Remember when The New York Times' David Carr made an offhand comment about Missouri and Kansas being home to "the dance of the low, sloping foreheads," and everyone got mad at East Coast elitism? It's infuriating to feel like people are judging you based on your zip code rather than your merits, especially when those people are the ones you view as your cultural allies.
That said, this story is a perfect example of why people elsewhere look down on us. Because it's hard to remember the last time a NYC school banned a book because someone complained it taught "principles contrary to the Bible."
In Republic, Missouri, the Republic High School board has unanimously voted to ban Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer. The books were named in a public complaint filed last year, along with the Laurie Halse Anderson novel Speak, which managed to stay on school shelves.
If you haven't read Vonnegut's work, I'm not going to explain it to you -- you should immediately stop reading this blog and go find a copy. If you've done that, read it, and the ache in your heart is now at a manageable level, I can tell you that Ockler's book is about a girl whose friend wants to hook her up with her first summer fling, not knowing that she's grieving the death of her first boyfriend. (Speak is about a girl who gets raped by a popular boy at a party, is then ostracized by her friends for coming forward, and takes a vow of silence.)
The complaint was filed by Republic resident Wesley Scroggins, a professor of management at Missouri State, and author of several outraged letters to his daily newspaper on the moral dry rot of our public-school system. Last year, the Riverfront Times reported on Scroggins' deep concerns as a parent about the ideas his children are exposed to. His children, by the way, are home-schooled, and therefore not in danger of a teacher forcing them to read any of these books. Still, thought is like a virus, so what if some teenage Denny's waiter with a public-library card serves a Moon Over My Hammy to a Scroggins child? Next thing you know, the kid's applying to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop. So it goes.
Scroggins' complaints are these: Speak, the book about the rape, is soft-core pornography. Slaughterhouse-Five "contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame." Twenty Boy Summer has "drunken teens [who] also end up on the beach, where they use their condoms to have sex."
Anderson defends Speak in a blog post, noting that for Scroggins to characterize a sexual assault as titillating is at best a gross misread of the book and at worst a disturbing revelation of Scroggins' mental state. Judy Blume, no stranger to bans, has come to Anderson's defense.
The board agreed that Speak was not pornographic. The rape was depicted "tastefully, not graphically," according to Superintendent Vern Minor. Also, a second attempt at rape is stopped at the end, so there's a clear message that sexual assault is wrong.
Minor was harder on Vonnegut. He described Slaughterhouse-Five as a book more suited to college students because of its crude language and adult themes, though charitably added, "I'm not saying it's a bad book."
Regarding Ockler, the argument was stickier. "I just don't think it's a good book," Minor told reporters. "If the book had ended on a different note, I might have thought differently." In other words, sexual content between consenting parties is fine, as long as everyone knows it's dirty and shameful by the last chapter.
Faced with adult themes and sex-positive teens in mourning, the board voted 4-0 to remove Slaughterhouse-Five and Twenty Boy Summer from the school curriculum and library. The meeting was attended only by board members, Scroggins, two school administrators, and a reporter paid to cover the school district by the local daily newspaper.
Students can still read and use the books for classwork, provided they have parental approval. No word yet on whether those parents will have to ask for Scroggins' permission first.