Banned Books Awareness: “Tarzan”


Part of growing up in the 20th century was reading the adventures of Tarzan of the Apes, through a series of 24 books by Edgar Rice Burroughs; the novels are considered classic literature by adults, as well. Written between 1912 and 1965, Tarzan has been adapted numerous times for radio, television, stage, and cinema and has been adapted more times than any book except Dracula. But this classic also has a history of being banned and censured.

It may seem hard to understand just how the tales of Tarzan and Jane could be offensive enough that some would demand that readers be denied their right to them, but the sad truth is that it has happened several times.

Among the reasons for censoring the books is because Tarzan and Jane live together without having been “married in the eyes of God”.

All of the Tarzan books were banned in Los Angeles, California, in 1929 because it was reasoned that, even though he is a fictional character, Tarzan, was living in the jungle with Jane without being married.

The books were likewise pulled from the shelves of the public library in- the appropriately named- town of Tarzana, California in the 1930s. Authorities said the adventure stories were unsuitable for youngsters since there was “no evidence that Tarzan and Jane had married before they started cohabiting in the treetops”.

Ralph Rothmund, who ran Burroughs’ estate, protested that the couple had taken marital vows in the jungle with Jane’s father serving as minister. “The father may not have been an ordained minister,” he said, “but after all things were primitive in those days in the jungle.”

In the cinematic adaptation of “Tarzan and His Mate” (1934), an underwater nude scene of Maureen O’Sullivan’s double (a professional swimmer) had to be removed before theaters would show it. After Ted Turner bought the MGM library in the 1990s, he had the scene restored.

Pictured at left, Burroughs holds a copy of the first German edition of Tarzan of the Apes, published by the Dieck Company of Stuttgart, in 1924. After the publisher’s death, Burroughs sent Dieck’s widow enough money to keep her out of the poor house- because the Tarzan books had been banned in Nazi Germany and she had fallen on hard times.

It is often noted that the Tarzan books and movies use racial stereotyping, but that- to a degree- was common in the times in which they were written. That does not serve to dismiss those claims, but rather put them in an historical context for deeper understanding. This led to controversy in the later years of the 20th century, especially after the changing social views and customs in the 1970s.

A Swedish character was described as having “a long yellow moustache, an unwholesome complexion, and filthy nails”, and Russians cheat at cards. The aristocracy and royalty- except the House of Greystoke, of course- are habitually degenerate.

The early books give a negative and stereotypical portrayal of the Africans of the day- both Arabic and Black. In The Return of Tarzan, Arabs are “surly looking” and call Christians “dogs”, while Blacks are “lithe, ebon warriors, gesticulating and jabbering”. One could make an equal argument that Burroughs was simply depicting villainous characters as such and the heroes in a brighter context- as in Chapter 6 of Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar where Burroughs writes of Mugambi, “…nor could a braver or more loyal guardian have been found in any clime or upon any soil.”

In later books, Africans are portrayed more realistically as people. In Tarzan’s Quest, while the depiction of Africans remains relatively primitive, they are portrayed more individualistically, with a greater variety of character traits, good and bad, while the main villains are Whites. Burroughs never loses his disfavor for European royalty, though.

The “superior-inferior” relationship is evident in virtually all interactions between Whites and Blacks in the stories- and similarly in most other interactions between differing people; although it can be said that these interactions are the heart of the dramatic narrative and without them there is no story, especially in the conflict between past and present and the definitions of ‘civilization’ and ‘humanity’ that the books explore.

In Tarzan of the Apes, details of a background of suffering experienced at the hands of Whites by Mbonga’s “once great” people are repeatedly told with evident sympathy, and in explanation or even justification of their current animosity toward Whites.

Burroughs’ opinions, which manifested through the narrative voice in the stories, reflected other common attitudes in his time, which in a 21st-century context would be considered racist and sexist. According to James Loewen’s Sundown Towns, this may be a result of Burroughs’ having been from Oak Park, Illinois, a former Sundown town (a town that forbids non-Whites from living within it).

He isn’t spiteful in his attitudes, either. His heroes don’t act violently against women or different races.

Feminist scholars have criticized the presence of other sympathetic male characters that engage in this violence with Tarzan’s approval. In Tarzan and the Ant Men, the men of a fictional tribe of creatures called the Alali gain social dominance of their society by beating the Alali women into submission with weapons that Tarzan willingly provides them. Following the battle, Burroughs writes: “To entertain Tarzan and to show him what great strides civilization had taken, the son of The First Woman seized a female by the hair and dragging her to him, struck her heavily about the head and face with his clenched fist, and the woman fell upon her knees and fondled his legs, looking wistfully into his face, her own glowing with love and admiration.”

While Burroughs writes some female characters with humanistic equalizing elements, it is commonly argued that violent scenes against women in the context of male sociopolitical domination are condoned in his writing, underpinning a notion of gendered hierarchy where patriarchy is the natural highpoint of society.

However, Burroughs notion of the feminine elevated women to the same level as men and that- in such characters as Dian or Dejah Thoris- portrays a female type who is neither desperate housewife nor full-lipped prom-date, and neither middle-level office-manager nor frowning ideological feminist-professor, but those who exceed all these in her realized humanity and in so doing suggests how ridiculous such views were to begin with.

