Jun 12 2012

the self-defeating politics of setting fire to elephants (why I hate academia sometimes)

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Some thoughts after working a textbook buyback at a community college:

One of the people selling books back to me this past week was a professor who was unloading several sample copies of books he’d received through various publishers and such. I’m of two minds about this practice, but that’s not what’s important to this post.

One of the books he sold us was called Should We Burn Babar?, which, from my cursory glance through it, seemed to be the usual post-modern politically correct revisitation of children’s literature.

I grew up loving the Babar series, so the title immediately caught my attention. During a lull, I picked it up and took a look through it. I will fully disclose that I didn’t get a chance to read the article as carefully as I would have liked – I was still dealing with occasional students at this point. But the gist of the article, from what I could tell, was that we need to come up with a more “wholly inclusive” form of children’s literature, and Babar does not make the cut.

His reasoning went (as far as I could tell) something along the lines of this –

The Babar series deals with the efforts of a rich old white lady “civilizing” Babar, after his mother has been killed. This is an inevitable power-play of the white bourgeois class, being judgmental of Babar’s innate “elephantness”, and showing that viewing such “savagery” as “needing to be civilized” in a manner consistent with white bourgeois power structures was racist and culturally imperialistic and “colonial”. In fact, the fact that Babar was an elephant, and elephants are found in Africa, (and they weigh more than a duck), was merely a clever facade hiding the de Brunhof family’s disdain for people of African descent, and that the de Brunhofs were really arguing that white people are the greatest people on Earth, and those damn savages need to be forcibly civilized by any means necessary, or exterminated. Those clever de Brunhofs! This whole time, I thought the book was about elephants! But no, in fact, these books will inevitably make African-American children feel the oppressive weight of the white man’s foot on their delicate fragile egos, condemning them to a lifetime of self-loathing, and teach little white kids that it’s okay to enact social policies that continue to grant them privilege and power over the other people of the planet.

Funny, I don’t remember any of that happening when we read it in school.

Yes, yes, you say, but that’s because the African-American kids were either a) quaking in fear and not wanting to speak up about what was OBVIOUSLY a tool of the White Power Structure, or b) being subtly indoctrinated by the de Brunhofs to “know their place”, and accept that true salvation comes only at the hands of the moneyed White.

I think you can imagine what’s going through my mind.

The author (Herbert R. Kohl) made note of another incident, involving a grade school class that was reading the Little House on the Prairie books, and of a Native American child in there who was having problems, because of the portrayal of Native Americans in them. Was Laura Ingalls Wilder a racist? Sure, in some respects, probably. I don’t exactly have images of her wearing sheets and burning crosses, however. Also, if we want to call her a racist, her beliefs need to be put in context with the time in which she lived, and wrote. While her views and portrayals of Native Americans may be subpar by today’s standards, her books are still an important historical document, that can actually be used to teach, and foster discussion. Rather than the two options presented by the author of Should We Burn Babar?, which were “remove the books from the classrom”, and “teach the book anyway, trampling on the Native American child’s feelings of self-worth and ignore his difficulties”, why not use the books as a way to foster discussion? “Here is a first-hand account of what it was like living then, how have we changed our views since then? How are they still the same? Why?” I think that would be a pretty kickass way to teach kids, personally. He talked briefly about giving the Native American kid an alternate assignment, but I’m not entirely sure if that would lead to feelings of being even further ostracized or not.

But, I’m digressing away from the point of this post (I enjoyed the Little House books when I was a kid too – bite me. I didn’t think they were anything extra great, but they were a good read at the time).

The author has decided that there is “no room for Babar” in the (post)modern child’s home or classroom, and these horrible books (as much as he loved them as a child too) simply MUST be banished. Their usefulness has expired, and they must be kept from the hands and eyes of impressionable young children everywhere, lest we perpetuate past injustices, and descend into a full-on race war that Manson only dreamed of.

There’s a couple of problems here (to say the least).

1) The minute you start talking about “burning” books (literally or figuratively), I get really fucking nervous. I don’t care how “noble” your intentions are.

2) It’s a book about elephants. Congratulations, you’ve now gotten as weird as the fucking Jewish Anti-Defamation League when it claims that David Icke’s talk of Space Reptile Overlords ruling the planet is a secret code for “Jew”

3) You, Mr. Author, say yourself that you read and enjoyed the books as a child. How many crosses did you burn on people’s lawns as a result? How many third world countries did you rape and pillage for resources after reading de Brunhof? How many “savage natives” have you slaughtered? Or were you one of the few “enlightened” kids who somehow escaped the seductive lure of genocide as celebrated in these books? How does that knowledge of your own innate superiority for escaping the clutches of the de Brunhofs make you feel?

4) (and this is the important one) How does your desire to “protect the innocents” from these books in any way differ from the “white upper-class power grab” you condemn the character of the “Rich Old Lady” in the books for making? In other words, aren’t you -by trying to control what we read- attempting in your own way, to “civilize” us “savages” who “don’t know any better”?

I guess, what I’m ultimately trying to say is, two things.

a) What a load of shit.

b) Fuck OFF.

I know it’s fashionable in academic circles to attack some cherished institution, and expose the hidden oppressive elements to them, and assuage your guilt at having privilege when there is so much injustice in this world. Honestly? You haven’t saved a damn soul. If you want to really impress me, go buy a homeless person lunch. And stop the post-modern deconstructionalist masturbation. It leads to nowhere, and is embarrassing. It exposes you for the fool that you are. You grew up reading these books, and you turned out (mostly) fine. I bet you watched the same violent cartoons I did growing up, and have dropped exactly the same number of anvils on people that I have – zero.

Go feed someone.

Tell me about it afterwards.

I might even look up from my copy of Babar: King of the Elephants and listen to you tell me about it.

Until then, stop wasting my time.

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