Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning

Here's three takes on an old folk/blues song, "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning." First up, Blind Willie Johnson:

Next, Reverend Pearly Brown and Mrs. Christine Brown:

Lastly, Red Molly:

Eclectic Jukebox

Monday, September 27, 2010

Banned Books Week 2010

Banned Books Week 2010 started this past Saturday and ends on Saturday, October 2nd. You can get more information about local events and suggested activities here and here (this year's press kit is pictured above). You can also check in with your local library. (Update: Per request, here's the page for downloading the press kit. The direct PDF link is here.)

My archive on banned books is here. If you write a post celebrating Banned Books Week or intellectual freedom, write me an e-mail or leave a comment below, and I'll include it in the roundup at the bottom.

The American Library Association helpfully explains "What's the difference between a challenge and a banning?":

A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. Due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection.

These are important distinctions. There's nothing wrong with criticizing a book on aesthetic or other grounds, but it's quite another thing to try to deny other people the right to read it. Parents can choose that their child can't check out a book from the library, but they don't get to decide that for every other child, and certainly not for every other adult. For school curriculums, it can get a bit trickier, but such things as age-appropriateness are typically discussed at length. Parents (the most common objectors) have a voice, and while the specific laws and guidelines vary by state, county or school system, parental opt-outs are commonly available.

Perhaps more importantly, when a book is taught in the curriculum, it is discussed in class with students. Parents can also discuss it with their kids. The same goes for books checked out of the library - parents can discuss it with their kids, or not let their kids check a book out. Art is capable of saying more than one thing at a time, and stories often contain ambiguity and room for interpretation. These factors make literal or authoritarian-minded people uncomfortable, but they're pretty unavoidable if you study literature and poetry. It's common for English curriculums in secondary education to try to foster critical thinking skills and a tolerance for ambiguity. Parents who think of education as indoctrination - or who favor indoctrination, only the type they want – tend not to understand or like that.

I'm not dismissive of parental anxieties, but as with questions brought up by students in class, normally they can be addressed. Racial slurs in Huck Finn, The Elephant Man and Invisible Man can and are discussed in the classroom, and that's usually a better, safer place to do so. The reality is that parental discomfort generally emerges when a parent doesn't want to discuss something with their kid. Age and maturity are legitimate issues, of course, but teenagers are often more mature or informed than their parents admit. It's that same maturity, not the lack of it, that can further unnerve an anxious parent. Navigating all this is an important part of growing up for students, and a crucial part of good parenting for the parents. Challenging a book is often just a proxy for deeper issues. (During my brief teaching stints, I ran into parental anxiety occasionally, but that's probably a subject for a separate post. I will say some of the most memorable conversations I had with parents involved them copping to that anxiety and resolving to treat their teen as more of an adult. I found it remarkable and admirable.)

The list of the "Top ten most frequently challenged books of 2009" boasts some familiar faces:

Out of 460 challenges as reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom

1. “TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle
Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs

2. “And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: Homosexuality

3. “The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Anti-Family, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide

4. “To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee
Reasons: Racism, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

5. Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

6. “Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger _Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

7. “My Sister’s Keeper,” by Jodi Picoult _Reasons: Sexism, Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide, Violence

8. “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things,” by Carolyn Mackler
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

9. “The Color Purple,” Alice Walker
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

10. “The Chocolate War,” by Robert Cormier
Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

Meanwhile, I always enjoy reading the lists of banned and challenged classics, and the reasons they were challenged.

This year, though, I wanted to highlight the National Council of Teachers of English's position piece, "The Right to Read and the Teacher of English." It was originally written in 1981, although it has been edited and updated since:

For many years, American schools have been pressured to restrict or deny students access to books or periodicals deemed objectionable by some individual or group on moral, political, religious, ethnic, racial, or philosophical grounds. These pressures have mounted in recent years, and English teachers have no reason to believe they will diminish. The fight against censorship is a continuing series of skirmishes, not a pitched battle leading to a final victory over censorship.