It has been suggested- and supported in various experiments and real-world examples- that when we are removed from our modern world of convenience and elevated sense of civilization we revert to primal instincts and behaviors. There is hardly anyone out there, who when forced into a similar situation as Tarzan, would find many of our “values” skewed and modified in order to survive.

In the end, all of these “issues” are lost and unnoticed by the children reading of exotic lands and wild animals while fantasizing about high adventure and danger. Once again, adults- who have forgotten and forsaken their childhood imaginations and innocence- look with a magnifying glass at these tales with a larger world-view than is needed for them.


For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Wikipedia, WikiAnswers, ERBzine, The Week, Cyber College, LA Times
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “Bare-Faced Messiah”


Scientologists have kept a book out of American stores for 27-years because it alleges that L. Ron Hubbard was a racist and a fantasist with a penchant for bizarre sexual rituals; but it is finally getting published.

Written by British journalist Russell Miller, it was finished the year after Hubbard’s death in 1986. Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard explores the myths the father of Scientology created around himself.

Bare-Faced Messiah was published around the globe, but was blocked in the United States after two years of litigation in both the United States and United Kingdom from Scientologist leaders. Miller’s American publisher gave up; but now, finally, it is being released with a newly-written introduction from Miller by Silvertail Books, who, in February 2014, were granted world English rights to the book.

The biography was cited quite often by later Scientology books, including Lawrence Wright’s bestselling Going Clear, but few Americans had a chance to read it.

The evidence clearly shows that Hubbard lied about his education and childhood in official Scientology biographies and refutes the assertion that he was one of the nation’s first nuclear physicists and a doctor. In fact, Hubbard failed the one class he took in nuclear physics and dropped out of George Washington University after his sophomore year, never earning a degree.

Hubbard would also observe and document bizarre sex rituals with a prominent Caltech rocket scientist, Jack Parsons, who lived in Pasadena and was a well-known eccentric. Parsons was a devotee of the occult and Hubbard allegedly stole his girlfriend from him. Hubbard moved into Parson’s home, where they would engage in bizarre sex magick rituals that followed the teachings of Aleister Crowley. Parsons intended to create a ‘moonchild’- with assistance from Hubbard – who would be “mightier than all the kinds of the earth”, and whose birth Crowley had foretold.

Hubbard would come to realize that by branding Scientology as a religion it would be better for “business concerns”-

Sam Merwin, then the editor of the Thrilling Science Fiction magazines, was quoted in Bare-Faced Messiah:

“…Hubbard was invited to address a science fiction group in Newark hosted by the writer, Sam Moskowitz. ‘Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous,’ he told the meeting. ‘If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way to do it would be start his own religion.’

This is why Hubbard, and the current leadership of the church, specifically target celebrity devotees such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta- so that it would remain in the news.

Religious gullibility is, perhaps, superseded only by religious fundamentalism.

Hubbard extolled a life in Montana, where he claimed he grew up breaking wild horses on his grandfather’s ranch. However, Miller exposes that Hubbard’s grandfather was a “small-time veterinarian who supplemented his income renting out horses and buggies from a small barn.”

Miller also asserts that Hubbard lied about his service in World War II and only counts around 25,000 people as followers instead of the millions the church claims.

According to Scientology legend, Hubbard had served in “all five theaters” of the war, had been the first American casualty in the Pacific, had survived being machine-gunned and blinded and had broken various limbs, and had commanded American “corvettes” in both the Atlantic and Pacific.

These official church accounts of his wartime experience paint him as a hero and keen military commander on the level of Alexander the Great, but his official government wartime record reveals that Hubbard was a naval lieutenant whom oversaw the re-fit of a trawler in Boston Harbor and was relieved of its command before it ever sailed and, while he was in the Pacific, he was handed command of an anti-submarine vessel that never left the coast of Oregon.

The most astounding event of Hubbard’s war was when he fired on Mexican territory for “target practice” and set off an international incident.

Hubbard is claimed to have traveled Asia intensively, where he developed his love of philosophy and mysticism after spending time with holy men who thought him to be quite gifted. All Miller could find evidence of, however, were two trips to Asia as a teenager while his father was stationed in Guam; including a passage by Hubbard noting that “the Chinese could make millions if they turned the Great Wall into a roller coaster”, but Hubbard ultimately dismissed the thought because “The trouble with China is… there are too many chinks here.”

In researching the legal reasoning for the U.S. ban on Bare-Faced Messiah, a New York Times article from 1989 was found involving a Federal appeals court in New York rejecting the argument that the First Amendment should be taken into account in determining whether publication of a book may be barred even when only a small amount of previously unpublished material is quoted. The right of historians and biographers to quote from letters, diaries, and other unpublished primary source material had been challenged in the case.

The decision escaped much publicity because it relied on a technicality to uphold a publisher’s right to print the unflattering book about L. Ron Hubbard. A Danish corporation related to the church sought to bar the book on the ground that publishing parts of Hubbard’s diaries and journals constituted a copyright infringement.

The concern of the plaintiffs were that Miller’s research includes material such as Hubbard’s teenage diaries, personal correspondence to colleagues, employers and the FBI, as well as government documents.
Miller wasn’t concerned with only debunking a legend. He was documenting a remarkable life. While Hubbard told lie after lie about his accomplishments, he actually did live a chaotic and full life, getting into and out of trouble with pretentiousness.

