Sunday, October 2, 2011

Soggy Bottom Boys- I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow

A thing called free speech


Even if it’s true that Sarah Palin inquired into banning library books in Alaska, even though I find her repellant, I would never want a book she has authored (or had ghost-written) to be banned. I am a diehard First Amendment advocate and I support wholeheartedly Miss You Betcha’s right to freely express her uninformed opinions and make a fool of herself all she wants.

I support free speech even for people, who given the power, would deny that right to others. The Islamic extremist, the Christian extremist, whatever, they have a right to speak their minds and publish their opinions over the print, broadcast or digital medium.

It’s true, I spoke critically of the “gay bashing” right-wing evangelist in my last column. Even if what these preachers say is abusive, however, they still have a right to say it. If that’s how they exercise their freedom of religion, fine, and I have the right to accept or reject what they say. As long as they don’t act on their intolerance and violate someone else’s rights, they’re in the clear.

Also, what I call “gay bashing,” someone else may interpret differently. Merely condemning or calling such lifestyles “sinful,” doesn’t, in my view, make someone Fred Phelps. Now the leaders who go around beating a dead horse and inveighing ad nauseum against the “homosexual agenda,” a term I first heard as a young, small-town newspaper reporter in the ‘90s, I would call bashers or Phelps-lite. Yet even Phelps should enjoy his right to free speech; of course, it should be tempered with the rights of funeral mourners, a sticky constitutional issue.

Then if some straight-gay alliance or patriotic motorcyclists assemble to counter-protest Phelps’ bigotry, it’s all cool. We need parameters, in which to protect everyone’s rights, while maintaining order, but the Supreme Court has defined a method for keeping those safeguards in place.

No doubt most people of the right-wingnut philosophy don’t share in hatred as incendiary as Phelps’s. Or at least they won’t until they do something stupid like electing a Michel Palin-Perry-I-don’t-masturbate-Obama-has-666-in-his-haircut to the presidency. Such a demagogue would stir their shit faster than you can say mob rule.

It would be a shit-storm of cyclonian proportions. Like a grand wizard at a KKK rally. Much like that scene from O Brother, Where Art Thou? where Ralph Stanley’s haunting O Death played and the broom-sweeping gubernatorial candidate, along with the midg – er height-challenged person and their lynch-mob brethren chased George Clooney and his friends (such as the African-American blues guitarist who may have sold his soul to the ol’ prince of darkness) into the woods before a falling lit cross thwarted their plans.

Oh, I am a man of constant sorrow.

Anyhow, as I was saying, most people aren’t that incendiary, barring any nuclear pushing of their emotional hot buttons. Many sincerely believe they are protecting children from bad things.

A lot of people have had good intentions behind their desire to censor. It’s just that their remedy would cause more harm than the problems they seek to cure. Of course, we want to put the kibosh on racism. It’s a vile, ugly, evil thing, but banning The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not the answer.

Mark Twain had his main character say “nigger” because that’s the way a white boy living in Missouri during the 1840s would have talked. (By the way, J. Guy does not use pussified phrases like “the n-word.) One who actually reads the book will find that Twain produced probably the most morally indignant social critique against slavery created by a dead white man in all of American literature.

Sadly, a high school English teacher recently told me that Huck Finn, you know the Great American Novel, would likely be above her students’ comprehension level. Maybe the well-meaning people wanting to censor the book don’t get satire either.

I don’t know. A school principal told me that reading – books – are the life preservers that will gets kids out of poverty, you know, some Godsend that will open up to them a world beyond their cramped apartments, set them on a learning path and save them from a life of economic inequality?

When your whole life, from the time you were still in the womb, has been a “controversial issue,” maybe some “un-godly”, “un-American”, “sexually explicit” book will speak to you in a personal way. Isn’t controversy what great art is about, anyway? Aren’t writers, like composers, painters and all other artists the antennas of the race that look at war, religion, sex, love, politics, philosophy, family…and say, “Whoa, wait a minute. Let’s take a look at what we’re doing. Are we so sure we’re right? Could we be wrong? Let’s have a dialogue.”

Such abstract concepts would be beyond the comprehension level of a Sarah Palin. However, if unlike her, we respect that the marketplace of ideas is not a gated community and that Palin’s America by Heart and Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope can exist side-by-side on a book shelf without heralding the apocalypse, then we can promote a quality learning environment for all kids in America.

