Saturday, November 05, 2005

Dirty Words

Back in September a woman in a town near here called DeBary was incensed that her 11th grade daughter was reading a book called Cracking India, a novel by the Pakistani writer and Houston transplant Bapsi Sidhwa. The novel is an adolescent girl’s view of the dismemberment of Pakistan from India in 1947 and the ensuing bloodletting. Those parts didn’t bother the mother’s sensibilities. (Foreign-born violence tends to leave Americans bored. Domestic violence entertains them.) But the part where a boy suggests oral sex to the heroine did bother her very much, as did parts where the heroine fantasizes about sex. (Diane Ravich in The Language Police lists some of the topics that, according to “bias guidelines,” test writers must avoid “unless they are directly relevant to the curriculum.” Oral sex doesn’t make the list, but these topics do: abortion, “creatures that are thought to be scary or dirty, like scorpions, rats, and roaches,” death and disease, evolution, “expensive consumer goods,” unemployment, weapons and violence—in other words just about any subject fit to print in a newspaper.) No problem there. Finding something offensive is anybody's liberty. You can always close the book. Our schools go as far as giving parents the right to demand that their own children's books be closed on demand, if they find a particular title objectionable. The demand just shouldn't turn into an edict affecting everyone else. Our DeBary mother disagreed. Cracking India was assigned in an International Baccalaureate English class her daughter is taking at a local high school. Her mother wanted the book off the shelves of the local school district. When the story broke in September I lucked into a phone conversation with Sidhwa the day before she was due to leave for India to launch an anthology of her work. Cracking India, she said, has never drawn even a hint of controversy, here or abroad. What about Pakistan’s mullahs, I asked her. Not even from them, she said, though the book was published only in English in Pakistan, which may have limited its exposure to mullahs and madrassas. Until The Mother From DeBarry.

It isn’t possible these days to just tell a parent to close a book she doesn’t like and let others be. Committees must be created, pages parsed, the issue given its proper weight, no matter how weightless or vacuous. The school district set up a committee of no less than twenty-four people (teachers, parents, school administrators and "community representatives" who usually make up such thought-policing panels) to review the book and recommend the next step to the school superintendent. This week it did so, declaring the book, by a 22-2 vote, “not harmful to minors.” Not a bad tally. Pending the superintendent ratifying the vote, the book stays. The dissenter included a minister who worries that “there’s a bunch of evils my kids have to face out there” in the world, and those evils “shouldn’t be in the classroom.” As far as the classroom is concerned of course there are few greater evils than narrow-minded reading lists, mediocre teachers and fear of controversy, all three of which dominate the curriculum and infest classrooms when standardized testing doesn’t. And for all the porn in the world, I’ll never figure out why our Wahhabite reverends and their moralizing legions, whose mentalities control our polity even if they don’t yet control our reading committees, can find offense in one kind of pornography while finding another sort perfectly acceptable, even desirable. I’ll take the bare beavers over egesting B-52s any day. A little honesty, please. Where’s George Carlin when you need him? Apparently finishing up the 150 live performances that’ll lead up to his thirteenth HBO special tomorrow, live from Manhattan’s Upper West Side’s Beacon Theater: on tap for his laugh track, says the Times: “beheadings in Iraq, natural disasters (he doesn’t mention Katrina but doesn’t have to), genocide, human sacrifice (‘I miss that,’ he said from the stage), suicide, autoerotic asphyxiation and necrophilia.” Finally a little fresh air in our overregulated (and worse, self-regulated) discourse.