Not long ago my small northern city of Bemidji, Minnesota, had to deal with a book "challenge" at the local high school. The novel in question was Kent Haruf's Plain Song. One school board member with a right wing religious agenda pressed to have the book removed. The high school teachers, who have enough to do without guarding the classroom doors against ideologues, were knocked back on their heels. Since some of the teachers were former college students of mine, I felt compelled to take the lead and mobilize against some very dark forces of censorship. I got in touch with Mr. Haruf, whom I knew a bit, and after many letters in the local paper and great fuss and endless school board meetings, the book was restored. But what a waste of time and human resources.
What's worse, my city has a particularly short memory. This time it's not a book challenge but, well, a beaver challenge. Bemidji takes pride in its funky little downtown, which includes a sculpture walk. At any one time, there are 15 or so objets d'art installed on pedestals one per intersection. This summer's theme was "beavers": 12 artists received an identical five foot tall beaver to paint as they saw fit. Saint Paul has its Charlie Browns, Kansas City its steers, Bemidji its beavers--which are also the mascot of the state university here.
One of the art walk beavers, however, named "Gaea", began to draw complaints. "Over 20 of them" according the city manager-who ordered her removed. This set off a protest that began in Facebook, hit the local newspapers and wire services, quickly went to television affiliates across the Midwest and viral from there. If you're a news person, what's not to like about a brightly painted, controversial beaver? The oversized rodent Gaea was painted in Georgia O'Keefe style with flowing female figures, including a red shawl-or was it a butterfly?-or a woman praying with open arms? Or, heaven forbid, was it female genitalia? On display! Right here in River City!
The latter was clearly too much for the city manager, guardian of "community standards" (that old censorship gambit); for our protection, he had Gaea carted off. Big mistake. Through the power of social networking and local organizing, "Save the Beaver" and 1st Amendment supporters rose up. The other painters shrouded their beavers (I'm not making this up) in black plastic as a protest. One was renamed "Burqua Beaver." A good-sized but orderly mob descended upon a city council meeting, where the stunned members allowed brief debate then moved, seconded and voted unanimously to restore Gaea to her pedestal on Third Street. It was a great (and fun) victory for freedom artistic expression. The city manager, however, as quoted in the Bemidji Pioneer newspaper, "still believes it was the right decision" to remove her. Which is the scary part.
There is a type of elected official in my town and in EveryCity, America, who just doesn't get it. They do not understand that when they remove a book from the classroom, a painting from a wall, or a rodent from a pedestal, they have kicked the hornet's nest of our American-ness: we hate when one person decides to decide what we can view, read, hear, do or say. We just won't stand for it. But the fact that these "deciders" keep trying means, when it comes to censorship and the arts, that none of us should ever sleep easily. Though we are partying in Bemidji tonight.
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