Thursday, June 25, 2009

Banning Alexie?

"I BEGAN READING, AND I started to cross out sections that I didn't want him to read," she said. "Soon I thought, 'Wait, this is not appropriate; he is not reading this.' "

The "she" is Antioch, Illinois parent Jennifer Andersen, the "he" is her 14-year old son, and the book is Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, last year's winner of the National Book Award for Young Adult Fiction. As it happens, The Absolutely True Diary is also a recent addition to the Antioch High School's curriculum for incoming freshmen.

Andersen, who is quoted in a Chicago Times article, claims the book does not meet community standards and wants it removed from the curriculum. She and other parents have complained about vulgar language and overt sexuality in Alexie's short novel, arguing the book's content is at variance with what should be condoned in high school.

Andersen, who is clearly well-meaning, falls into the trap that plagues many parents, lawmakers, and even other students--she assumes that teaching a text is the same as condoning the content of that text.

For example, one of her complaints is that the book contains curse words that would not be allowed in the halls of the school. And so, by having students read this book and these words, the school is, in effect, putting its stamp of approval on those words.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching is not endorsing.

In fact, some of the best teaching arises out of difficult material--material the teacher and student find objectionable, complex, and problematic. In truth, you actually want your child to work through potentially inappropriate material, and ideally, that will happen in a sound educational environment. This is because you want your kids--and other kids--to have good reading and interpretation skills. You want them not to misread. You want them armed with the ability to know the difference between advocating and expressing.

Sure, I think it's probably not a good idea to have high school freshmen reading Tropic of Cancer, but it's a great idea for students to read Alexie's novel--written for and about young kids--in high school.

Back to this notion of community standards. Education is not a strip club, it's not church, it's not the public pool. Education is about ideas, and it's about acquiring skills and abilities that make young people smarter and more capable older people. I'm fascinated by the fact that the parents ignore the theme of the book, whose message is entirely positive and totally in line with community standards (whatever that might mean) and focus instead on language their kids probably use on a daily basis.

Americans have never been good readers; we often choose surface over substance. This is a fine example.

Ignore the message; kill the messenger.

Repeat the cycle.

It's refreshing, then, to read that Antioch school board President Wayne Sobczak thinks the book will get to stick around.

Good news for now, but what if they want to teach Huck Finn?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Reading the Burka

EARLIER TODAY, FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy dissed the burka.

In a policy speech before a parliamentary committee, Sarkozy argued that the burka devalues women and in so doing is, in essence, at variance with French values. "The burka is not a sign of religion," Sarkozy quipped. "It is a sign of subservience."

This notion of the burka as a symbol--as a loaded text--is something that had gone underexamined in Western culture. In truth, the burka doesn't cover the body much more than a traditional wedding dress and veil, but as symbols they do vastly different cultural work.

For Sarkozy, the experience of the individual woman wearing the burka is less important than what the burka indicates. The burka does not itself repress, Sarkozy might assert, but as a semiotic text it signifies repression. And, in a world that relies on symbols and symbolism, to symbolize is to be. So, even if a garment does not literally restrict--as a wedding gown might--if it signifies restriction, then it restricts. It is for this reason that he is considering banning the burka in France.

Typically, when we think of censoring clothing, it is because the item in question is too sexually explicit, too revealing, but in the case of the burka, its transgression lies in its extreme coverage. Not enough is revealed. It denies (or indicates denial); it restricts (or suggests restriction); it shames (or signifies shame). For Sarkozy, the burka also represents a lack of independence. It is, Sarkozy claims, a garment that embodies subservience.

The question is, why fight a garment and not the ideology that creates the garment?

Don't misunderstand. I'm no fan of the burka. But, the gesture feels empty. Perhaps this is because the push to ban the burka takes place in the same symbolic field as the burka itself. Put another way, if the burka's offense is symbolic, "banning" it is as well.

On the other hand, could such a decision backfire?

Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, understands the power of semiotics and political symbolism. For him, such a decision will lead to "stigmatising Islam"--a fascinating choice of words, given "stigma's" roots in Christianity. The stigmata--the holes in the recently crucified hands of Jesus Christ--served as a symbol not simply that Christ died but that he was resurrected. Religious symbols beget religious symbols.

Either way, Moussaoui knows that a public policy outlawing clothes sends a message not just about the garment but about values. Sarkozy knows he can't outlaw Islam (or the radical factions of it), so perhaps he can do the next best thing--take away some of its semiotic power.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

How the Questions Surrounding Sonia Sotomayor Can Be Answered Via Literary Studies

TWO MAIN ARGUMENTS HAVE framed the predictably combustible conversations surrounding Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court—her ethnicity and her stance on interpreting the constitution. Both, critics and supporters claim, will affect how she adjudicates and, perhaps, how good her decisions are.

Law and literature enjoy a great deal of overlap, though rarely does one affect the public function of the other. In the case of Sotomayor's confirmation hearings, though, two of the most important recent issues in the world of literary studies actually shed light on the hot-button issues surrounding Judge Sotomayor's accomplishments and abilities.

First is the sticky notion of interpretation. Sotomayor is accused of being a fluid or liberal interpreter of the law, as opposed to someone like Antonin Scalia, who advocates for a conservative or "literal" approach to the constitution. For him, judges should look through history to the "original intent" of the founding fathers and, based on the intentions of the authors of the constitution, adjudicate appropriately. Judge Scalia has long defended "textualism" and "originalism," just as many literary scholars have championed what we might call "authorial intent." All of these terms get at the same thing--figuring out what the author of the document initially intended.

In the law, as in literature, such a project is nearly impossible.

We barely know our own motivations on a day-to-day basis, so it's neither plausable nor tenable to base one's approach to legal or literary texts on what we think the author may have intended 200+ years ago. Such approaches assume a fixed and static textuality and a fixed and static culture. The law, like literature, changes over time. So rather than try to get inside the head of a long-dead author (who does not himself change), it is better to look not at the author but at the text. Instead of asking what the author meant, we should be asking "what work does the text do?" It is this latter question that opens up people-centered documents like the constitution and novels to the beauty of human change.

What work a text does is also linked to questions of ethnicity.

Judge Sotomayor has been criticized for acting as a "Latina judge," much the way writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros and other authors have been critiqued for writing from a decidedly ethnic perspective. But, opening the literary canon was good for literary studies, just as opening the judicial canon will be good for the law.

We want our literature to reflect our diversity, so we should also want the body ruling on our laws to reflect that pluralism as well. The great mistake conservative commentators make is assuming that Anglo males do not adjudicate from a position of race or ethnicity. They most certainly do; the reality is, though, that such a position often merges seamlessly with the hegemonic values that have aggressively shaped our culture for the past three centuries.

With a new millennium, a new president, and an evolving cultural ethos, it's time for the law to take a page from its literary brother. Both our country and our legal system will be the better for it.