We can safely make two statements about censorship: first, any work is potentially open to attack by someone, somewhere, sometime, for some reason; second, censorship is often arbitrary and irrational. For example, classics traditionally used in English classrooms have been accused of containing obscene, heretical, or subversive elements. What English teacher could anticipate judgments such as the following--judgments characteristic of those made by many would-be censors:

• Plato's Republic: "This book is un-Christian."

• George Eliot's Silas Marner; "You can't prove what that dirty old man is doing with that child between chapters."

• Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days: "Very unfavorable to Mormons."

• Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter: "A filthy book."

• Shakespeare's Macbeth: "Too violent for children today."

• Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment: "Serves as a poor model for young people."

• Herman Melville's Moby Dick: "Contains homosexuality."

Modern works, even more than the classics, are criticized as "filthy," "un-American," "overly realistic," and "anti-war." Some books have been attacked merely for being "controversial," suggesting that for some people the purpose of education is not the investigation of ideas but rather the indoctrination of certain set beliefs and standards. The following statements represent complaints typical of those made against modern works of literature:

• J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: "A dreadful, dreary recital of sickness, sordidness, and sadism." (Without much question, Salinger's book has been for some time the most widely censored book in the United States.)

• Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five: "Its repetitious obscenity and immorality merely degrade and defile, teaching nothing."

• Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird: "The word rape is used several times. Children should not see this in any literature book."

Some groups and individuals have also raised objections to literature written specifically for young people. As long as novels intended for young people stayed at the intellectual and emotional level of A Date for Marcy or A Touchdown for Thunderbird High, censors could forego criticism. But many contemporary novels for adolescents focus on the real world of young people--drugs, premarital sex, alcoholism, divorce, high school gangs, school dropouts, racism, violence, and sensuality. English teachers willing to defend the classics and modern literature must be prepared to give equally spirited defense to serious and worthwhile adolescent novels.

Literature about ethnic or racial minorities remains "controversial" or "objectionable" to many adults...

Read the rest. (I'm guessing the Hawthorne haters won't be going to see Easy A.) The ALA site gives much more information on the reasons given for challenging books. While some of the funniest examples are decades old, some are fairly recent.

Two later sections from the NCTE statement deserve attention. The first is a quotation it cites:

Where suspicion fills the air and holds scholars in line for fear of their jobs, there can be no exercise of the free intellect. . . . A problem can no longer be pursued with impunity to its edges. Fear stalks the classroom. The teacher is no longer a stimulant to adventurous thinking; she becomes instead a pipe line for safe and sound information. A deadening dogma takes the place of free inquiry. Instruction tends to become sterile; pursuit of knowledge is discouraged; discussion often leaves off where it should begin.

- Justice William O. Douglas, United States Supreme Court: Adler v. Board of Education, 1951.

The NCTE statement continues:

The right to read, like all rights guaranteed or implied within our constitutional tradition, can be used wisely or foolishly. In many ways, education is an effort to improve the quality of choices open to all students. But to deny the freedom of choice in fear that it may be unwisely used is to destroy the freedom itself. For this reason, we respect the right of individuals to be selective in their own reading. But for the same reason, we oppose efforts of individuals or groups to limit the freedom of choice of others or to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large.

The right of any individual not just to read but to read whatever he or she wants to read is basic to a democratic society. This right is based on an assumption that the educated possess judgment and understanding and can be trusted with the determination of their own actions. In effect, the reader is freed from the bonds of chance. The reader is not limited by birth, geographic location, or time, since reading allows meeting people, debating philosophies, and experiencing events far beyond the narrow confines of an individual's own existence.

In selecting books for reading by young people, English teachers consider the contribution which each work may make to the education of the reader, its aesthetic value, its honesty, its readability for a particular group of students, and its appeal to adolescents. English teachers, however, may use different works for different purposes. The criteria for choosing a work to be read by an entire class are somewhat different from the criteria for choosing works to be read by small groups...

