Skip to comments.Stupid White Men and Textbook Censorship
Posted on 07/31/2002 5:39:54 PM PDT by Sir Gawain
A recent report on National Public Radio about textbook selection in Texas dovetails with a story from last January about a national bestseller that almost died stillborn in the dumpster. Taken together, these incidents nicely illustrate the dangers inherent in the near-total politicization of our society. Whenever the State dips its fingers into a situation, you can be assured of finding one group pitted tooth-and-nail against another. Sadly, though, the very people at loggerheads usually argue endlessly over symptoms while rarely attacking the true culprit responsible for the problem they face. Unless and until citizens recognize the ultimate pointlessness of their behavior and shift their anger to the proper target, they will be condemned to roll the Sisyphean stone of futile confrontation forever.
The NPR story dealt with the growing influence of conservative critics on the selection of textbooks, especially in the larger states. According to the reporter, John Burnett, Texas, California, and Florida buy more textbooks than any other states. Because of their comparatively large student populations and, consequently, the large number of books these states buy to "educate" their young people, these state boards in charge of textbook selection wield considerable power. Given that many smaller states follow the leads of the larger jurisdictions and the fact that publishers prefer to focus on books that sell well a handful of individuals can influence (if not determine) the ideas and principles and "facts" that teachers will attempt to instill in their innocent charges.
Burnett's story focused primarily on the situation in Texas. With its 1100 school districts spending nearly a third-of-a-billion dollars on texts, Texas is the gorilla that sits where it wants on the educational school bus. As an example of how publishers accede (or pander?) to the prejudices, er, desires of one of their best customers, Holt, Rinehart and Winston covered with loincloths the manhood of two sculptures from the New York Stock Exchange that decorated the cover of a high school economics textbook. Echoing the sentiments of that stalwart defender of our liberty, Attorney-General John Ashcroft (when he decreed that the female "Spirit of Justice" and the male "Majesty of Law" statues at the Department of "Justice" should have their shameful body parts concealed), HRW contended that the nude bodes of the figures representing agriculture and science were "inappropriate" for the intended audience.
Perhaps they'll also deign to put a fig-leaf on Michaelangelo's David if they decide to publish an art history book lest they shock impressionable minds? (And we all know that teens are oblivious to and ignorant of anything remotely smacking of sex...)
But this example of appeasement for the "easily shocked eyes of conservative textbook reviewers" is not the whole story.
In addition to pointing out obvious errors of fact for example, that Jefferson wrote the Constitution private citizens who peruse potential texts also object to "politically correct" sociology that portrays white Europeans as inherently "bad men" who created slavery and precious little else. These citizens complain about science texts that declare global warming to be a major problem and that are biased against free-enterprise. They single out authors for rebuke who invoke the "god" of big government as the best solution to any social problem that arises; who denigrate the power of individuals and capitalism to deal with difficulties; who seek to indoctrinate clueless students to accept the wonders of collectivism; who proclaim that Karl Marx is the most significant social and political figure in all of history; or who treat the Founding Fathers as "right-wing extremists" because of their beliefs.
But many of those who take the time and make the effort to plow through stacks of textbooks up for consideration are Southern Baptists, after all. In addition to their laudable efforts to steer students from the worst examples of statism, they also object to what they perceive as slights to Christianity; to ignoring our status as a "Christian" republic; to anti-Christian science; to inclusion of information on the Koran; and to describing the 50,000 prostitutes who worked west of the Mississippi in the 1800's.
Liberal watchdog groups such as the Freedom Network challenge their counterparts by asserting that the Right is merely substituting a conservative bias for a liberal one. They are unhappy when conservatives contact publishers directly with their concerns. The liberals fear that publishers engage in "self-censorship" by accepting suggested changes before the books are ever presented to the textbook selection boards. In other words, the liberals disapprove of and condemn what they see as the inordinate power of the "religious right' to achieve its agenda by "pounding" publishers.
This result is unsurprising. After all, publishers are in the business of selling books, not creating enemies who can destroy their bottom lines. Even though some may walk away from demands to alter information, most publishers are worried more about dollars than ideas.
For now, conservatives ask, "Is it conservative or is it true?" when confronted with charges of "bias." Because of their success, they perhaps see this struggle merely as evidence that "one group is using democracy better than the other" and that if the liberals don't like the situation they should not get angry but should, instead, "get organized."
While I sincerely doubt NPR would have devoted so much time to this story if it were the conservatives rather than the liberals on the outside peering in, they betray their own self-contradictory beliefs when they ask a number of questions straight from the post-modernist, relativist sacred texts:
Can history be truly objective? Can the information included in a text really be divorced from the values of the author? Does truth change from one state to another? Does truth belong to one ideology or another?
While a full refutation of "po-mo" and relativism is beyond the scope of this essay, the short answers to those questions are: Yes. Yes. No. No.
People who shout in the loudest voices that objectivity is impossible, that one's "values" or "biases" automatically discredit one's statements, or that truth is a "social construction" that varies from group to group are the very ones who most bitterly rail against beliefs that oppose the "truth" as determined by themselves. Apparently free of the "inherent biases" that plague all other people, these po-mo, relativist folks declare that we must all follow what they decide to be "true"...or else.
