Isabel Allende Fights Against Banning of Her Own Book

When the teaching of Isabel Allende’s internationally renowned novel The House of the Spirits was challenged in a North Carolina school district last month, advocates from all corners spoke out in its defense, including PFAW Foundation president Michael Keegan and North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti. Now, Isabel Allende herself has joined the conversation.

Yesterday the School Library Journal reported that Allende has mailed a letter, along with copies of her book, to the Watauga County school board, superintendent, and the principal of Watauga High School.

After acknowledging that being in the position of defending her own book is “unusual and awkward,” Allende points out in her letter that The House of the Spirits is “considered a classic of Latin American literature and it is taught in high schools, colleges, and universities in all Western countries, including the USA for more than two decades.” She expresses concern about the practice of book censorship in general:

Banning of books is a common practice in police states, like Cuba or North Korea, and by religious fundamentalist groups like the Taliban, but I did not expect it in our democracy.

Allende’s letter comes as the book undergoes a multi-step review process in the county. Last month an advisory committee comprised of teachers, students, and parents voted unanimously not to remove the book from the curriculum, but that decision has been appealed.

PFAW Foundation

NM School District Restores ‘Neverwhere’ to Curriculum Following PFAW Foundation Advocacy

Last month, PFAW Foundation sent a letter to a school district review committee in Alamogordo, New Mexico urging them to reject attempts to remove Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from the English curriculum. Yesterday a local television station, KRQE News 13, reported that the book will indeed be put back into the Alamogordo High School curriculum. A district spokesperson told the School Library Journal that in the review process the book was found to be “educationally suitable, balanced, and age-appropriate for high school students.”

The School Library Journal’s Karyn Peterson provides the backstory:

Use of the novel, which had been a part of the AHS English department’s curriculum for nearly 10 years, was suspended from classrooms in early October after a mother complained to the school board about what she characterized as the book’s “sexual innuendos” and “harsh” language—occurring on a single page of the 400-page novel.  The district then created a review committee and opened a public comment period...

PFAW Foundation was one of the groups that weighed in, encouraging the review committee to uphold the right of all students to “to receive a competitive, rigorous education free from censorship.”

The full text of our letter is below.

October 25, 2013

Dear Members of the Review Committee,

We urge you to reject attempts to remove Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from the English curriculum.  We understand that the novel was temporarily removed from the curriculum following the complaint of a parent and will be reviewed by this committee.

Neil Gaiman, whose awards include the Newbery Medal for outstanding children’s literature, is an acclaimed author whose work has been taught in the district for many years. We recognize that school leaders often face difficult decisions that require balancing the concerns of parents with the educational development of students.  However, according to English teacher Pam Thorp’s recent letter in the Alamogordo News, the child of the parent bringing the complaint was offered alternative reading material. While parents have every right to decline reading material for their own children, they should not be allowed to censor the curricula for all students.

Many works of literature tackle mature or challenging topics. Attempting to shield high school students from challenging works robs them of the opportunity to learn from and engage with literature, and sets a dangerous precedent.

We trust that as educators you will uphold the right of all students in Alamogordo public schools to receive a competitive, rigorous education free from censorship. For over 30 years we have worked with school districts to protect students’ right to learn, and are happy to serve as a resource for you in this and any future challenges to school curricula.

Best wishes,

Michael Keegan
President, People For the American Way Foundation

PFAW Foundation

PFAWF: More Attention on Colorado Censorship Campaign

Last week, People For the American Way Foundation joined a campaign to fight book censorship in a Colorado school district. The censorship battle began when a group of parents launched a petition to keep Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye out of the Legacy High School curriculum. Legacy High student Bailey Cross started a counter-petition emphasizing the dangerous precedent that this censorship would set and encouraging the school district to keep the book on the approved reading list.

PFAW Foundation sent a letter to the Adams 12 Five Star School District Board of Education showing support for the student’s campaign and urging the district to reject the attempts at censorship.

The efforts of the Foundation were highlighted by the Denver Post yesterday. Staff writer Yesenia Robles wrote that the parents involved claim the book is “developmentally inappropriate” and should be kept out of the classroom.

People For the American Way Foundation disagrees. Robles reports,

"We do understand this book has themes and content that are really challenging, but that's why it should be taught," foundation spokesman Drew Courtney said. "An important role of classrooms is to help students and young adults deal with that, to have those conversations in an intelligent way in the classrooms. Offering an alternative assignment is appropriate, but banning a prize-winning novel isn't prudence. It's censorship."

See the full Denver Post article here.

PFAW Foundation

PFAW Foundation Joins Fight Against Book Censorship in Colorado School District

“If one book is banned from being taught in a classroom setting, then it opens the door for all books – and ideas – to be banned as well.”

These are the closing words to a petition launched by high school student Bailey Cross in response to an attempt to eliminate Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from the high school curriculum in her Colorado school district.  The school board will have to decide the fate of the book in the district’s classrooms, which a local news source has reported could happen as early as August

In their petition, the students point out that parents or students who object to the reading assignment are already offered an alternative novel.  In addition, teachers are not forced to teach the book.  The outright elimination of this important piece of literature from the classroom would set a troubling precedent.

Today People For the American Way Foundation sent a letter on behalf of our 718,000 members to the Adams 12 Five Star School District Board of Education urging them to reject the attempts at censorship.  The letter notes,

“Since it was first published in 1970, The Bluest Eye has been the target of censorship attempts because of its frank portrayal of racism and sexual assault. But shielding high school students from these subjects and from Morrison’s discussion of them does nothing to eliminate them from the world. Instead, Morrison’s nuanced discussions of difficult issues serve to help readers understand, discuss, and confront those issues…

“Our nation’s schools are meant to be places that encourage the free exchange of ideas.”

Let’s make sure we keep them that way.

PFAW Foundation

Speaking of Class Warfare…

One of the most absurd things to come out of American politics in recent months is the allegation that the president’s proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans – bringing them back to the levels they enjoyed under Clinton -- amounts to “class warfare.”

In the Huffington Post last week, PFAW’s Michael Keegan called the GOP’s renewed cries of “class warfare” both “ironic and cynical.”

If you want to see what class warfare really looks like, you need look no further than Texas, where a group of oil companies has successfully lobbied to have a government panel re-examine a very large tax break that they were previously denied, and are now on the verge of receiving a $135 million gift from the state. Who’s paying for that gift? Public schools.

Here’s how the oil companies, led by Valero, are wrangling the refund from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, according to the AP:

Valero first asked for the refund for six of its refineries in 2007, and wants payment retroactive to that year. Since then, at least four other companies have asked for the same retroactive refund.


Valero argues the units should be exempt under a Texas law that says industrial plants don't have to pay taxes on equipment purchased to reduce on-site pollution. The law saves companies millions, and is meant to encourage investment in new technology.


At first, the request was denied. The commission's staff said the hydrotreaters reduce pollution in diesel and gas, not necessarily at the plant. In fact, staff said, the hydrotreaters actually increased sulfur dioxide pollution near the refineries because the toxic gas is now burned off in a flare.


Valero appealed, and the panel's chairman, Bryan Shaw, said last April that the Legislature likely intended a broader interpretation of the law. He instructed his staff to research whether they could award partial exemptions to Valero. Shaw declined to be interviewed for this story, saying it could present a conflict because the issue will be brought before him again.


Shaw, the environmental commissioner who encouraged the panel to take a new look at the oil company tax refund, was hand-picked for his post by Gov. Rick Perry. He’s an odd choice to head an environmental quality panel – as Mother Jones reported last week, he’s a climate change skeptic who has a long history of siding with industry over environmental groups.


But Gov. Perry’s ties to the oil industry run deep – since 1998, he’s raked in $11 million in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies, including $147,895 from Valero, the company that’s leading the effort to get the $135 million tax refund.


While oil companies enjoy expensive access to the governor and an ally at the top of one of the committees charged with holding them accountable, it’s the state’s children who are breathing polluted air and whose schools are being asked to pay for new corporate tax breaks. From AP:


Now, the AP's analysis shows, the Pasadena Independent School District may have to refund $11.3 million to two refineries if commissioners grant the request.


Early Monday, Gonzales and others handed out fliers, collected petition signatures and offered $10,000 cookies and brownies at a mock "bake sale" designed to raise awareness about the money at stake. Eight Houston schools planned similar mock sales for later in the day.


