In the recent discussions over censorship of Persepolis in Chicago public schools, there’s been a notable lack of discussion over why anyone would want the book removed — and what such reasoning represents.
The series of four black-and-white books, by Marjane Satrapi and originally published in French, were published in English in two volumes, which were collected as The Complete Persepolis (running 341 pages). The story is autobiographical, from Satrapi’s rebellious childhood in Iran to her departure from that country and growth into adulthood.
It’s charming and somehow manages to feel like it’s not pulling any punches, including about the theocratic Iranian regime, while never feeling jaded. Characters and events may be comedic or tragic, but they’re always idiosyncratic. There’s no doubt that the graphic novel is political, but it’s no tract, nor a rant. Politics are always subordinated to characters who feel real, and while the repression Satrapi faces as a child is clear, it’s blended with what feels like an honest understanding that yes, she happened to be a rebellious child with a disposition uniquely unsuited to accommodating such repression. In this way, politics are blended with the personal in the most subtle of ways, so that we come to understand these social forces as something that interacts with a landscape of different individuals with different personalities, rather as abstract and monolithic entities. The result is not to lessen the reader’s reaction, as one might suspect, but rather enhance it.
Suffice it to say, Persepolis is quite a work. It’s a testament to the power of the graphic novel. The art’s simple linework helps the story feel unpretentious and direct.
Persepolis was adapted as a 2007 French animated film, written and directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. Among other honors, it was nominated for an Academy Award.
Why would someone want to ban such a book?
In 2009, parents tried to get both the book and movie banned in the Northshore school district. At issue were three specific complaints about content:
- language that “would not be acceptable over the open airways via either TV or radio” and that students would be disciplined for using;
- a brief sequence depicting torture in Iran, including a man urinating on a torture victim; and
- the vague claim that the book is “sexually charged.”
In addition, complaints were made about parents not being notified in advance and that an alternative assignment wasn’t available. The district claimed this wasn’t true, and a curriculum review committee for the district rejected the parents’ complaints.
Such practices, while common in the U.S. (which seems to positively worship parental authority), are rather absurd. How does a school district choose what content to notify parents about? What offends one parent might not offend others. Why is sex or violence something parents should be notified about, and not other kinds of content? Does it matter if the violence is purely for entertainment, as is common in Hollywood films, or that it’s presented within a cultural context and as something terrible, as is the case with Persepolis? Any such parental notification, which comes are considerable cost, is likely to reflect dominant cultural and religious values, essentially forcing the public schools to enforce these through notifications — while other values inevitably go ignored.
Then there’s the question of why, if an artistic work is considered important enough to teach as part of a standard curriculum, why students should be allowed to opt out at all. If a body of educators judge that it’s important that students are exposed to Picasso, or Martin Luther King, or Mark Twain, or Satrapi, why would we allow some students to avoid this exposure. Of course, preparing alternatives isn’t cheap. But the deeper question is whether a curriculum should be decided by a committee of educators or by the whims of each individual student’s parents.
Those who seek to protect children from thoughtful artistic content may well instead “protect” them from a full and complete education.
With this in mind, let’s turn to the current case, involving Chicago public schools.
On Thursday, 14 March, the principal of a Lane Tech College Prep, a Chicago public school, sent an email passing on what he claimed was a directive from higher up to secure all copies of Persepolis, including any in or on loan from the school library, as well as any used in classrooms. The principal didn’t express support or objection; he merely passed on the directive, explaining he hadn’t been told why this was being done.
The email was quickly leaked to the public. Some pointed out that such an confiscation of books would be illegal, because curricular decisions have to flow through official channels; there’s a procedure — and committees — for this. By Friday morning, 15 March, a protest had already been planned. Shortly thereafter, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel said he’d look into the matter.
As the case became a major news story, confusion abounded, including claims that the book was only being confiscated at this single school due to a shipping error; these claims were soon discredited.
Around noon, Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett issued a statement taking accountability for the policy, which was indeed not limited to a single school. Seen as a victory by some, it seemed to reverse any orders to confiscate copies, affirming that curricular decisions had to be made legally and properly. A spokesperson for the school district said that the message delivered to the principal of Lane Tech College Prep hadn’t reflected the administration’s intent.