If he was too busy to attend his college classes, for example, it was because he was ‘barnstorming the country with a friend in a biplane’. Through it all, he was increasingly turning his talents for exaggeration into a budding career as a writer.


For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

 Sources: Daily Mail, NY Post, NY Times, Washington Times, The Bookseller
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Censorship and Rape in the American Heartland


The residents of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, are no strangers to the practice of censorship. In 2006 they witnessed attempts to ban such works as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Sonya Sones’ One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. Now the English faculty at Fond du Lac High School is asking that district administrators get rid of their new censorship policy in the wake of the latest controversy to spark in the community.

16 members of the school’s English department signed and presented a 22-page statement supporting an open forum for student expression in response to Superintendent of Schools James Sebert and high school Principal Jon Wiltzius establishing a new policy, known as “School Guidelines Determined by the Principal regarding Student Publications,” that states all materials created by students are subject to review and possible refusal.

Fond Du Lac High School’s Cardinal Columns magazine made national news when the administration took exception to some of the content published in the February 2014 edition- namely an article entitled “The Rape Joke”, written by senior Tanvi Kumar. The article was an investigation into the rape culture in the school that included anonymous stories from three rape victims.

School officials also disapproved of an editorial that advised students of their right not to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance.

The faculty statement reads in part: “Such guidelines are not only a clear path toward censorship of student expression but also drastically alter the relationship between school publications and the administration and break sharply with roughly 100 years of district precedent regarding such publication.

“We believe that the story itself stands as an exemplar of high-quality, responsible journalism that has helped countless readers feel supported, speak up, seek help, and come together in a way that has undoubtedly resulted in a more positive environment in our school.”

I read Kumar’s article and I have to agree that it was the most heart-pulling, jaw-dropping, and best piece of journalism that I’ve read in a while. What’s even more amazing is that it came from a student. If she keeps up that level of mastery we’ll all be hearing a lot more from her in the future.

The statement also asks that the superintendent and board either abandon the new guidelines or put them on hold “until new guidelines or a new policy may be drafted in collaboration with the students, community, and experts in the field.”

An anti-censorship petition posted online at specifically calls upon Sebert to reverse the administrative mandate. Every time someone signs the petition an automatic email is sent to Sebert’s email. As of today there are over 5,300 signatures in support of the Cardinal Columns staff, including a signature from myself. That’s a lot of voices going to his inbox- but will they be heard or just tossed in the recycle bin?

When The Reporter contacted Sebert, Wiltzius, and School Board President Elizabeth Hayes for reaction to the teachers’ request to revisit the guidelines, Sebert issued the following statement:

“I believe that the guidelines are a reasonable expectation for a school-sponsored publication. The district has a responsibility to protect the educational process, environment, and the interests of all students.”

He declined an interview on the matter.

Cardinal Columns co-editor-in-chief, Rachel Schneider, says, “It’s great the teachers are willing to take a stand for the students because they should have the opportunity to express themselves.” She added that students plan to attend a 5 p.m. school board meeting on Monday to address board members directly.

Matthew Smith, Fond du Lac High School print journalism teacher and adviser to the Cardinal Columns staff, is among those who signed the statement. He points out a clause in the statement that says: “The existence of a policy of prior review has been found to increase the possibility of a school district being found legally liable for articles that are libelous or invade privacy, as evidenced by a report by the Student Law Center.”

School Board Vice President Susan Jones said she is for free speech as long as it isn’t offensive and she believes the issue should be revisited. She commented that Kumar’s article was “really well done” and that some teachers were even reading the article aloud in their classroom, holding it up as a piece of journalistic excellence.

“This is what democracy is all about, this is America and these kids are pretty mature. It’s a big issue in the high school and we should all be concerned about what is going on.”

Sebert and Wiltzius listed concerns about content printed in Cardinal Columns, including the possibility that the subject matter might not be appropriate for immature audiences, the photos might be too suggestive or edgy, that some students may have had their rights violated, that the cover could reflect poorly on the school, and that the issue may not include enough of a “positive focus”.

Well, let’s be honest. If there exists a status quo of rape in the school then the administration has nothing to be positive about and praise should go out to Kumar for exposing it to parents and others in the community.

One issue was with a picture on the inside cover that shows a woman described as “lying lifeless” in the middle of cardboard boxes. On that page the editors explain their cover photo selection process and why they rejected that image for the cover.

In a recent video about the new school guidelines made by broadcast journalism students Wiltzius is asked if predators also need to give consent before journalists can report on their alleged offense and he answered: “Both alleged victims and alleged perpetrators- both have rights.”

Vincent Filak, associate professor in the department of journalism at the University of Oshkosh, has been following the controversy. He said the approach Wiltzius appears to be taking regarding the policy is disturbing.

“I don’t know Jon Wiltzius personally, but his statements on the video paint a disingenuous picture of this policy and how it can be enforced. In one breath, he’s saying that he would offer suggestions or ‘just tweak’ things he thought were problematic or controversial. In the next breath, he admits that students have certain rights, including the right not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, but that this is the kind of thing that shouldn’t be part of the school paper. Under this policy, he would not be merely offering suggestions as he says, given that suggestions can be ignored or freely accepted. Instead, he would have the power to remove content he does not like, leaving the students without the right to publish as they see fit. That’s censorship.

