Alaska’s snowflake school board

Its banning of The Great Gatsby reminds us that censorious college kids didn’t spring from nowhere.

Tom Slater
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Some snowflakes in the US have decided that classic works by F Scott Fitzgerland, Maya Angelou, Joseph Heller, Ralph Ellison and others are unsuitable to be read by students and must be immediately removed from the curriculum. Only this time we’re not talking about pimpled college kids, saying that words on a page are acts of violence against them and that their mental safety is threatened by having to read great literature.

This is censorship of a more quaint vintage – news that an Alaskan school board has pulled from its classrooms Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Ellison’s Invisible Man, Heller’s Catch-22 and Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings over their supposedly inappropriate content. In particular, they’re upset about ‘sexual references’ (Gatsby); ‘bad language’ (Invisible Man); ‘racial slurs’ and ‘violence’ (Catch-22); and ‘“anti-white” messaging’ (Caged Bird).

The school board of Mat-Su Borough in Alaska voted by five to two this week to pull the titles from the curriculum. ‘The question is why this is acceptable in one environment and not another’, school board vice-president Jim Hart said at the meeting. He added that it would not be seen as acceptable ‘if I were to read these in a corporate environment’. Well, maybe. But that would probably have less to do with the content of the books and more to do with him insisting on reading on the job.

Much like his kindred spirits on campus, Hart presented these books as a threat to the mental health of students in the district, arguing that it would be unfair to expect teachers to guide students through the potential mental anguish of reading them. ‘These are teachers, not counsellors’, he said. And much like every other act of petty censorship, the move has spectacularly backfired. Local bookstores reportedly sold out of the titles within hours of the announcement, and the local teachers’ union has said it will fight the decision.

School boards, libraries and parents’ groups taking offence at literature and agitating for it to be banned is, of course, nothing new. The justifications for such censorship have just changed a bit over time. In the 1880s, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned by Concord Public Library in Massachusetts over its ‘coarse’ vernacular language. By the 1980s, it was being removed from school curricula due to its use of ‘racial language’ (namely, its frequent use of the n-word).

The range of books raged against over the years serves as a reminder that you can be offended by anything if you just put your mind to it. In 2001, some fundamentalist Christians tried to stage an actual book-burning of that ‘Satanic’ Harry Potter series. And in 2012, the Hunger Games trilogy came top of the American Library Association’s list of books people tried hardest to ban that year, in this case due to its allegedly ‘anti-family’ messages and violence.

But despite the more old-school, pearl-clutching feel to the Alaska story, the justifications for the bans were remarkably similar to those now made for more ‘woke’ forms of censorship. Once would-be censors presented certain books or films as morally damaging – as encouraging bad ideas, bad language and sexual impropriety. Now, they present them as mentally damaging, so much so you apparently need a counsellor to help you through them. In a similar vein, college students have in recent years called for the likes Gatsby and Huck Finn to be slapped with ‘trigger warnings’ to protect the ‘emotional safety’ of vulnerable students.

Woke censors might like to see themselves as more edgy than the uptight ‘think of the children’ types of past (and present), but they are actually pretty similar. Indeed, both share a remarkably low view of human beings and a remarkably philistine view of literature. In turn, while many tend to think that pious intolerance is a largely new twentysomething, leftish phenomenon, college kids clearly haven’t plucked their censorious ideas out of thin air. Snowflakes, we’d do well to remember, come in all shapes and sizes.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

Highland Fleet Lute

3rd May 2020 at 4:14 pm

When you’ve sunk to the level of eating pigeons in the park because this idiotic Lockdown has completely destroyed your economy, you’ll have real things to worry about.

Mike Stallard

3rd May 2020 at 9:09 am

I do paintings. Religious paintings, political paintings and nudes too. I try very hard to tell the truth. People do not like that at all! Especially the religious ones who feel terribly threatened even though I myself am one of them.
It would be so very easy to give in and paint what they want – Manga.Catholic cliche.Cartoons.

Captain Scott

2nd May 2020 at 8:15 pm

It’s ironic that you talk about censorship and then use the phrase “the n word” as though somehow we will have a fit of the vapours if we see it written down.

Dodgy Geezer

2nd May 2020 at 10:32 pm

Can someone tell me what the n-word is?

James Conner

3rd May 2020 at 6:52 am

NewLabour.

Ven Oods

2nd May 2020 at 4:07 pm

I seem to remember Hitler’s lot burning books and Stalin’s lot putting authors in the Gulag, so Alaska’s in good company.
I read Catch-22 aged 14 or so, and was amazed that adult books could be so engaging. Thankfully, I’m not 14 in Alaska just now. A book about war is ‘violent’ – you don’t say!

Mike Stallard

3rd May 2020 at 9:10 am

So they never see their Dad playing video games?

ubik miller

7th May 2020 at 12:18 am

I found Catch 22 to be unreadable truly and it’s literary reputation completely eludes me, just the same literary conceit played out again and again and again and again and again…
Two of Heller’s other novels, Good as Gold and Something Happened, those I really enjoyed.

James Conner

2nd May 2020 at 2:56 pm

Words can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Growing up I was made aware that Pakistani people were Pakis, homosexual men were queers and a general term for black people was nig-nog. Oh and my PE teacher was a cunt. I think everyone agreed on that.

Ecgbert King

2nd May 2020 at 11:31 am

This has probably done more to increase their sales amongsts students than 10 years of marketing and advertising.

Anna William lock-321

1st May 2020 at 4:52 pm

Nice

Andrew-Paul Shakespeare

1st May 2020 at 4:29 pm

The annoying thing about Huckleberry Finn (which is a terrific book, and I’m not someone who is normally moved much by Victorian novels) is that the n word *isn’t* frequently used.

It’s used a couple of times, as I recall, and should be obvious to any reader that it’s not intended slightingly. It’s a product of its time, and that’s what Missourians called black people in the pre-civil war era.

The rest of the book is a very humane (and very funny) story of a mutually supportive and respectful friendship between a white teenager and a slave. If it has a “white saviour” element to it, well, what do you expect of a book written in the 1860’s?

But historically, Huck Finn is helping the slave to escape. So yes, realistically and historically, the slave needed a white saviour. There were plenty of white saviours trotting about the slave states in the run-up to the civil war.

It should be read as an historical enlightenment, written by a man who grew up in that society. But none if this counts because of a couple of uses of a word that has changed its meaning since the book was published. It’s myopic and ignorant.

ubik miller

7th May 2020 at 12:20 am

Huckleberry Finn is a Victorian novel!!

L Strange

1st May 2020 at 4:23 pm

For crying out loud! These books are to be read by teens (not enough pictures of pirates to interest little ones), yet there’s a supposition that ‘bad language’ etc. warrants counselling?

Infantilising nonsense!

Andrew-Paul Shakespeare

2nd May 2020 at 10:04 pm

I’ll bet the teens are using all that, and far more, routinely. They’re hardly going to be traumatized by one more naughty word!

Warren Alexander

1st May 2020 at 3:46 pm

I’m now in my 60s so of course everything was different when I was at school. But, I remember quite distinctly, teachers in primary school using the language of books written at a time before we were sensitive to issues of racism and sexism, as a lesson in how language can cause harm and to help small children to recognise racism and to understand how society had changed. This sort of valuable (and for me long-lasting) lesson will be lost to children of today.

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