Which brings us to someone rife with contradictions of his own. Michael Moore is a leftist gadfly who delights in embarrassing and harassing corporate leaders who fail to adhere to his brand of political correctness. He is unafraid to film his unpleasant confrontations with these businessmen and to exploit the tense results for his own monetary gain. Yet when he faced a corporate situation that threatened to diminish rather than enhance his bottom line, Moore blinked.
Last Fall, Moore's book, Stupid White Men and Other Excuses for The State of the Nation, was put on hold by his publisher, HarperCollins. They claimed it "would be insensitive" to release Moore's ascerbic commentary after the attack on the World Trade Center. Last October, fifty-thousand copies of the book languished in a warehouse. Initially, HarperCollins asked Moore to add material reflective of events after 9-11. They also wanted to change the book's title and cover. Reluctant to have his work vanish into the ether, Moore agreed. HarperCollins owned by conservative Robert Murdoch upped the ante by asking Moore to rewrite nearly half the book that it "deemed politically offensive given the current climate." The publisher also wanted Moore to surrender $100,000 from his royalties to help pay for half the costs of the changes. Moore refused, even though he believed HarperCollins would cancel the book. His editor, Cal Morgan, said, "It's not the dissent we disagree with, it's the tone of your dissent."
Moore probably had good reason for his belief that attacking Bush and the "war" effort might cost him monetarily. Other prominent liberals had already been castigated for suddenly unpopular beliefs. Bill Maher, for instance, ultimately lost his job on the television show, "Politically Incorrect," by violating the new version of PC that forbade badmouthing the military or the prez.
Unlike his previous quixotic forays against "big business," in this instance Moore did not publicize his troubles with his corporate publisher. Far from his earlier hypocritical stance of "bravely" confronting corporate-types, Moore was curiously silent. He did not want to risk alienating his publisher to the point of no return.
His authorial hide was saved, however, by a lone librarian who did not approve what was happening. Librarian Ann Sparanese of Englewood, NJ, and a board member of the American Library Association (ALA) went to the Internet to alert the library community to what was happening. Magazines and newspapers picked up on the story and added to the pressure on Harper by adding to calls of "censorship." HarperCollins relented but denied knowledge of any connection to the librarian's campaign. Given the financial clout of libraries, however which send nearly 2 billion dollars a year to publishers it is no surprise that the publisher listened and succumbed.
Moore's book was published this past spring and became a bestseller. Uncharacteristically, however, Moore waxed meek and conciliatory, saying "we have to cut everybody a lot of slack," a slack and "complete empathy and understanding" he never granted in the past to "big business." Threatened with the consequences of a PC not in consonance with his own, Moore never stood on principle and told his publisher to stick it. He only says that HarperCollins did not want to publish his book because they did not want to "offend the president."
Yet in what free society should anyone fear that it is wrong or dangerous to "offend the president"?
Oh. Sorry. I just answered my own question.
In describing her concerns, Sparanese did not blame the government for what happened. Instead, she attributed the problem to the "war-inspired, anti-dissent atmosphere."
But perhaps she should have delved deeper into the situation.
It is "the government" that helped create the "anti-dissent atmosphere" pressing on our nation's shoulders. It is "the government" that said "all Americans...need to watch what they say, watch what they do." It is "the government" that pushes "voluntary" censorship on media outlets.
Worse, it is "the government" that funds most libraries just as "the government" funds most schools...and the books both buy.
Whoever supplies the money pulls the strings. Moore applauded Sparanese's efforts and said, rightly, that, "Librarians see themselves as the guardians of the First Amendment." In this case, a lone librarian did fight against a conservatively-inspired political correctness and won.
Just as the conservatives in Texas won by getting books they approve of published.
Unfortunately, no one in these minor dramas is able to see past the superficial issues upsetting them.
None of these people the conservative, freelance "editors" in Texas, their liberal counterpoints, HarperCollins, or the librarians rallied by Ms. Sparanese realize that the proper solution to such controversies is to eliminate government entirely from anything to do with the dissemination of ideas. "Organizing" better to impose your will and your ideas on other people merely ensures constant battle into the indefinite future.
And while we can "score one for the books" this time given Sparanese's efforts, in the future, libraries may find the source of their influence turned against their traditional ideals. They may even find their book selection process as politicized as it is now for textbooks.
Already librarians have had to battle the government over monitoring Internet access, handing over client check-out lists, and that perennial favorite, the removal of "unpopular" books. As long as libraries are dependent on the State for the source of their income, they will never be freed of its influence and control. The day may well come when a president does not ignore the insults of such writers as Mr. Moore and directs the power of State-funded libraries to ensure that a work is not published.
If that day ever arrives, let us hope the librarians have more backbone than the timid Michael Moore.
Bolonik, Kera. "Marian and Me." 1-07-02. Salon.com. http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2002/01/07/moore/print.html
Burnett, John. "Texas School Books." 7-26-02, "NPR Morning Edition with Bob Edwards." http://search.npr.org/cf/cmn/segment_display.cfm?segID=147295
See Russ Madden's articles, short stories, novel excerpts, and items of interest to Objectivists, libertarians, and sci-fi fans at http://home.earthlink.net/~rdmadden/webdocs/.
Mr. Madden nails it right here.
Thanks for the post.
If they don't get these 2 recents events right, there are bound to be problems elsewhere.
Here in Texas, in previous years textbooks have been rejected with factual errors like the US used nukes in the Korean War (although Representative Lloyd Bensen did request the public to write their congressmen to support such action).
Bump for later.