“The intent of the superintendent and Mr. Wiltzius might be good in their own minds, but from the perspective of someone who values a free and unfettered press, this is a horrible policy that can lead to disastrous consequences.”

Filak said he would be joining the students at the school board meeting Monday.

The debate has incited a flood of comments on the magazine’s Twitter account @cardinalcolumns and Kumar’s personal account @Tanviiikumar, where she spoke up in a publicly-posted letter to Sebert. In it she states the article had “a lasting effect on this student body and inspired many people” and that she was repulsed by the behavior exhibited by people in the high school, pointing to a supposedly student-run Twitter account called “Ethan the Rapist,” that pokes fun at a very specific rape incident and rape in general.

“This story is not false, defamatory, libelous, vulgar, or profane. Unless you view survivors of horrendous atrocities speaking out against a culture that oppresses them as ‘profane,’ or ‘vulgar’ rather than revolutionary or novel,” she wrote.

School Board President Elizabeth Hayes said she objected to the headline “The Rape Joke” because people might not understand it, as well as the article on the Pledge of Allegiance.

“This publication is supported by taxpayer funds and it should be held to a high standard,” Hayes said. “And we should also be encouraging students to hold high standards of respect.”

First of all, if there are members of the student body whom think it okay to joke about rape on a daily basis and engage in such behavior then this school has a lot of work to do regarding “standards of respect.”

Additionally, those public taxpayers, as well as the students at the school, are citizens of the United States of America and they have a right to express themselves freely; readers also have a right to choose whether they want to engage in the conversations that those thoughts stimulate. If there are restrictions to the rights set forth in the First Amendment to the Constitution, then exactly what kind of a society are citizens pledging allegiance to? If it is one in which rape is a norm and those who dare speak out in defiance of it are silenced, then it isn’t one in which I would want to live, and neither should you.


For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Fond Du Lac Reporter, The Northwestern
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “East of Eden”


John Steinbeck is synonymous with American literature. He’s considered one of- if not the- greatest author of the 20th century. His novels are considered classics and taught from grade school through university graduate courses here and around the world. Nevertheless, his three most notable works- The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Of Mice and Men (1937), and East of Eden- have also been repeatedly banned or challenged.

Published in 1952, East of Eden is often heralded as his most ambitious novel and was originally addressed to Steinbeck’s sons- 6 and 4 at the time- because he wanted to describe Salinas Valley in detail for them through the complex tale of two families.

Along the way, the major themes explored include depravity, beneficence, love, the struggle for acceptance, greatness, and the capacity for self-destruction, guilt, and freedom. He ties these themes together with allegorical references to the biblical Book of Genesis, most notably Genesis Chapter 4- the story of Cain and Abel. The novel’s title was chosen by Steinbeck from Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden”. Steinbeck furthered the parallels in the naming of various characters. The first letters of the names of the main characters start with C, A, or both (Charles and Adam, Caleb and Aron, Cathy Ames and Abra).

Just like Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden was banned in Kern County, California because it was considered obscene due to his use of profanity; and a character, Cathy, becomes a prostitute. It was also controversial because residents felt it was “misrepresentative of the County,” causing copies to be burned at public gatherings.

Some of the other most notable cases of censorship include the following:

Opponents in Anniston, Alabama sought to remove it from school library bookshelves in 1982, also labeling it “ungodly and obscene”; it was later reinstated on a restricted basis. The schools in Greenville, South Carolina faced a similar challenge in 1991.

Canadian censors hopped on the bandwagon when residents of Morris, Manitoba had it banned from schools as well.

Steinbeck is the author of twenty-seven books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books, and five collections of short stories; he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962; but an unfortunate part of his legacy is that the American Library Association lists him as one of the ten most frequently banned authors from 1990-2004.

What’s more American than putting people on a pedestal and then knocking them down, right?


For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Wikipedia, Yahoo News, “John Steinbeck: Banned, Challenged, and Censored” by Maurene Hinds,
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “The Hindus: An Alternative History”


Academics, writers, and lawyers have voiced strong opposition to the withdrawal of American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, following a settlement between the publisher Penguin, a division of Random House, and a complainant group, Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti. Under the settlement, all copies of the book will be removed and shredded in India.

A well-known Hindi literary critic, Namwar Singh, called the act as an “attack on writers’ freedoms”. After reading Doniger’s book, he said that he found it challenging. “It is not the kind of book that says ‘yes sir’ to everything. It challenges several beliefs. If Hindutva is so powerful and secure, it should tolerate it, and respond in kind. It is an open market, and the appropriate response to the written word is the written word itself, not a ban.”

In a jointly-issued statement against Penguin’s decision to withdraw the book, several of India’s leading academics, such as historian Partha Chatterjee (Centre for Studies in the Social Sciences, Kolkata), Nayanjot Lahiri, and Upinder Singh (department of history, Delhi University), criticized the situation.

Senior Supreme Court advocate KTS Tulsi also agreed with Singh’s view of countering one book with another. “There is a growing tendency of intolerance in a certain section of society against the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Penguin may have succumbed because they did not want to be physically attacked. It shows helplessness against unruly mobs. It is unfortunate that this should happen in India where we pride ourselves on freedom of speech,” he says.

Banned Books Awareness has catalogued a similar increase in society’s polarization in the United States over the last decade.