The mom-turned-activist said she learned about the refineries' requests while unsuccessfully lobbying earlier this year to convince Perry and the Legislature to dip into the state's so-called rainy day fund to ease cuts to the schools.


Gonzales lives near a miles-long stretch of refineries, where massive pipes and stacks light the night like skyscrapers do in other cities. An intense, burnt chemical scent hangs over the town.


"You smell it. That's what we're known for. Stinkadena because of the refineries," Gonzales said. "There are days when we can't go out because our children's asthma is that bad ... and then they want money back?"
 

PFAW

Limbaugh: Elizabeth Warren, for Advocating Fair Taxation, is a 'Parasite'

De facto head of the GOP and all-around blowhard Rush Limbaugh had the gall to call Elizabeth Warren a “parasite” and “an arrogant condescending, conceited snob who has profound resentment” last week in his latest attempt at throwing cold water on anything approaching rationality in political dialogue.

So one has to ask what Warren said that was so upsetting to the right-wing provocateur.

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody! You built a factory out there? Good for you! But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You built a factory, and it turned into something terrific or a great idea: God bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

But hey, I get it. Anything that says there is a social compact automatically makes right wingers like Limbaugh hyperventilate. They’d rather sacrifice a good economy, schools that educate our young, and yes, a social contract that helps our seniors stay out of poverty than tell the most privileged of our society that they have to pay a larger share of their income in taxes than their secretaries. If that were my goal, I’d be pretty angry at Elizabeth Warren too.

Elizabeth Warren 1. Rush Limbaugh, right wingers, space cadets, nitwits and bullies 0.

PFAW

Saving the Constitution From the Tea Party

What if our federal government didn’t have the power to provide for emergency disaster relief? To prevent children from being put to work at an early age…without even the protection of a minimum wage? To prohibit discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and public schools? To help struggling states fund public education?

These are the logical ends of the radical, regressive vision of the Constitution that has become popular among the Tea Party -- and that for the first time is enjoying serious consideration in the halls of Congress and in federal court rooms.

The Center For American Progress’s Ian Millhiser released a paper today outlining some of the ways the Tea Party’s selective worship of parts of the Constitution threatens to derail the success of the hard-won protections contained in the whole Constitution. Millhiser brainstorms a list of some of the things that would be unconstitutional under the Tea Party’s Constitution:

  • Social Security and Medicare
  • Medicaid, children's health insurance, and other health care programs
  • All federal education programs
  • All federal antipoverty programs
  • Federal disaster relief
  • Federal food safety inspections and other food safety programs
  • Child labor laws, the minimum wage, overtime, and other labor protections
  • Federal civil rights laws

 

You can add to that the basic definition of citizenship and the concept of separation of church and state. And that doesn’t even include the progressive amendments to the Constitution that Tea Party activists want to roll back, such as the amendment providing for the direct election of U.S. senators.

PFAW examined the Tea Party’s dangerous cherry-picked Constitution in a report last year, Corporate Infusion: What the Tea Party’s Really Serving America , which demonstrates that the Tea Party’s supposed allegiance to the Constitution deliberately ignores the text and history of the original document and the progressive amendments that have extended its freedoms to more and more Americans.

Earlier this week, PFAW Foundation, CAP and the Constitutional Accountability Center launched an effort called “Constitutional Progressives,” aimed at protecting and defending the whole Constitution – it’s its text, history and more than 200 years of amendments. You can sign a pledge to support the whole Constitution at constitutionalprogressives.org.

 

PFAW

Wisconsin News Round-Up, Election Day Edition

Today is Election Day in six districts across Wisconsin, and we’re hoping for a strong turnout. There are great liveblogs and chats with on-the-ground reports at Patch, Blue Cheddar and dane101. If you live in Wisconsin, make sure you vote before polls close at 8pm tonight, and if you have any problems voting or concerns about voter suppression, you can call 1-866-OUR VOTE and report them. Remember, a photo ID is not required to vote today, even though voters will be asked for it. You can thank Scott Walker for that one.