As this last paragraph captures, teachers generally devote significant thought and discussion to their reading lists and their students' needs. Meanwhile, the right to read and the ability to think critically are both essential for a healthy democracy. In a previous year, I discussed the samizdat tradition of underground, forbidden literature, memorably portrayed in the great German film, The Lives of Others. Things have never gotten as bad here in the United States, but in the past few years, we've had a prominent political candidate who sought to ban books, and several groups have threatened to or actually burned books. The freedom to read shouldn't be taken for granted.

Celebrate Banned Books Week!

Banned Books Week Roundup

I'll update this section throughout the week, if and when I learn about other posts.

Kicking it off is Mister Tristan, describing re-reading Huckleberry Finn in "Exercise Your First Amendment Rights - Read a Banned Book!"

Cheyanne's Campsite urges you to "Read All The Banned Books 'Cause You Know They've Got To Be Good."

Mister Tristan returns, like a high plains drifter, to offer a contest - "FREE BOOK: Richard Dawkins' "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Blue Gal helped spread the word on Banned Books Week, and asks, "Does anyone have a photograph of Sarah Palin or any other tea party associate reading an actual book?"

Gary Farber at Obsidian Wings and Tengrain subbing at Crooks and Liars also helped spread the word, as did Common Dreams.

While not strictly written for Banned Books Week, Lance Mannion's "Apologies for Oompa-Loompas" is very much on point.

Finally, i09 provides a fantastic round-up of "10 great science fiction novels that have been banned." (Hat tip Ursus.) I wrote about one of them, Fahrenheit 451 - no irony there, no sirree - for Banned Books Week in a previous year.

Thanks to all who celebrated banned and challenged books this year.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Rummy Speaks

Donald Rumsfeld, one of the most egomaniacal, dishonest, reckless and evil of the Bushies (despite stiff competition) has a new memoir coming out. (I'll recap some Rummy links later, if they're really needed.) The actual cover is pictured above.

Blue Gal has started an "alternative Donald Rumsfeld book cover" contest.

Here's my entry:

Click for a slightly larger image, or go here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rocky Dawuni – "Download this Revolution"

Here's his KCRW session from earlier this month.

Eclectic Jukebox

Mixing Metaphors with Chuck Norris

Thers at Whiskey Fire passes along this gem from Chuck Norris:

Right at the get-go, John Bolton (George W. Bush's ambassador to the U.N.) poured cold water on that idea in a fiery speech that ignited world condemnation.

As Thers quips, "Because Chuck Norris does not merely mix metaphors, he fucks them up."

Chuck Norris has written some self-imploding columns before (the one where he tried to hawk overpriced, tea-stained American flags is a classic), but wow. That passage is K-Lo good.

Check out the rest of Thers' piece, which is about the coming right-wing apocalypse:

I don't suppose anyone reading this needs it spelled out, but the American right wing is by any rational standard utterly incapable of governance. "The Bush admininistration" is a good example of this. "Any Republican currently running for office" would be another. "We think Christine O'Donnell should be in charge" is, well, dispositive.

No argument here. Maybe if we all start drinking, all those teabaggers running around off their meds will seem more normal.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Upcoming: Banned Books Week 2010

Banned Books Week 2010 runs Saturday 9/25 to Saturday 10/2. You can find more information here. If you write a post celebrating it, shoot me an e-mail or leave a comment, and I'll include it in a round-up. Thanks!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Silence and The Fury

I'm somewhat sympathetic to people who struggle with public speaking, but, um, that sympathy largely disappears when those people have or seek power.

First up we have Jan Brewer, Governor of Arizona, who signed and has championed the state's anti-immigration laws, and falsely claimed that illegal immigrants were beheading people in the desert. In a debate with her opponent in the governor's race, this was Brewer's opening statement:

Brewer ignored questions about her "beheadings" claims multiple times:

Later, Brewer finally made a weak backpedal on her claim about headless bodies. Very big of her. It's a tough standard, being expected to not just make crap up, not play demagogue, and to take responsibility for one's statements.