However, the lobbyist in the case, Dinanath Batra, couldn’t be happier with the decision because it means that his organization had “won the battle but has yet to win the war against faulty representation of Indian history and historical figures.”

He complained that the book had “a lot of dirt in it that caused me a lot of pain and hurt my sentiments” in reference to what he perceived as overly-sexualized Hindu religious figures and other claims in the book that Hindus once ate and sacrificed cows.

His organization, which is headquartered in Delhi, was registered in 2008 and is, ideologically, right-wing and socially conservative and said to be associated with the RSS. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the literal translation of which is National Volunteer Organization or National Patriotic Organization, is a right-wing, paramilitary, volunteer nationalist group. The RSS states that its ideology is based on the principle of “selfless service to the nation.” When asked, his legal team refused to confirm or deny the claim of association.

The RSS has been busy in recent years. In 2008, the Delhi high court had directed the removal of 75 “objectionable” paragraphs from history textbooks following a petition by the group. The organization has been particularly active in the field of education in India by insisting that schoolbooks reveal a history that “reflects India’s pride” and has also campaigned against sex education in schools.

The Satanic Verses was banned in India back in 1988. In 2012, when Rushdie was due to appear at the annual Jaipur Literature Festival, his visit was cancelled following reported threats from various extremist groups such as the RSS and SBAS. Even a video conference with the writer at the festival was stopped at the last moment.

Spanish author Javier Moro was sent a legal notice for his book on Sonia Gandhi and was criticized in newspaper reports for “exploiting somebody’s privacy for personal commercial gains.”

The Maharashtra state government banned the book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, by James Laine, in 2004 after demonstrations by Shiv Sena. The ban was briefly lifted in 2007 and again by the Supreme Court in 2010.

Jeet Thayil, who supported the inclusion Salman Rushdie’s infamously banned book at the Jaipur Literature Festival, told The Times of India over the phone that “it is unfortunate that a religion that is known for its tolerance is showing that fundamentalists are the same everywhere.”

Penguin, to their decreased credit, has played the victim card and blames the situation on what they called India’s “intolerant laws” and insists that they are committed to free thought and expression, but that they have the “same obligation as any other organization to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be.”

That may seem a logical and legally-sound position, but the sad truth is that Penguin made its decision to remove the book purely for monetary reasons to save a buck. Had they chose to fight the ban, many legal experts agree that they would have certainly won because there was no fatwa, no official ban, no official court order, just a complaint filed. But now all of the citizens of India will lose because even if they download the PDF copy of the book off of the internet from other countries they will be breaking the law.

Rather than engaging in discussion to point out any flaws in the alternative historical accounts, the closed-minded fools at the RSS and the SBAS who called for the ban cower behind the decision to shred the work and all because it hurts their fragile feelings.

Someone hand them a box of tissues while I read Doniger’s book and await them at the debater’s podium. Somehow I don’t think they’ll show up.


For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Times of India, Daily Mail
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

A Multitude of Drops


Last night I watched Cloud Atlas for the first time. As with any great story, there were lines of dialog that stood out and resonated with me. I just wasn’t aware how prophetic one of those lines would be- which in hindsight is fitting when one considers the central themes of that story.

One of the characters stood in denouncement of his son, who was going off to affect social change by joining the abolitionist movement. He said that his son’s actions would be futile, amounting to little more than a drop of water. What his son said in retort was beautiful:

“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

This column started out to simply inform and create discourse, but as the journey progressed it became a cause for change.

In the time since my first article became part of cyberspace I have received some criticism, but also a lot of support. I have thoroughly enjoyed the comments and conversations on both sides as many a reader has shaken their head in bewilderment at not only the titles embattled in controversy, but the reasons for those controversies.

I have received many thanks for the articles from students, teachers, fellow columnists, avid book lovers and readers, and have even had my material become part of classroom literature assignments from middle school through universities around the world. I do not mention this to brag, but to acknowledge that I appreciate the support and that I am proud of my accomplishments.

Today I received another such letter from a woman who is working on a campaign with the superintendent of her former high school regarding books that have been brought before the school board to be banned.

The current book that is up for discussion is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, among others. I had covered that book last September and her research led her to my website.

She explained that she found my column a great help in organizing her thoughts and a valuable resource- so much so that she passed along the information to the superintendent in hopes that “these books will be free to inspire young minds and help them in what I believe is the most tumultuous time of a young adult’s life.”

She concluded her sincere remarks by stating that “perhaps I’ve gone on a tangent here but I really wanted to thank you.”

Kayla, I would say to you that you haven’t said nearly enough and that I hope your voice is heard in your former school system. I am the one thanking you. We are each of us a drop of water, but together we can wash away the fear and ignorance of the world.

The ripples have begun. In time it shall become a tidal wave.

© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: Censorship at Guantánamo Bay (Part 2)


Aside from the complete lack of due process and blatant disregard for religious liberty, human rights and amnesty groups continue to be baffled by the random and apparently arbitrary reasoning behind what publications are and are not allowed to be read by detainees within the walls of the United States’ political prison, Guantánamo Bay.

Writing to the New Statesman, a Saudi national, Shaker Aamer, who has been held for 12 years without charge, says that his lawyer “amuses himself (and me) by testing what the censors will let through” as reading material.

