Rivertowns Enterprise readers may be unaware that the removal from the curriculum in Hastings of Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” comes on the heels of the 2019 cancellation by Elmsford school officials of a planned dramatic production of Disney’s “Tarzan” after receiving dubious claims of racism and imperialism by two parents. In a recent online post, former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss disturbingly pointed out that cancel culture has become the culture. As Weiss explained, “Cancelling has become a normal part of American life. We are no longer surprised when someone is fired for a bad tweet, or when a publisher drops an author for an unpopular view, or when teenagers spy on one another like little Stasi and adults applaud.”
In 1943, in ruling it was unconstitutional to compel public school students to salute the flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson stressed the importance of school officials “educating the young for citizenship” and “not … strangl[ing] the free mind at its source.” Seven years later, in 1950, in explaining the meaning of the First Amendment, Jackson opined: “… the very essence of constitutional freedom of press and of speech is to allow more liberty than the good citizen will take.” As these principles have been forgotten, become shibboleths or, as Justice Jackson warned against, treated like platitudes, our formerly robust American cultural consensus favoring free expression has been replaced by self-censorship, prioritizing feelings over facts, and the delusion that Ignorance is Strength.
The Friends of the Hastings Public Library Board was letter-perfect when it wrote in last week’s Enterprise that the halt in reading Sherman Alexie’s book: “… could be the top of a slippery slope of removing books that even make even one student uncomfortable” and that “discouraging students, or adults from reading books that show the systemic racism and the cruelty that has informed much of our history just pushes the problems out of sight again.”
Instead of censoring or sanitizing, school officials should learn from James Baldwin, whose writings are frequently banned, that “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.”
Gary S. Rappaport, Esq.