We’re all hoping for some wins tonight, but the real victory will be when Wisconsinites can send their children to well-funded public schools, and when their elected representatives don’t cut funds to the programs that ordinary people need in order to “balance the budget”, all while giving deficit-exploding tax breaks to the biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals. Whatever the result, the message to Walker and his corporate friends has been sent: the people of Wisconsin aren’t going to stand by and let the Republicans’ war on working families continue. Walker and extreme Republicans like him across the country are hoping that we’ll see tonight as the end of our efforts. It’s our job to make sure he doesn’t get his wish.

PFAW

Wisconsin News Round-Up, 8/5

News from Wisconsin:

  • Election Day is only four days away, but there’s still a long road ahead. RNC Chair Reince Priebus, in a spectacular failure of expectations management, said Friday that the RNC is “all in” on the Wisconsin recalls, and that they’re “not nervous” about winning the elections. I’m not sure I believe him, especially as his position has now shifted to “nothing to see here, move along please”, telling reporters these are local races and there's no national significance to the recalls. That would be why the Republican National Committee that Priebus chairs is pouring money into the race, right? He might be on to something, though: regardless of the outcome of the elections, the people have already won by shining a light on the plight of working people and the dangerous policies of Walker’s right-wing agenda. Still, with We Are Wisconsin announcing they have contacted one million voters, and absentee voting at “near record pace” in some areas, I think Priebus has reason to be nervous. Even Dan Kapanke seems to agree, with the Pierce County Herald reporting that Kapanke said Republicans better hope public employees sleep through Election Day. Except it’s not just public employees he has to worry about: it’s seniors, students and ordinary working families across Wisconsin who have been damaged by Walker’s policies, and unfortunately for Kapanke, I think they already woke up.
  • Still, that doesn’t mean the radical Right isn’t fighting with all they’ve got (which is a lot) to win this thing, and they’re not playing by the rules, either. Americans For Prosperity, a Koch brothers front group which has already funded Walker’s campaign against Wisconsinites, is sending out absentee ballots with false information on them, telling voters to return their ballots after election day, to a non-government address used by other right-wing groups in the past. Stay classy!
  • Last week, we learned that Kim Simac thinks our public schools have similarities to schools under the Nazi regime. This week she’s clarifying those comments, by telling us our public schools have similarities to Nazi schools. Asked about her comments, she told WPR that she’s “not worried that we're going that way, absolutely not”, but then went on talk about “similarities that seem to happen”, concluding that this isn’t “a conversation that I should hide from.” Please, Kim, let’s keep talking about our Nazi schools. It’s not like there’s an economy that needs fixing or anything.
  • Alberta Darling is still managing to surprise us with her detachment from reality: she thinks people who earn over $250,000 “aren’t wealthy people” and thus deserve a tax break, while working families continue to struggle with the consequences of Walker’s massive cuts. By the way, the median household income in Wisconsin is less than one-fifth of that at $49,994 (which means half the households in Wisconsin earn less than that). About 2% of Americans, and 3% of small businesses for that matter, make more than $250,000 a year.
  • In other news, the “chokehold” incident between Justice David Prosser and Justice Ann Bradley is facing further investigation, with the Dane County District Attorney asking that a special prosecutor be appointed.
  • On Monday, the State Senate approved the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits, with Assembly Republicans supporting the bill because it saves the state money- despite the reality that unemployment benefits are one of the best forms of stimulus, generating a return to the economy of $1.64 for every $1 spent. But Republicans don’t really care about the economic crisis’ impact on ordinary people, as long as their friends in the top 2% get their tax break. Welcome to Scott Walker’s Wisconsin.
PFAW

Empowering LGBT youth: Stephen Colbert, “It gets better”

Stephen Colbert, an actor, comedian, and host of the political satire show, The Colbert Report, dropped his usual sarcastic persona to speak candidly about the problems of teen bullying.

In this video for the “It Gets Better Project,” Colbert discusses his own experience with being harassed at school, as well as a lesson he learned after one his own friends courageously stood up to a bully after being called a “queer”.

If you don’t give power to the words that people throw at you, to hurt you, they don’t hurt you anymore—and you actually have power over those people.

      

Colbert adds another voice to the over ten thousand people who have contributed messages of hope and support to LGBT youth, including President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, numerous senators, and several celebrities.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that LGBT youth deserve support. People For the American Way has been tracking right-wing activists who have been intervening in the problem of teen bullying…by supporting the bullies.

PFAW