As reported in Part 1 of this story, that list of “offensive” material includes such childhood fare as Cinderella, Jack & the Beanstalk, and Beauty and the Beast; as well as socio-political works like The Rule of Law, by Lord Thomas Bingham- but George Orwell’s 1984 is okay.

John Grisham, who has a rocky history of censorship, had his novel “The Innocent Man” returned to the prison reading list only after his highly-publicized New York Times article blasting the Obama administration for the existence of the infamous prison and its censorship policies was published (8/11/2013).

The Innocent Man was Grisham’s first non-fiction work, but it reads with all of the suspense of his other thrillers.

In the town of Ada, Oklahoma, Ron Williamson was going to be the next Mickey Mantle, if not for a descent into alcohol and drugs. Then, on a winter night in 1982, not far from Ron’s home, a young cocktail waitress named Debra Sue Carter was brutally murdered. The local investigation led nowhere, until, on the weakest and most circumstantial of evidence, it led to Williamson. The washed-up athlete was charged, tried, and sentenced to death in a trial that was littered with lying witnesses and tainted evidence that would allow the true killer to go free.
It is a book that will terrify anyone who believes in the presumption of innocence, but maybe that’s what frightens prison officials and hits too close to home for many of the unfortunate souls under their watch. After all, that whole “innocent-until-proven-guilty” nonsense is so troublesome.

Other famous authors haven’t been so lucky- but that’s because they’ve been dead for over a hundred years and don’t have a PR team like Grisham-

One of those more prominent novels on the “no no” list is Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Like many other titles on the list, this literary classic being included defies logic and no other cases of censorship have been found against this book since it was published nearly 150 years ago- so why now? Why here?

For those who may not remember their literature classes, the novel centers on the mental distress and moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov, a poor student in St. Petersburg, who formulated and executed a plan to kill an unscrupulous pawnbroker for her cash. Raskolnikov argued that with the pawnbroker’s money he could perform good deeds to counterbalance the crime, while ridding the world of an evil. He even justifies his actions by comparing himself with Napoleon Bonaparte- believing that murder is permissible when in pursuit of a higher purpose.

Perhaps it is this allegory that frightens prison officials because of its parallels to the mindset behind jihad, but the United States would be highly hypocritical and ignorant of its own history if that were the case.

The list, and the hypocrisy, continues, as there are many other titles on the list that haven’t been discussed yet. In the meantime, read Grisham’s NYT Op-Ed- it’s a shocking revelation on the atrocities committed by the United States’ State Department.


For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: New York Times, Wikipedia
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: Censorship at Guantánamo Bay (Part 1)


It’s no secret that some serious and basic human rights are suspended, deferred, and outright denied for those caged at Guantánamo Bay, the United States’ military prison where it keeps its political prisoners. These violations also include the freedom to read.

Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the charity Reprieve, which provides legal assistance to the prisoners, has released a partial list (via the Guardian) of the books prison censors have barred him from giving his clients. As a disclaimer, two of Smith’s own books appear on the list.

An exploration of these titles in search of some rhyme, reason, or logic in the policy and its enforcement wielded many head-scratching moments of bewilderment. Despite diligent research on many of the titles, little to no precedent or reason could be found in the world outside of the prison’s walls for banning many of these:

  • Martin Amis- Money
  • Richard Beckett- The New Dinkum Aussie Dictionary
  • Lord Thomas Bingham- The Rule of Law
  • Russell Brand- Booky Wook Two
  • Professor Alan Dershowitz- Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking our Declaration of Independence
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky- Crime & Punishment
  • Frederick Douglass- The African American Slave
  • Frederick Forsyth- The Kill List
  • George Galloway- I’m Not the Only One
  • John Grisham- The Innocent Man
  • John Kampfner- Blair’s Wars
  • EM Naguib- Puss in Boots, Cinderella, Jack & the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast
  • Wilfred Owen- Futility
  • John Pilger- Hidden Agendas
  • William Shakespeare- The Merchant of Venice
  • Clare Short- An Honourable Deception: New Labour, Iraq and the Misuse of Power
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn- Gulag Archipelago
  • Clive Stafford Smith- Bad Men, Injustice
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe- Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Scott Turow- Presumed Innocent

Some titles may- on the surface at least- seem to make sense as to why they’re on the list based on an ignorant and cursory glance at the titles without actually understanding the contents between their covers; but Puss in Boots, Cinderella, Jack & the Beanstalk, and Beauty and the Beast? Seriously? Do the administrators fear that prisoners may be wished away by fairy godmothers or escape via magic beans? Please- if anyone has any logical, sound reason as to why these books are offensive and dangerous for prisoners to have let me know. I couldn’t find a single reason.

The Dinkum Aussie Dictionary, by Richard Beckett, is one of Australia’s most popular slang dictionaries which uses humour to explore the culture and colloquialisms of the land Down Under. Designed to enlighten new arrivals and entertain native speakers with its observations, there is no valid reason why a little comedy isn’t permitted to break the desolation of prison life. Besides, breaking down language barriers might lead to- *GASP*- understanding and tolerance of differences!

Hmmm…now we’re at least getting somewhere-

Speaking of humour, Saudi national, Shaker Aamer, has been held for almost 12 years without charge after being captured in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2001. He has indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom because he has a British wife and children who live in London.

Writing to the New Statesman, he says that his lawyer “amuses himself (and me) by testing what the censors will let through” as reading material. The latest violation includes Booky Wook 2, the second volume of comedian Russell Brand’s autobiography.

“I understand that Brand uses too many rude words,” he joked.

“I suppose you have to be amused by that: the US military is solicitous of my sensitive nature, and wants to protect me from swearing.”

In looking for valid reasons, at least Martin Amis is no stranger to controversy in regards to his writing- the advertising for his acclaimed autobiography, Experience, has been banned by London Underground because it features a photograph of the author smoking when he was underage.

Money: A Suicide Note, was released in 1984 and Time magazine lists the novel in its “100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present”. It tells the story of, and is narrated by, John Self, a successful director of commercials who is invited to New York by a producer, Fielding Goodney, to shoot his first film. Self is an archetypal hedonist and slob- usually drunk, an avid consumer of pornography and prostitutes, eats too much and spends too much- all encouraged by Goodney.

It would seem that censors may be taking issue with the adult content of the novel.

The career highlights and accolades of the honourable Lord Thomas Bingham are many; he’s held every legal position possible and his groundbreaking book, The Rule of Law, embodies that lifetime of wisdom. ‘The Rule of Law’’ is a phrase often quoted but rarely understood. One of the world’s most acute legal minds examined what this idea actually means by making clear that the rule of law is not a sterile legal doctrine, but the foundation of a fair and just society and a guarantee of responsible government that offers the best means yet devised for securing peace and co-operation. He also examined the historical origins of the rule and discusses the strains imposed on the rule of law by the threat and experience of international terrorism.

Well, it’s fairly evident why this nugget of social and legal wisdom isn’t allowed to be read- we can’t have political prisoners becoming aware of what their rights are and what the responsibilities of their captors are in a “fair and just” system.

There are plenty of books on the list yet to discuss, and the search for reasons as to why stark political commentary such as the frequently-banned 1984 is allowed on the prison reading list, but Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is not.


For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources:, Guardian, Metro (UK)
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Louisiana Lawmaker Says to Defund Libraries and ‘Send Users Back to Mexico’


This column has discussed book after book that has been banned and/or challenged for various reasons. Most incidents are the result of ignorance and intolerance, others may even be innocently well-intentioned; but what happens when entire libraries are threatened in order to serve the arrogant hatred of racism from ignorant individuals to push a political agenda?

That’s what happened this week, as the Golden Meadow Public Library contended with what has to be the most sordid censorship effort to ever occur in the United States. There was a “special election” held to defund the public library in order to use the funds to build a new jail. What makes this more odious was the reasoning behind it:

“They’re teaching Mexicans how to speak English. Let that son of a bitch go back to Mexico. There’s just so many things they’re doing that I don’t agree with. …Them junkies and hippies and food stamps [recipients] and all, they use the library to look at drugs and food stamps [on the Internet]. I see them do it.”

That’s an exact quote from Lindel Toups, chair of the Parish Council in Lafourche, Louisiana, said in reference to Biblioteca Hispana, a Hispanic-language segment of the Golden Meadow library branch. Toups wants to redirect money that has already been voted by the people to fund the library- an institution dedicated to educating people of all ages, helps them find jobs in a damaged economy, connects them to social services, and a place of self-discovery and community identity- to build a new jail.  To do that he held a special election yesterday in an area that is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Lafourche Parish is west of New Orleans.

Nearly 1,200 people voted early on yesterday’s ballot proposal, a number that Tammy Wendelschaefer, deputy registrar of the Lafourche Registrar of Voters, described as “very high.”

“I think it’s the controversy of the issue,” she said.

Supporters of the plan claim that the revenue stream is the one way to finance a new $25 million jail without raising taxes on parish citizens and they point to the library’s continually-growing budget as evidence that the system is collecting more money than it needs.

To be fair, the existing jail does have serious issues. It is overcrowded and badly damaged do to its age, but most agree that defunding libraries is not the answer to those infrastructure problems.

Library officials were quick to refute those claims and say that increased spending, done at deficit levels by drawing from a fund balance, is necessary to make up for self-inflicted spending cuts. They also noted that seven years ago the system voluntarily reduced its tax rates by 2 mills- double the amount posed on this weekend’s ballot.

Public debate on this issue has been sharp and, at times, quite personal. Nevertheless, the parish council placed the proposition on the ballot via a 5-3-1 vote.  Three councilmen opposed it and one was absent.

Not surprising, Toups served as the chair of the “New Jail Committee,” established in 2011 to help secure funding for a new facility. He said the library’s revenue is a “logical choice”, but this just seems like a callous means to an end.

“They’ve got too much money,” Toups said. “We’re giving the public the chance to raise the jail money without raising taxes. Any blind man can see that.”

But it’s more insidious than that.

Toups does not personally or philosophically agree with the library’s evolving role in the community, which influenced his repulsive quote.

Toups says that he doesn’t remember making those comments, and “that little writer just wanted to make a name for himself.” That rather condescending comment was in reference to Tri-Parish Times reporter, Eric Besson, who, according to Toups, “apparently picked up on informal comments made after a meeting without saying he was using the comments for a story.”

Toups isn’t the first politician to burn himself from a “hot mic” episode, nor will he be the last.

So how did the election turn out?

The results are in and the anti-library measure in Lafourche was defeated with 53% voting against the measure, thanks mainly to a social media campaign by John Chrastka, executive director of, to educate and inform the public on the issue.

