Just fifty short years since the censorship trial of Allen Ginsberg's historic poem, "Howl," the publication of which landed poet, and City Lights publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in jail, another Howell is in the news, Howell, Michigan. In an otherwise innocuous midwestern town, last month, the U.S. Attorney's office for Michigan requested that the FBI investigate claims of obscenity based upon a complaint filed with the Howell Board of Education.
The complaint was filed by a woman who failed in her mission to have the county Board of Education ban books currently on eleventh grade reading lists on grounds that they are not only obscene, but "violate the laws against child pornography and child sexual abuse," (American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression [ABFFE]). Which books does the complainant want banned, and pulled from school shelves? None other than Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," Richard Wright's "Black Boy," and Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five."
How is it that one person's disgust can garner the attention not merely of a local school board, and the state's attorney's office, but the FBI? Arguably, because this woman has the support, and backing of a group - called Livingston Organization for Values in Education (LOVE) comprised primarily of parents, clergy, and others in the community who also believe that the aforementioned books are unfit for high school students. And, when rebuked by the Howell Board of Education by their decision, in a vote of 2 to 1, to defend the books by Morrison, Wright, and Vonnegut, a prominent member of the organization called LOVE took their complaint to the Livingston County prosecutor, who then turned the complaint over to U.S. Attorney Stephen J. Murphy, III. It was Mr. Murphy's call to involve the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
According to Chris Finan, President of ABFFE, Murphy "routinely refers all obscenity complaints to the FBI." One would think that a U.S. Attorney, and his pals at the FBI, would have a lot on their plates these days what with the war and terror, and would find themselves short of the manpower to wage a war on innocent literary texts by investigating such lean, and frivolous charges, especially in light of the fact that Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, and Kurt Vonnegut are among the best, and most prominent writers of our times.
Moreover, if, as has been suggested, the aforementioned literature violates laws against child pornography, child abuse, and is "obscene," then one might also reasonably expect that the Howell Board of Education to be compelled, by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney, to ban the Old Testament from school curriculum, too, given its lurid, and incestuous nature. One has only to recall the rape of Tamar, incest, as well as the first circumcision, the murder by Jephthah of his daughter, to call for banning the bible on grounds that it promotes child abuse.
Wouldn't it be something if all those who speak out the loudest in favor of creationism, and so-called "intelligent design," were to have their bibles pulled from public school shelves based on charges that they contain child pornography!
Consider too, the ruling that as long as a book has "literary merit," it may be considered obscene in light of some superbly lascivious biblical passages. If a school district may be allowed to condemn a book like "Slaughterhouse Five," why not Exodus 4:24 in which Zipporah is forced to cut off the foreskin of her baby in order to keep the Lord from killing her husband Moses? And, putting literary texts aside for a moment, what reasonable person can read an account of how our forefathers slaughtered the Native Americans, in a history textbook, and not condemn that as "obscene?"
To think that our friend, U.S. Attorney Murphy, has reportedly referred the offending books to the FBI makes one take a long, hard look at just how far we've actually come, since July, 1933, when another judge, in the southern district of New York, Judge Woolsey, ruled that James Joyce's "Ulysses" is not obscene, and may legally be admitted into the United States.
It takes one's breath away to think that we live in an age when anything we can think of can be digitalized, when we can communicate with someone 9,000 miles away, by means of a laptop computer, instantly, when we can fly 30,000 feet above the ground, and we still have to defend literature, and writers, against a hard-boiled band of neanderthals who have a longer life expectancy than your average garden variety cockroach. For shame, America, hope of many, embarrassment to all.
Follow Jayne Lyn Stahl on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaynelynstahl