the first place. Now mother and child hope the district will see the light system-wide and ban the book until anyone who might choose to teach it is properly educated, or re-educated.

Look, anyway you cut it, this is a ban, by Hale at least and possibly district-wide. But ban is a dirty word, so banners are dropping the term in favor of “suspensions” and offering educators and school board’s a coward’s way out: stigmatize a book, suspend its use until more teacher training is done, and move on to less controversial books. Even if the book comes back to the classrooms at some future point, much is lost in the interim as students might never read it during the months or years it is “suspended,” and teachers might not want the headache.

Seattle isn’t the only place where this non-“ban” is being tried with Brave New World. In Maryland, there’s a current effort to “suspend” the book in a high school because of its sexual content. Some parents want the book removed from the school’s reading list because they believe it is essentially pornography. Huxley’s book does talk about sex and orgies, but by any modern standard, these passages are mild and largely satiric. They are also, like the racial characterizations, in the context of a book outlining a dystopian future: the world as it should not be.

Satirists and novelists frequently use gross stereotypes to make their points. Such context is usually lost on upset parents and students. But regardless of Huxley’s race views or any 1930s’ sensitivity or lack of it, the only motivating factor here is the readers’ (or readers’ parents) sense of insult. (My high school intelligence was insulted by behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s utopian Walden II, but I merely threw it across the room; I defend the right of individuals to destroy their own personal property.)

But here’s the part of the Maryland case that sounds awfully familiar. Said one of the Maryland parents who wants to get rid of Brave New World: “I’m not trying to ban the book… All we’re doing is we’re saying, ‘Take curriculum that’s more appropriate and use that to teach.’ “

We’re not going to burn anything. We’ll just smother it under a blanket of fear and bureaucracy.

Sounds pretty Brave New World-like, which makes me think the book is better than I realized in school. Huxley imagined a world of genetically engineered, pharmaceutically controlled drones who wouldn’t know much about books and literature, or anything unsanctioned, save consumerism and sensuality. The idea wasn’t to ban books, but make them irrelevant, to suspend any interest or engagement with them (and much else). 

We’re already well on our way to that world. Banning, er, suspending, classic works like this (it’s #87 on the BBC’s top 100 novels list) only moves us farther down that path. And saying that a ban isn’t a ban is, well, it’s so 1984. These are books that don’t just offend minority or moralist sensibilities, they will offend almost every free-thinking American’s, decades after they were written.

Which is one reason why they’re great books.

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