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Jewish World Review Dec. 7, 1999 /28 Kislev, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Casual censors and deadly know-nothings -- Beautiful Maria, Harry Potter and Huck Finn have more in common than they could ever have imagined. They're under siege, beset by ignorance parading as piety. Barbarians are at the gate.

In Amherst, Mass., a liberal college town, the Amherst Regional High School planned to perform "West Side Story'' as the spring play. That was before parents and students got into the act to protest the play as demeaning to Puerto Ricans. About 140 of the 1,400 students at Amherst High are Hispanic, and most of those are Puerto Ricans.

The 1957 musical, written by Leonard Bernstein and based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet,'' was, the last time I looked, about tragic love. Instead of the Capulets and Montagues, the protagonists are linked to Puerto Rican and Italian gangs, but the result is the same. When power and pettiness combine with violence and stupidity, tragedy follows and innocent lovers are sacrificed.

A school administration that capitulates in the face of an absurd misreading and misinterpretation of the drama is not only spineless but derelict in its teaching duties.

"Huckleberry Finn'' is frequently the target of know-nothing readers who mistake courage for racism. In Fairfax County, Va., one of the most prosperous suburbs in the nation, several parents regurgitated age-old nonsense that Mark Twain's depiction of the black slave Jim is "offensive.'' So students get a choice. If they don't want to read the Mark Twain classic, they can read "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,'' which ought to offend them more because it depicts the hideous details of the brutality of slavery. But since the author is black this is supposed to make the message more palatable.

An NAACP chapter in Pennsylvania demands that Huck be banished from the classroom. You might think they would want Huck to be required reading, to show how far Mark Twain, as a white literary man, could rise above his culture's prejudices in exposing dehumanizing racism.

Even more important for kids is to understand the complexity of character and the shades of satirical meaning that can provide them the critical skills of literary and cultural understanding. If the NAACP folks can't see that, they ought to find a classroom where they can read the novel with the help of a discerning teacher.

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,'' and the two other Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling that have crossed the ocean from England, are bestsellers for children (and adults). But a few fundamentalist Christians have made them a focus of classroom controversy.

In Columbia, S.C., several Christian parents asked the state board of education to order teachers to quit reading the stories to children. Elizabeth Lindsey, whose daughter is in the third grade in Highlands Ranch, Colo., wants the books out of the classroom because "they make evil fun.'' She objects to the "witchcraft'' and promises to file a formal accusation that the Douglas County school board promotes the religion of witches over traditional faith. Karen Jo Gounaud, president of Family Friendly Libraries in Springfield, Va., complains that the Potter stories encourage the theology of Wicca, an esoteric neo-pagan belief which enjoys tax-exempt status as a religion.

"Everyone is a witch or a warlock,'' she says. "They're casting spells, drinking blood.'' If her view prevails, we'll have to blue-pencil the three witches from "Macbeth.'' And who says drinking blood is cool, anyway.

Chuck Colson, a prominent Christian preacher with a fundamental Gospel message, disagrees with the critics of Harry Potter. Harry and his friends, Chuck Colson says, "develop courage, loyalty and a willingness to sacrifice for one another. ... Not bad lessons in a self-centered world.''

The Harry Potter books fire the imagination with enchanting appeals to fantasy. Teachers say that children who showed little interest in reading can't wait to turn the pages.

Stories are wonderful ways for children to expand their universe, test ideas, discover complex issues without having to act them out. We sell them short if we think they're incapable of understanding moral points of view. Those who think "West Side Story'' and "Huck Finn'' appeal to prejudice are themselves locked in their own narrow prejudices. Like Harry Potter, characters on stage and in novels must often confront human evil. Unlike Harry Potter, they can't always triumph over it. That's an education, too.

The casual censors remind me of Oscar Wilde's jest. "I never read a book I must review,'' he said. "It prejudices you so.''


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11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
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10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
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10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
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08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
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©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate