It's Banned Books Week (Sept. 24th-Oct. 1st), again, and it's hard to believe that in a country based on free speech, we should even have such a thing. But we do. And this is why librarians have always been my heroes. Nobody protects our right to read whatever we want, no matter what age we are, more strenuously than librarians (independent booksellers are a close second). When, after 9/11, the FBI decided they wanted to see what books some people in America were checking out of the library, Connecticut librarians not only said, "no freakin' way," they filed a lawsuit to challenge that part of the Patriot Act—and won.
Banning books is a form of thought control, and thought control is an attempt to make people conform to one particular idea of social behavior. Seems obvious, right? Of course, when these protests are made, the protesters have hardly ever read the book in question in full, if at all. Someone has said this book is "obscene" or "subversive" or "anti-American" or "dangerous," and they've jumped on the bandwagon. What makes a book "dangerous"? Anything that challenges the status quo, whether it has to do with religion, sexual orientation, or political thought. So why do some people in the Land of the Free think they have the right to decide what I can read? How is that not "anti-American" in itself?
1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald 2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger 3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck 4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee 5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker 6. Ulysses, by James Joyce 7. Beloved, by Toni Morrison 8. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding 9. 1984, by George Orwell 11. Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov 12. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck 15. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller 16. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley 17. Animal Farm, by George Orwell 18. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway 19. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner 20. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway 23. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston 24. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison 25. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison 26. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell 27. Native Son, by Richard Wright 28. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey 29. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut 30. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway 33. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London 36. Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin 38. All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren 40. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien 45. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair 48. Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence 49. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess 50. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin 53. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote 55. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie 57. Sophie's Choice, by William Styron 64. Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence 66. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut 67. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles 73. Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs 74. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh 75. Women in Love, by D.H. Lawrence 80. The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer 84. Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller 88. An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser 97. Rabbit, Run, by John Updike
If books hold up a mirror to our society, some of us must not like what we see. But even if we don't, there's no sense killing the messenger.
Challenges to kids books are particularly galling to me. My parents never censored anything I read, though they would sometimes caution me that a book I'd chosen might be "too old" for me, and I might not like it, or might not "get" it. Sometimes they were right, but sometimes I wound up loving something they didn't think I would. Mom sometimes despaired of my love of comics, but basically, if I had a book or magazine in my hands, that was okay with them. I even read my dad's Playboys. And yeah, there was some good journalism in them. Seriously. Because my reading wasn't censored, guess who became the font of information on sex and reproduction and birth control for my friends in junior high and high school (and sometimes even college)? Not unusual for kids to get that information from each other, except that the information I had was actually accurate, not rumor.
1,536 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
1,231 challenges due to “offensive language”;
977 challenges due to material deemed “unsuited to age group”;
553 challenges due to “violence”
370 challenges due to “homosexuality”; and
Further, 121 materials were challenged because they were “anti-family,” and an additional 304 were challenged because of their “religious viewpoints.”
With kids, the fear at the heart of banning some books is that your children might somehow be harmed by being exposed to ideas about sex, gender, nonconformity, death, suicide, drugs, or actual cuss words. That's right: real, live cuss words. I'm sure they've never heard those before in movies, on TV, on the playground or at home. I'm insulted on behalf of children that parents like these think their kids are that dumb, or that mentally fragile, that they think their kids are incapable of telling fact from fiction, or have never let their pure minds wonder about sex, death, drugs or what life is all about. Honestly, grownups are so stupid sometimes.
So it's ten years ago today, as the media has been pounding home to us for at least a month. I know everyone has been thinking about it though, regardless of the media. Decades seem to have a special significance for us. Me, I'm avoiding all the commemorations like the plague. Not because I'm indifferent, but because this still bothers me a lot more than I thought it would, ten years later, and I don't like sobbing in public with strangers. So I'll stay home and write about it, instead.
In the early days just after Ten Years Ago, the first thing I would do in the morning is open the curtains wide and pull up the shades to let in the light. The weather was glorious: mild and sunny and dry and the breeze carried the smell of burning electrical systems and worse things over the river and into my top floor apartment. My windows faced east and west then, so I couldn't see the smoke, but that didn't keep it out of my apartment. Ten years later, I wonder how many toxins I absorbed then, and how much of other people's DNA ended up in my lungs. Not enough to make me sick, like many of the people who worked at the site without respirators or even masks afterwards, but enough to make me, all of us who breathed that in, funerary vessels.
Letting in the light seemed so important to me that I was almost frantic to do so every morning. I think I knew even then we were heading for some dark times. Bush and Cheney et al were still unknown quantities, but the bumbled reaction and instant jingoism didn't bode well. Already there were stories of people beating up anyone who looked like they might be Muslim. I'd read enough history by then to know that the first thing people do in this kind of situation is look for scapegoats and someone to blame. And the more people to blame, the better. So hating Muslims was suddenly "in." All those windows in the Towers shattering suddenly sounded like a Kristallnacht for Muslims.
When I called my folks and let them know I was all right, my dad answered in a voice I seldom heard him use, unless he was telling unhappy war stories, the ones that didn't involve bars and Herman Caretta, his drinking buddy. I think he'd seen the handbasket arrive, too. Mom felt sure this was a preview of the Apocalypse and I had to be ready for it. I remember yelling at her, "You can't prepare for anything like this!" And you can't. Even if you know, rationally, that it might happen, that doesn't prepare you for the emotional response to it. Nothing can. It's purely visceral, glandular, the reactions of the lizard brain.
All you can do is search for the light, afterwards.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of darkness. Not just the knee-jerk bigotry, but an unscrupulous grab for unprecedented power by a few people in the government and trampled civil liberties: warrantless wiretapping, an attempt to get booksellers and librarians to spy on their customers and patrons, the other dangerous absurdities of the grossly misnamed Patriot Act, and worse. Guantanamo Bay. Extraordinary rendition. Water-boarding. Flouting the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. The U.S. sliding slowly into Fascism and hate. The invasion of a whole nation in a hunt for one man. Not to mention blind support for an ill-conceived war undertaken under false pretenses. That we started. We started a war.
Ten years later, we finally got the great thinker behind the act. And the terrorists have decided they'd like to mark the anniversary with another attack, so there are armed soldiers and police everywhere. But the "War on Terror" has become a permanent fixture, with no end in sight. The new normal. This all seems strangely familiar to a child who grew up in the 60s with a father working for the military.
What's missing this time around seems to be the outrage. At first, fear kept many of us going along with the government, doing exactly what Benjamin Franklin warned against when he said, "They who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Cops and firemen and Cantor Fitzgerald didn't die so the government could take away our rights to free speech, protest, assembly, and privacy. Why are we not more angry about that? Dissent is not treason or unpatriotic. Lack of dissent is. Blind patriotism is the tool of dictators.
Not only did our civil rights come under attack so a small group of ideologues could expand their powers, but those same ideologues outright lied to New Yorkers about the health risks of the aftermath. I was working at an environmental consulting firm (who later wrote the environmental impact statement for the rebuilding of the Towers), and by then I knew enough about what goes into buildings to know that air couldn't possibly be safe to breathe. The first thing our company did was hand out the respirators and masks we had to workers down at the Pile. The buildings were full of asbestos and dioxin. Even the concrete particulates in the dust was dangerous in such concentration. Here's how Scott Simon describes the air down there in his report for NPR:
The air downtown: thick, stinging, gritty, and filled with fragments of life still floating from the world as it was shortly before 9 a.m. on 9/11. Atomized smithereens of bricks, glass and steel, office papers, coffee cup lids, half-bagels with a schmear, Yankee hats, wedding bands, sugar packets, shoes and human slivers in a stinging, silvery vapor that made you cough and cry.
New documents are still surfacing that show the federal response to monitoring was disingenuous at best, and completely false at worst. You can search the original documents here, thanks to Pro Publica. Mother Jones points out that,
Within days of the twin towers' collapse, when the air was heaviest with asbestos and dioxin, a warning that office workers in New York's Financial District might be at risk if they returned to their workplaces was removed from public statements at the request of the Council on Environmental Quality.
Better to keep up a good image and hurt your own people than admit that the terrorists really fucked us over. This is something that dictatorships often do: they, like the Wizard of Oz, want to make the rest of the world think that they're infallible and all-powerful and they've got everything under control, even in a disaster. China and North Korea both do this on a regular basis. There, I suspect it's more about losing face as leaders than here, where it is an attempt to whitewash incompetency (cf. Hurricane Katrina). Before analyses could even be completed, Christie Whitman, then head of the EPA, was telling us the air was fine. Hard to backtrack later and say, "Whoops, we were wrong. You all inhaled a significant amount of toxins, carcinogens, and biological debris."
And we're still, despite having ushered in a new, more liberal president, illegally kidnapping, detaining, torturing, and in some cases, barring from returning home American citizens. You thought extraordinary rendition ended? Now we have "rendition lite." It's still American citizens being detained on foreign soil without access to lawyers, which ought to scare you. Because if our government can imprison any American citizen without cause, they can imprison all of us, for any reason, or none at all. You, too, can be "disappeared."
So is there any light?
There's always light. One of the most beautiful things that happened during 9/11 was the outpouring of sympathy and support from around the world. We've large spent that goodwill now, but it was fantastic while it lasted. Also beautiful, and somehow more heartening, was the way New Yorkers responded to each other: with compassion and kindness, with hard work and an overwhelming generosity. It didn't last at that initial intensity, as such things don't, but I think it made others look at us differently, and I think it made New Yorkers see each other a little differently. When the rest of the country was calling for an invasion of Afghanistan, the anti-war voice was loud here. We'd had a brief taste of what war was like and wanted none of it for anyone else, even our enemies. We wanted justice, not the slaughter of more innocents. I won't say it made us kinder or gentler—as a guy I conversed with on the bus Friday said, "We're not cold, we're busy." We're always going to be busy because that's what the city's like. But we're a little more forgiving, I think. A little calmer. And a little more proud of ourselves.
One thing that New York does, by and large, is get along. We've had some stupid moments over the last ten years, like the completely artificial brouhaha kicked up about the Ground Zero mosque that isn't a mosque or even on Ground Zero. (And I want to say to some of the victims' families: it is not always about you. This was a national tragedy, not just your personal tragedy. You don't have sole rights to framing it or interpreting it. Nobody does.) One of my first conscious reactions to the attack was to join the Southern Poverty Law Center's organization, Teaching Tolerance, which I continue to support. And a couple of years after the attacks, I moved from my largely Puerto Rican block in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to a neighborhood in the Bronx that's full of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and Afghans. Not by design; it just happened that way. But I'm glad it did. Some are Hindu, but most are Muslims. There are women wearing the full black burqa and girls in just the hijab, and men in the long tunics and pants as well as western dress. There's an African Muslim center a couple of blocks away, near the synagogue and on the same street as the Baptist church. They're unfailingly nice people. But I see some wariness in their eyes that saddens me too, and makes videos like this necessary:
I don't know if 9/11 and the attacks elsewhere in the world have made us more aware of our foreign policy. I think it definitely made us feel less invulnerable, and that's never a bad thing. Invicibility leads to arrogance, and there's enough of that in the world. On the other hand, maybe our resilience, our insistence on plugging along with participatory democracy, as imperfect as it is, on continuing to voice our displeasure at our elected officials in the face of the drift toward fascism has given new urgency and heart to others. I'm excited by the Arab Spring. The hard work is still ahead, but so much of it was accomplished non-violently that that gives me hope too. It's a little light in the darkness too, when people start to take their governance into their own hands, and start thinking about human rights. There are going to be huge bumps in the road, maybe even some detours, but they've started on the journey to a more perfect union. We need to rethink the road we're on, too.
In the end, what it all boils down to is Kurt Vonnegut's words: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." None of this shit would ever have happened if we were all kind to each other. If we learned nothing else from this event, it should be the need for unconditional love and compassion.
On today of all days, people, love your neighbors. And your enemies.