The Fundamental Value of a Good Book
Earlier this week, The Star's Kristin Rushowy reported that the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) was reviewing the inclusion of Margaret Atwood's multi-award-winning dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale on its Grade 12 reading list. That's because, as she wrote in a follow-up today, one parent complained:
Robert Edwards says if students repeated some of the words from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in the school halls, they'd be suspended, so he questions why it is okay in the classroom.
And what about the foul language, the anti-Christian overtones, the violence and sexual degradation, asks the parent who launched a formal complaint about the Canadian novel. Don't they violate the Toronto board's policies of respect and tolerance?
Edwards filed a formal compliant with the Toronto District School Board before the Christmas holidays, arguing that while the futuristic theme of the book is acceptable, its focus on "sex, brutal situations, murder, prostitution" is not.
The book "is rife with brutality towards and mistreatment of women (and men at times), sexual scenes, and bleak depression," Edwards said in a letter to the school's principal. "I can't really understand what it is my son is supposed to be learning from this fictional drivel.
"I have a major problem with a curriculum book that cannot be fully read out loud in class, in front of an assembly, directly to a teacher, a parent, or, for that matter, contains attitudes and words that cannot be used by students in class discussion or hallway conversation. Let alone a description of situations that must be embarrassing and uncomfortable to any young woman in that class – and probably the young men, too."
After Edwards complained, his son was assigned another book, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and will step out of class during any discussions on The Handmaid's Tale.
Way to make your kid feel like a weirdo. But that's a parent's right, I suppose.
Nothing wrong with Huxley, whose Brave New World is still relevant. But in this world, The Handmaid's Tale, so successful it's been both a movie and an opera, is practically prognostication, and it relates to not only what is happening in some quarters of Western society but also all over the less developed and even parts of the Muslim world where women are nothing more than chattel and breeders.
Which leads to today's treeware column, reprinted here in full, with some links for readers who want more details:
The wonder is that Margaret Atwood's multi-award- winning 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale ever made it on any public school reading lists.
Not because of its sexual content, which is as titillating as test tube fertilization. But because of its lacerating look at the let's-get-back-to-that-old-timey-religion and way-of-life-when-father-knew-best-and-women-sat-in-the- corner-doing-needlework fundamentalist undercurrent running, still, in society.
It isn't slipping beneath the radar, as we saw during Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's mercifully brief run at the high priestess-ship of this cult, er, culture.
The question is, is it growing or is it just getting better organized, thanks, or not thanks, to the Internet?
The Handmaid's Tale, which has been challenged in school districts from Washington to Florida, Texas to Pennsylvania, and now, as the Star reported this week, in Toronto, is a deeply depressing and disturbing mystery set in an environmentally devastated future where, like P.D. James' 1992 Children of Men, mass infertility and fascism reign.
The difference is that, in Atwood's version, most women, rather than all men, have been rendered sterile, and those that can still reproduce are drafted as baby incubators/reproduction slaves to the ruling elite.
And, hah, they are covered in robes not unlike burkas.
There's a lot of religious and ritualistic mumbo-jumbo thrown in, not to mention the sort of sexual hypocrisy we see in clandestine Jerusalem strip clubs frequented by ultra-Orthodox Jews, in Muslim clerics seen cavorting with their mistresses on the Internet in Iran and in Bible-thumping U.S. senators and televangelists pursuing underage boys.
It's a great book and, like George Orwell's Animal Farm, required reading for my Cold War generation, and Aldous Huxley's timeless Brave New World, is exactly the kind of literature needed to stimulate thoughtful discussion amongst adolescents who might not otherwise debate much more than who should win American Idol.
Especially in times like these.
For despite the inauguration of hope and change next week on Washington's Pennsylvania Ave., the social tectonic plates have far from settled where women may rest assured that their human rights supersede those of zygotes.
Consider: U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has chosen pro-forced pregnancy pastor Rick Warren to preside. This is a very influential religious leader who has compared the number of abortions since the Roe-vs.-Wade decision in the United States, to the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, at the Liaison Capitol Hill hotel a few blocks away, the American Life League will be gearing up for its "Personhood Conference," which is all about giving a half-dozen cells of human tissue supremacy over the woman in whose body they were created.
Oh but that's not all. The so-called "patriarchy movement'' is gaining momentum, with thousands signing on to ancient Christian ideas of women's submission and cloistering.
Not in Canada you say?
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper can barely keep the lid on his forward-to-the-past party in which members demand legislation to protect "the unborn child'' and MPs head up the anonymous "pro-life caucus.''
His previous minority government silenced women's rights advocacy groups while "think tanks'' such as the Ottawa-based Institute of Marriage and Family Canada enjoy access to Parliament Hill and to newspaper opinion pages to pitch an anti-choice, anti-national-child-care, anti-gay-rights and anti-divorce agenda.
This while the Vatican blames women on the Pill who use the toilet, as it said this month, for the decrease in male fertility all over the world, which scientists have attributed, among other things, to the dumping of chemicals in the environment and the growth hormones used in the meat industry.
So is it any wonder that some people find The Handmaid's Tale – which is also about censorship – too threatening to have on Grade 12 reading lists?
God knows, it might give kids the ability to look critically at what's happening out there.
It's worth going to the Star's website for Kristin and my originals because there's a heck of a huge debate raging in the comments, especially on Kristin's story.
One note regarding the sexual content: It's straight out of the Bible, as in Rachel, Leah and Jacob.
When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, Give me children or I shall die! […] Then she said, Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees, and even I may have children through her.
In fact, a whole lot of the novel is based on the Bible.