Kids who will grow up to have a good comprehensive grasp on a thing called freedom.

In Heaven We'll Never Grow Old---Stanley Brothers


First heard this song at the Walnut Valley Festival, circa 1995. Winfield, bluegrass and drinking a beer in Rick Horn's backyard on South A Street on a Saturday afternoon that should go on forever -- that'll always be heaven to me.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Not a free speech fan

Banned books


It was the 70s and I was 8-years-old when I heard a reporter on the 5:30 p.m. “Nightly News” say a book was banned from some school library because it called Jesus “a man with no connections.”

Boy, I was positive they did the right thing. That was a lot for my virginal, Sunday school trained ears to take. I was shocked that anyone would write such a terrible thing.

It was near the end of the week before I even learned it was Banned Books Week. I listen to NPR, my primary news source, every day and I was bound to find out there sometime. Or was that on fakebook? Maybe now I’ll store it in my long-term memory – last week of September.

As a teenager and twenty-something college student, I was always filled with intrigue, walking by a shelf at the front of Walden Books or B. Dalton and seeing the toy chains and prison imagery surrounding titles like: Native Son, Slaughterhouse Five, The Grapes of Wrath, The Sun Also Rises, Go Ask Alice, Brave New World, The Color Purple…Books have been banned because they contain horrific words like “whore,” “bastard” and “sonovabitch.” Fahrenheit 451, a short novel attacking book burning, was banned for using the word, “God damn.”

I once interviewed a guy who challenged his high school library because it contained no books by Kurt Vonnegut, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Vonnegut is always a target for book banning. It’s all that sex and profanity in his works. Plus, he was a goddamn atheist. Some might say the ideas of peace and tolerance in his works comes closer Christ’s sermon on the mount than what you’ll find in a gay bashing evangelist’s right-wing rant, but shouldn’t people be left to judge?

So they want to ban Vonnegut from school libraries? What are they afraid of, that kids might actually hate war and cruelty? They want to save our white “real American” youth from subversive ideas like that.

Just like back in the 1950s when a Montgomery, Ala. Public library banned the children’s book, The Rabbits Wedding by Garth Williams. This book was highly offensive to prevalent, moral standards in the community, what with that picture of a white and black rabbit holding hands on the cover. Some communist plot to indoctrinate our children into accepting interracial marriage.

Today, they’re trying to push the “homosexual agenda” on our kids. Who wants their child bringing home a book about two male penguins holding hands and raising a baby? (And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell)No, you won’t see teachers in small-town Kansas classrooms educating students who have two moms or two dads.

Oh no, the teachers will never deal with the grade school boy getting his ass kicked every day on the playground because he might like boys and prefers playing house with the girls to kickball with the tough guys. A book like King and King (Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland)about two princes who fall in love – we don’t want this book to actually help this kid feel secure in his morally deficient identity.

Nor, do we want 12-year-old girls reading about (gasp) menstruation – in a Judy Blume book. Or a 15-year-old girl with body image and burgeoning sexual issues (surely teenagers don’t have those) reading Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt and Other Round Things.

Then there’s the plethora of books in the

YA (Young Adult) genre, which groups are banning or trying to ban because they take on stuff like drug abuse, racism, rape, dating violence, sexual abuse…Perhaps, the writer has an audience in mind. Maybe, there is a demographic that can relate to those books. If that’s the world teens are living in then, seems to me that should be the focus.

This world isn’t the well-defined place I thought it to be when I was 8-years-old and my grandparents took me to church every Sunday. It’s a complicated place, filled with people who bring to life a far different frame of reference than what I had known from my experience.

There are people who don’t accept Jesus, are gay or lesbian, communist, take drugs and were born in countries where they view my native land – a place I was taught to believe was like God’s country on earth – is the great satan. I’ve come across such views in books and will continue to do so. Maybe, I’ll like that book and maybe I won’t. Regardless, I feel that book should see the sunshine of day so others can make up their own minds.

We have a thing in this country called the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech, press, religion and all that good stuff. A book by John Steinbeck might be condemned for being “anti-American,” but America is all about the free expression of ideas, anti-American and otherwise.

Sooner or later, I was going to grow up and see the world wasn't a neat, tidy place. Reading and examining life from the perspectives of others has been a pretty good deal for me.