About 43% of households in Lafourche Parish lack internet access at home, but more than half of its residents hold library cards, and they consistently vote in favor of milages for libraries. That could have been enough in its own right to bring citizens to the polls, but it was Toups’ blatantly unrestrained racial comments that riled library supporters, prompting many in the community to suspect his motivations for using library funds to build the jail.

Before the victory celebrations begin, though, there is a very sobering reality to consider that the ballot initiative was only rejected by barely a five to four margin- a move that would have quickly and surely sent the library system into deficit.


That’s not much, when you really stand back and look at it. Had only a handful of voters chose differently things could have gone the other way. This is also a very distressing commentary on voter apathy, in general. What if supporters of the library had not taken the time to go to the polls? This is proof that every vote does count and that every ballot proposal has a long-term impact on the people, no matter how mundane those effects may seem in the short-term.

Today the voice of the people was heard, but what about tomorrow?

For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources:, Tri-Parish Times, Huffington Post, LA Times
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”


To join the elite group known as American Mensa a person must score among the top 2% of an “accepted standardized intelligence test”. To put it mildly, the members of Mensa are some of the smartest humans alive; so when it comes to all things academic they know what they’re talking about.

Recently, the members consulted on a list of banned books created by Uprise Books Project founder Justin Stanley and were asked to rank the top 10 in order of importance. The list may or may not surprise you and many of the titles have been previously covered in this column. See if you can recognize a few:

1. 1984
2. To Kill a Mockingbird
3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
4. On the Origin of Species
5. Catcher in the Rye
6. Of Mice and Men
7. The Lord of the Flies
8. The Lord of the Rings
9. Slaughterhouse-Five

Comments about the top winner included references about the author himself. “Orwell’s insight into the malleability of human thought and behavior is a timeless incentive to personal awareness of the consequences of action and inaction,” said one member. Another pointed to its influence on society, saying, “1984 is one of those books that has become a cultural cornerstone.”

Okay, but where is number 10 on this list? That, dear readers, is the subject of this week’s column. It’s none other than the queen of banned books herself, Judy Blume, and her immortal tale of budding womanhood, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”.

Written in 1970, the young adult novel followed Margaret as she tackled many common pre-teen female issues including buying her first bra, having her first period, coping with belted sanitary napkins (changed to adhesive pads in recent editions), jealousy towards another girl who developed a mature figure earlier than other girls, liking boys, and whether to voice her opinion if it differs from those of her friends.

Those sure are some complex issues, but perhaps the most noted is that Margaret’s mother is Christian and her father is Jewish and, at its core, the novel explores her quest for a single religion in her life, which adds alienation to an already tense list of subject matters.

All of this lead to it being one of the most banned and challenged books of the last 30 years. In fact, second only to Stephen King, Judy Blume is the most banned author in American history, with several of her books appearing on banned book lists nationwide.

During an interview with NPR, Blume said, “When I started to write, it was the ‘70s, and throughout that decade, we didn’t have any problems with book challenges or censorship. It all started really in a big way in 1980… It came with the election, the presidential election of 1980, and the next day, I’ve been told, the censors were crawling out of the woodwork and challenging, like, ‘It’s our turn now, and we’re going to say what we don’t want our children to read.’

The number of public libraries and schools where this book has been challenged is astounding, but it was outright removed from the elementary school libraries in Gilbert, Arizona in 1980 and ordered that parental consent be required for students to check it out from the junior high school.

It was challenged in the Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Fund du Lac, Wisconsin school systems in 1982 because the book is “sexually offensive and amoral.”

Also in 1982, it was restricted in Zimmerman, Minnesota to students who had written permission from their parents. After the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union sued the Elk River, Minnesota school board (1983), the Board reversed its decision.

It was then challenged at the Xenia, Ohio school libraries in 1983 because the book’s “two themes of sex and anti-Christian behavior” were deemed inappropriate.

A similar charge of being “profane, immoral, and offensive” led to it being challenged, but later retained, in the Bozeman, Montana school libraries in 1985.

Perhaps most daunting is that Blume paints a bleak and dark vision of the path that we’re on as a society, “[censorship] hasn’t gone away. It’s growing in different directions… It’s contagious, the desire to control everything in your children’s lives, including what they read.”

The reasons behind these challenges may seem innocent and well intentioned, but the truth is that at the center of the issue it isn’t these topics themselves that worry parents, it’s that we don’t want to acknowledge them for very one very selfish reason: they make us uncomfortable. We simply don’t want to talk about it- especially with our children. Therefore, we hide in a bubble and force our children to search for the answers on their own and get then angry when they find them.

“But if they read about it, they’ll know more than we do and start to question the world around them.” That’s the rationale. So, logically, it means that the books must be destroyed lest the truth get out that their world is changing- socially and physiologically.

American Mensa was quite correct in placing Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret at number 10; just as 1984 was the perfect choice for number 1. In fact, one could easily equate the futuristic Proles of Orwell’s classic with the children of today, who find themselves caught up in a war for intellectual freedom with the previous generations, because hope for the future lies with them. Only there, amid the dreams and inquisitive minds of our youth does the power exist to destroy ignorance and fear. However, until they become aware they will never rebel, and only after they have rebelled can they ever live their own life and walk a path of wisdom.

For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Wikipedia, Media Bistro,, NPR
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions