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The Unintended Lesson of “Banning” a Book

The ALA gets so excited over Band Books Week that sometimes I think they make up stories about Bland Books just so people won’t forget the ALA exists.

Stories like this one always feel made up. It’s about a school district in Idaho “banning” George Orwell’s 1984, because “banning” 1984 is just the kind of censorship 1984 and the ALA always warns us about!!

Here’s the lede, which shows that small towns can produce better journalism than most so-called new sites: “Administrators in the Jefferson County School District are considering prohibiting a classic novel from being taught in two senior government classes after at least one parent voiced concerns over the book’s violent, sexually charged language.”

You have everything you need right there. My favorite part of the sentence is the slightly snide and editorializing “at least one parent,” because if you’re a timid administrator just one parent is all it takes.

The timid administrator in question, no doubt just expressing the concerns of “at least one parent,” “questions whether a passage in the book, George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel, “1984,” contradicts district policy requiring academics to align with the ‘basic ideals, goals and institutions of the local community.’”

It’s the old “passage in the book” complaint, which is how we know we’re dealing with semiliterate rubes who don’t know how books work.

For comparison, here are a couple of passages from a well known book for us to think about:

And the first-born said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring through our father.” So they made their father drink wine that night; and the first-born went in, and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she arose.

Incest, yuck! I wonder if that’s compatible with the basic ideals, goals, and institutions of Jefferson County, ID. That’s from a little book called “Genesis,” by the way. Part of a larger collection of books you might have heard of.

Here’s another juicy passage: “You also took your fair jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them played the harlot.” That’s from a little book called Ezekiel, which is probably acceptable to the good folks of Jefferson County, even with its mentions of sexual aids made of precious metals.

What’s really sick is that Jefferson County probably has several buildings where numerous locals congregate and show their respect for this book. I don’t know what goes on there, and I don’t want to know.

So back to the semiliterate rubes who don’t know how books work.

The passage in 1984, quoted in the article, is part of a violent fantasy partly driven into Winston Smith’s mind as he watches the “Two Minutes Hate” video everyone is required to view every day, which ends with Big Brother’s face fading away, replaced by the words: “WAR IS PEACE FREEDOM IS SLAVERY IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”

So to put the semiliterate rube’s complaint into context, which is I know is just rude because context is complicated and all, it’s fine to have a world of ignorance, hate, violence, and total suppression of individual freedom, but some fantasized sexual violence instigated by totalitarian propaganda is over the line?

The “Two Minutes Hate” video is also kind of anti-Semitic, but apparently that’s okay.

Do the rest of those things “align with the ‘basic ideals, goals and institutions of the local community.’” Is “at least one parent” in Jefferson County in love with fascism?

I’m not even sure I want an answer to that question.

On the other hand, let’s put the context into some context so we can understand Bland Books Week better.

This is a school district in a county in Idaho with a population of about 26,000. The “largest city” in the county has a population of about 4,000. And the “banning” is this small school district threatening to not teach the book in a government class for twelfth graders.

This is not how fascism starts. This is not the world of 1984.

In fact, we could look at this as a triumph of John Hughesian proportions. Here’s a quote from one of the high school seniors:

“Rigby High School sucks,” senior Sarah Morgan wrote on Facebook. “The book 1984 is being banned because a parent thinks their almost 18 year old can’t handle it.”

According to the article, “as of Thursday afternoon, Morgan’s post had garnered over 100 comments from like-minded students and had been shared 14 times.”

Okay, that’s not exactly viral by Buzzfeed standards, but Jefferson County is pretty small.

Instead of “protecting” the little kiddies who are or are almost old enough to vote from Orwell’s 1984, which is freely available online in numerous places, any administrators and “at least one parent” who want to stop teaching 1984 are teaching the students a lesson about the limits of power and good sense among parents and high school administrators.

The administrators could “ban” the book, but all it would do is make them look closed minded and simple minded at the same time. They just look silly.

That’s the opposite lesson of fascism. Every totalitarian political movement knows that it has to go after the children, and if Jefferson County School District were the world, that might work.

But contrary to what the ALA OIF seems to believe, we don’t live in a closed society. “Banning” a book because some semiliterate rube can’t read good doesn’t work.

It just shows how ridiculous people look for even trying to. And this isn’t just how outsiders think they look, so it can’t just feed into the alleged resentment people in flyover country feel for coastal elites, or whatever the current claims about resentment are.

They look silly to the very high school students they’re “protecting.” You don’t have to be a snooty “coastal elite” to see how stupid this looks. You just have to be a typical teenager who hasn’t yet learned to sacrifice good sense to the ignorant whims of uninformed parents or the arbitrary power of bureaucracy.

Instead of protecting the innocent little children from a political novel that happens to have a few sentences about violent sex, or teaching the rest of us about “censorship,” “banning” 1984 would just teach the students to develop skepticism and disrespect for irrational authority and any clueless adults surrounding them.

That might be the best lesson they could learn. George Orwell might even be pleased at that one.



  1. What the complaining parent should have banned was all of trump’s campaign talks, his continued talks,his threats to other countries,and his tweets which contains all of the violent and sexually charged language a violent and sexually charged person can utter.

    • Anonymous Cowherd says:

      Now let’s not get political here… Plus, we must not be listening to the same stuff because I haven’t heard any sexually charged language. And if you mean speech defending out country, I’ll gladly take that.

  2. I don’t think that parent actually read the book…or maybe there’s a different 1984 floating around out there she’s reading? I mean, it happened to a newscaster and the Harry Potter books!

  3. Carl Jacobs says:

    Well sure. A book like 1984 makes for an easy case. And it’s always easy to win an argument by labeling the opponent as a parent semiliterate rube. Argument by labeling is standard fair on the Left these days.

    But honestly it seems Librarians believe they operate Libraries by divine right. Who dares assert the authority to set boundaries for the public servant who is the Librarian? Is it Library Science or Library Priestcraft?

    What if it wasn’t “one parent” but was instead 70% of the population? What if it wasn’t 1984 but the The Bell Curve? Would the Community – that (you know) pays for the Library – have the standing to demand removal in the face of Librarian resistance?

    The opinion of the Librarian is not necessarily dispositive whether the Librarian thinks so or not. And those who disagree with the Librarian are not by definition “semiliterate rubes”.

    • Mary Kelleher says:

      The opinion of the librarian is not the standard by which books are collected or disposed. Library policy is. The written library policy just like written law arbitrates action of the public. Library policy should protect both 1984 and The Bell Curve. If it doesn’t, the policy is bad. (Unless it’s an elementary school library. Then both would be weird choices.)

  4. Yes, maybe the ALA seems alarmist, or maybe the whole holiday seems a little twee. I’ve always felt that the relevance of Banned Books Week is in the framing.

    There’s a bigger conversation to be had about censorship and free speech or the right to read, and it’s all-too relevant right now. A parent getting upset about the latest John Green novel is one issue; the removal of scientific data and policy descriptions from government websites is another. There are connections between these things.

    Let’s keep talking about censorship and its motivations, because the implications are greater than having 1984 taken out of a curriculum.

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