WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 2022
Also, some books really have been "banned:" Today we have parsing of words.
Also, we have examination of embellishment. We have the highly useful analytical tool which is often dismissed as "semantics."
We feature a letter to the New York Times—a letter which appeared in last Sunday's print editions. The letter came from a former professor at Middle Tennessee State, though her letter arrived from Chicago.
The letter was one of eight letters that day on a single topic. Online, the letters appear beneath this pleasing headline:
The Rise in Book Bans and Censorship
The letters discussed a series of actions which don't exactly constitute "book bans" or "censorship." With that simple declaration, let today's parsing begin!
Before we look at the letter we've come to praise, let's establish a simple point. Sometimes, well-known books really have been "banned." In certain cases, no semantic embellishment is needed to state this simple point.
Some well-known books really have been "banned!" Our first example would be this—the banning of the Nabokov novel, Lolita:
Lolita was published in September 1955, as a pair of green paperbacks "swarming with typographical errors." Although the first printing of 5,000 copies sold out, there were no substantial reviews. Eventually, at the very end of 1955, Graham Greene, in the London Sunday Times, called it one of the three best books of 1955. This statement provoked a response from the London Sunday Express, whose editor John Gordon called it "the filthiest book I have ever read" and "sheer unrestrained pornography." British Customs officers were then instructed by the Home Office to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom. In December 1956, France followed suit, and the Minister of the Interior banned Lolita; the ban lasted for two years.
Despite initial trepidation, there was no official response in the U.S., and the first American edition was issued by G. P. Putnam's Sons in August 1958. The book was into a third printing within days and became the first since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks. Orville Prescott, the influential book reviewer of the New York Times, greatly disliked the book, describing it as "dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion." This review failed to influence the book's sales
So the matter unfolded. In a fairly straightforward way, the book was banned in the U.K. and in France, though not here in the U.S.
Decades earlier, Joyce's Ulysses didn't get off so easy. The book was banned here in the U.S. in a semantically straightforward way:
Written over a seven-year period from 1914 to 1921, Ulysses was serialized in the American journal The Little Review from 1918 to 1920, when the publication of the Nausicaä episode led to a prosecution for obscenity under the Comstock Act of 1873, which made it illegal to circulate materials deemed obscene in the U.S. mail. In 1919, sections of the novel also appeared in the London literary journal The Egoist, but the novel itself was banned in the United Kingdom until 1936...
The 1920 prosecution in the US was brought after The Little Review serialized a passage of the book depicting characters masturbating. Three earlier chapters had been banned by the US Post Office, but it was Secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice John S. Sumner who instigated this legal action...At the trial in 1921 the magazine was declared obscene and, as a result, Ulysses was effectively banned in the United States. Throughout the 1920s, the United States Post Office Department burned copies of the novel.
In 1932, Random House and lawyer Morris Ernst arranged to import the French edition and have a copy seized by Customs...U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that the book was not pornographic and therefore could not be obscene, a decision Stuart Gilbert called "epoch-making". The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in 1934. The U.S. thus became the first English-speaking country where the book was freely available. Although Ireland's Censorship of Publications Board never banned Ulysses, a customs loophole prevented it from being allowed into Ireland. It was first openly available in Ireland in the 1960s.
According to that account, Ulysses wasn't merely banned in the United States. Copies of the book were literally burned! That banning went all the way!
Those would be a pair of examples where books were "banned" in perfectly straightforward ways. That said, when school officials select certain books for inclusion in a school system's curriculum, are they really "banning" all other books in a semantically sensible way?
We'd have to say they are not! If they decide that Textbook A or Novel B will be part of the official curriculum, they aren't "banning" Textbooks B, C, and D or Novels X, Y and Z. Nor are they "censoring" such books in any obvious sense of the word.
Millions of books exist in the world. Only a few will be selected for inclusion in some school system's curriculum.
If a system decides to teach The Iliad, that doesn't mean that it has banned The Odyssey. But within our self-impressed liberal tribe, we love to rail about the banning of books. In this way, we goose our claim, in the same way Donald Trump does when he claims that he has been "spied" upon.
We love to discuss the banning of books. That's especially true when some group of Others have exercised a cultural judgment we ourselves don't share.
In fairness, it's a widely-known fact—these Others will never be as brilliant, as moral or as wise as we liberals instinctively are.