However, despite all this, Brewer still has a commanding lead in the polls, and her train wreck of a debate performance only endeared her more to right-wingers. That's not too surprising, nor is Brewer's decision not to have any more debates.

Next up we have Phil Davison, candidate for Treasurer of the Stark County GOP in Ohio. John Cole describes him sharply as "part Sam Kinison and part Andy Kaufman" (albeit without Kinison's swearing). Be warned that it'll be hard to watch this without laughing:

Cole's comments thread is pretty funny, as well – as folks point out, Davison (who's clearly nervous) has to check where he's from and forgets one of his favorite quotations.

Zandar also points out that Davison pairs well with Republican candidate for Governor of Tennessee, Basil Marceaux. However, Marceaux finished fifth in the GOP primaries, and Davison also lost (Gary Farber gives more background).

As we've seen from the tea partiers, crazy is popular, but not just any form of crazy will do.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Coming Home From War

The Iraq War isn't really over, and the war in Afghanistan certainly isn't. But some military personnel are getting to come home, if briefly, and those returns often raise significant challenges.

Back on 8/26/10, NPR's To the Point aired a good program on "The Joys and Sorrows of Coming Home" from Iraq and Afghanistan. As the blurb describes:

America's combat role in Iraq has ended, and tens of thousands of returning troops are repopulating military bases and nearby towns all over the country. But history shows that many joyous welcomes are bound to go sour with marital problems, crime and suicide likely to increase in the months to come. Are the military services and the Veterans' Administration ready to help so many people recover from wounds and shake off the mental burdens of combat? Will civilians recognize their sacrifice? Will ongoing controversy over the war itself tarnish the rewards of coming home?

On PBS tonight, one of the local stations aired the P.O.V. documentary, "The Way We Get By." It's about a group of senior citizens up in Bangor, Maine, who greet the high number of arriving and departing troops at the airport. It's picked up a few nominations and awards. As filmmaker Aron Gaudet explains:

It's really a personal story not a political one. That goes for the greeters themselves as well. They have different views on the war, but their main goal is to support the troops.

The film focuses on three of the greeters (one, Joan, is the filmmaker's mom). While we see many scenes of greeting, and hear what it means to both the troops and the greeters, there's also plenty of time spent on the greeters' lives otherwise. They face some pretty tough situations, such as cancer, or having to give away cherished pets due to cost. They've lost spouses, and in one case, a child. One of the more touching tiny moments is when Joan mentions to a departing soldier that two of her grandkids will be shipping out soon, and he smiles and reassures her they'll be fine. Joan's there to support them, and the greeters are much appreciated by the troops, for the pats on the back, the warmth, and the cell phones they hand them to call home when they get off the plane. But this soldier senses her anxiety and reaches out in turn. Later on, we see more about Joan and her grandkids. Despite the reassurances, she frets, "They're in the middle of a war, how can they be safe?" (If you follow the link above, you can see comments about the film, including some from troops who were greeted.)

In the "personal not political" aspect, this doc reminded me of The Messenger, the narrative film about a death notification detail stateside. (It's the second film I reviewed here.) If you haven't seen it yet, it's excellent, but be prepared for some gut-wrenching scenes. As Woody Harrelson's character Captain Tony Stone says, there's "no such thing as a satisfied customer."

Lastly, hearing the To the Point program made me think of Homer's homecoming in the post WWII film, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Homer was played by Harold Russell, and if you don't know his story, it's worth reading. Here's the opening of the film (this one never fails to get me):

(Some previous posts have covered PTSD, and then there's the War Series.)

Monday, September 06, 2010

Labor Day 2010

Happy Labor Day! Here's a re-run. The YouTube poster explains, "This was a PSA that the voice-over person decided to record an "alternate" version of for fun." It's NSFW:

On a more serious note, Dave Johnson has a nice compilation of all the things labor's gotten right, along with a video of Richard Trumka. Meanwhile, from Roy Edroso, here's "On Labor Day, Rightbloggers Denounce Labor Day, Unions, Minimum Wage, Etc." (And this post also deserves a look.)