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Jewish World Review Sept. 9, 1999/ 28 Elul, 5759

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Selective censorship -- "IN THE FIRST PLACE, G-d made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards." Pudd'nhead Wilson, a.k.a Mark Twain, could hardly have known in 1897 when he issued his wry observation that the Mesa Unified School District would cancel a junior high production of his Tom Sawyer because of narrow-minded fussbudgets immersed in the "I am offended, therefore I am" era. The shocking Twain content: Injun Joe carries a knife (an Indian (now Native- American) in the 19th century with a knife?), Becky Thatcher and Aunt Polly have "extremely feminine characteristics"(horrors!), a constable is described as a "redneck," (No medium has portrayed them otherwise since Smokey and the Bandit or maybe since Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night) and boys with feminine characteristics are called a "sissy" ( "Wimp" anyone?).

The district added its own reasons finding the following words and phrases objectionable: "hellfire," "Kingdom of Heaven." and "Christian name."

To add insult to injury, somewhere in the little play, a hymn made its way into the score. Can the end of civilization be far behind when school present plays of American classics? Schools should stick to content-neutral works such as Heather Has Two Mommies.

The juxtaposition of the Mesa School District's veto with materials from the Terre Haute, Indiana area on junior high books there was pure social commentary. In the Vigo County School District, parents objected to several books on the junior high reading list. For example, The Pigman by Paul Zindel contains this literary inspiration, "I used to really hate school when I first started at Franklin High. I hated it so much the first year they called me the Bathroom Bomber. . . . They called me that because I used to set off bombs in the bathroom. I set off twenty-three bombs before I didn't feel like doing it anymore." The sissy.

Or, for tips on heists, young Indiana readers have The Coats by Brock Cole, "‘You find some store like K Mart or Woolworth's,'" he was saying, "then you look around for some wastebaskets outside. Act like you're looking for cans or bottles, but what you really want is a bag from the store with a receipt in it. There are always some around. People buy something they want to use right away, and they throw away the bag, and they forget about the receipt that was stuck inside.'" It was a complicated plan. It involved stealing items from the store and trying to exchange them for money using the receipt." Hope a redneck sheriff isn't near the store.

For ninth graders there is the special treat of Maya Angelou's (our president's favorite poet) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, complete with this description of child molestation, "I didn't want to touch that mushy-hard thing again." "His legs were squeezing my waist. ‘Pull down your drawers.'" "‘If you scream, I'm gonna kill you." and "Then there was the pain. A breaking and entering even when the senses are torn part. The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can't. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot." Could Shakespeare have phrased it any better?

The last three examples are literature in the sense that National Enquirer reports on Pamela Lee are. This is trash that plants the destructive seeds of violence, theft and sexual perversion in the still malleable minds of children. Yet when parents in the Vigo School district raised objections to the books they were met with vitriolic editorials in the Tribune-Star that called them bullies and "manipulative troublemakers," complete with religious overtones (Tsk! Tsk!) in describing those objecting as school board member "May and his disciples."

A few complaints about a play based on a classic piece of American literature and Tom et al.are banished without hearing or input. But let a parent object to sexually explicit materials or books touting criminal conduct (that also happen to be poorly written) and the parents are demonized as part of the vast right-wing book censors.

Tom Sawyer was tanked for PC shallowness: Just because it happened doesn't mean we have to study it. Apparently pedophilia is a big footnote to this line of reasoning. When parents raise moral issues, school boards are slaves (sorry) to rules, process, motion and public hearings. When Mark Twain rears his racist, sexist, Christian head, swift unilateral action is not a problem.

The parents who worry that Mark Twain will breed stereotypes are the same folks who let their junior high children watch Pleasantville, a movie in which folks of virtue were depicted as moronic automatons. And they have no concerns about Austin Powers and his obsession with shagging or their children wearing shirts with his hobby emblazoned front and back. As in all censorship battles, the goal is not virtue, it is selective filtering. It is the control of truth they seek, and the glorification of vice. History happens. Literature inspires progress.

These parents prefer that their children not know the content of either. I'd like to dress up like Dolly Levi, gather these sissies together in the school cafeteria, mandate tags with their Christian names and make them sing a hymn.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments to her by clicking here.


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©1999, Marianne M. Jennings