"Bless their hearts," we sometimes say. "On occasion, these Others may try to keep up. But they persistently fail."
More often, we turn to embellished language—to our lingo about "banning books." It makes the conduct of the Others just sound so much worse!
At this point, we return to the eight letters which appeared in Sunday's New York Times. The Times positioned them under that headline—The Rise in Book Bans and Censorship—even though it isn't clear that any of the books in question were being censored or banned in any straightforward way.
One book that plainly hasn't been "banned" is the widely-acclaimed graphic novel, Maus.
One school system did decide that the book wasn't right for their eighth-grade kids. Because the board was in Tennessee, this occasioned instant talk of the Scopes monkey trial, and at least one citation of Bumfuck County.
In these ways, our liberal tribe is very, very dumb. We were impressed when we saw the Times publish these words of dissent:
To the Editor:
Re “Tennessee Board Bans Teaching of Holocaust Novel” (news article, Jan. 29):
I’m Jewish, from New York City, and I taught at a state university serving low-income Tennessee students for 25 years. So I need to set the record straight.
Every Tennessee fifth grader is required to learn about the Holocaust. My university, with its minuscule fraction of Jewish students, has a Holocaust studies minor. We host an international Holocaust conference every two years.
To convey the magnitude of six million lost, three decades ago teachers in Whitwell, Tenn., asked their eighth-grade class to collect that many paper clips. They ended up with 30 million, sent to the school from people around the world. These are on display in the school’s Children’s Holocaust Memorial, housed in a boxcar from Germany, which may be the most riveting testament of young people working together to vow “Never again.”
People in the rural South have different cultural norms. After moving to Tennessee, I learned you don’t swear in class. But painting a state as yahoos and Holocaust deniers for rejecting cursing or nudity in one book epitomizes the very stereotype we people who study the Holocaust should always abhor.
Janet Belsky / Chicago
Our youthful analysts stopped their moping. For once, they stood and cheered.
Professor Belsky went to Penn. She then got a doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Chicago.
Along the way, she plainly picked up some cosmopolitan values.
After teaching at Lehman College, CUNY, she taught at Middle Tennessee State for more than twenty years. On that basis, she seems to have a rough idea of what she's talking about.
According to Belsky, every Tennessee fifth grader is taught about the Holocaust. Beyond that, the students in the Tennessee county under review spend two months on the Holocaust when they're in eighth grade.
Belsky's cosmopolitan values allow her to understand an amazingly basic fact. Sometimes, people in certain places or regions may have cultural values, norms or beliefs which aren't 100 percent exactly the same as Ours.
Our values will be better and wiser, of course. But Belsky offers a peculiar thought:
Trashing a region in the way we've done is very, very stupid. In Belsky's view, it also seems to fly in the face of the values we pretend to uphold.
As a general matter, the other seven letter-writers bashed the hapless book-banners in the less than thoroughly brilliant ways our self-impressed tribe prefers. Here's an example of the way we often behave despite our self-diagnosed brilliance:
To the Editor:
Re “A Disturbing Book Changed My Life,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Sunday Review, Jan. 30):
One could argue that Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” which depicts the fascism and bigotry flourishing in Poland in the 1940s, mirrors a disturbingly similar political climate, albeit to a lesser degree, in America today. Maybe that is the real reason the Tennessee school board preferred to limit this information to its young scholars...
Maybe that's the real reason why the board did what it did!
That was the letter which came right after Belsky's. Just like that, we had returned to speculating in the darkest possible way about the hidden motives of The Others, who just aren't as decent as we are.
If their values aren't exactly like ours, there must be a vry dark hidden motive! That's the way our war-inclined species has always been inclined to reason, all around the world.
Plainly, we're smarter and better.
We broadcast this attitude far and wide. In such ways, we lose elections, and with them we lose the world.
Meanwhile, there was Judy Woodruff last Friday night, with an adventure in paraphrase. Tomorrow, we'll show you the words of many other tribal icons as they too have taken this mandated trip to a tribal paradise.
The woods are lovey, dark and deep, but we liberals may not always be the people we say we are. Like other tribes, we also tend to be fairly dumb a fair amount of the time.
As with tribal groups all over the world, we tend to find it very hard to discern these obvious points.
Tomorrow: All the scripted people, where do they all come from?