On the other hand, the statement firmly rejected the book’s appropriateness for the seventh grade and asked that it not be taught in that context — and indeed be confiscated — pending review:
It was brought to our attention that it contains graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use in the seventh grade curriculum. If your seventh grade teachers have not yet taught this book, please ask them not to do so and to remove any copies of the book from their classrooms.
The statement also questioned whether the book was appropriate for higher grades:
We are also considering whether the book should be included, after appropriate teacher training, in the curriculum of eighth through tenth grades. Once this curricular determination has been made, we will notify you.
At least the reason given is simple, relative to the vague laundry list given by parents in the Northshore school district. What Byrd-Bennett apparently meant by “graphic language and images” is specified a bit later in her statement, when she refers to “powerful images of torture in the book.”
And let’s be clear: the images in question constitute about two pages, out of a 341-page graphic novel.
Satrapi has expressed disappointment that this could happen, especially in America. And there’s certainly irony in that the graphic novel depicts the theocratic and repressive government of Iran, which is the only place the graphic novel is known to be forbidden in any context. To then mirror that kind of behavior in any way, with regards to such a book, doesn’t exactly look good.
But while we’re being clear, let’s admit that, while this action may constitute censorship, this probably wouldn’t have been an issue had Chicago curriculum not originally included and approved the graphic novel. Schools routinely make such decisions, determining grade-level appropriateness, and such decisions don’t tend to get a lot of attention. What can get a lot of attention is when a school seems to reverse itself, as is the case here. If you censor from the start, no one seems to care; it’s when you reverse yourself that howls of censorship tend to appear. And there’s no report of Persepolis being challenged in libraries across the nation (which have in recent years challenged as inoffensive fare as Harry Potter and Twilight novels).
Satrapi, as quoted by the Chicago Tribune, begins to get at the deeper issue:
These are not photos of torture. [...] I don’t think American kids of seventh grade have not seen any signs of violence. Seventh-graders have brains and they see all kinds of things on cinema and the Internet. It’s a black and white drawing and I’m not showing something extremely horrible. That’s a false argument. They have to give a better explanation.
Kids have always had brains. But perhaps we should add that these kids grew up with the internet. In a culture of sitcom jokes about donkey punches and pop-culture references to Two Girls, One Cup. If their parents didn’t let them see Saw and its many sequels and its many knock-offs, these kids just downloaded it. The 1950s weren’t the 1950s anyone remembers, but we’re a long way from either.
The issue Satrapi and others haven’t pushed here is that, while censorship of her book might uncomfortably mirror some of the repression she chronicles, there’s a deeper mirroring at work.
The content in question has to do with torture. And torture has a political context, especially in America today.
American politicians and pundits have, in recent years, been content to launch all kinds of verbal invective and threats at Iran — which George W. Bush included in his “axis of evil” (which sent shockwaves around the world, yet his own administration wasn’t prepared to respond to reporters’ questions about the phrase, nor what change in policy it might represent). Yet the United States, not only during the Bush administration but in the continued arguments of many Republicans, is now the world’s biggest public and unapologetic proponent of torture.
Of course, it’s more than talk. The United States has tortured, including causing documented deaths. The full extent of this is still being revealed. Whereas we once talked about “enhanced interrogation” like water-boarding (which was held to be torture during the Revolutionary War and at every point thereafter, until Bush), we’re now talking about hanging people upside down and beating them black and blue, genital electrocution, and removing people’s fingernails — all of which, it’s now clear, military officials tolerated and at least indirectly ordered.
It may be important to bear in mind that, while such torture is often justified by dehumanizing the victims as vicious terrorists, much of this torture happened in Iraq, where people were pulled into American-operated prisons in Iraq based on false tips from their neighbors, who may have been of a different ethnic or religious persuasion — tips for which the informers were paid. Compounding this, the American soldiers taking these tips, arresting these men, and performing these interrogations rarely spoke Arabic. In some cases, the translators — who were subcontracted at enormous public expense (because, you know, corporations always do it better and cheaper, right?) — spoke only broken English, making interrogation virtually impossible.
I shudder to think how Americans, some of whom are these days busy justifying their right to own assault rifles with 100-round drums on the basis of possibly opposing their own government, would respond to a foreign government hauling Americans off the streets, often based on no substantial evidence, and brutally torturing them.
None of this even addresses “extraordinary rendition,” in which people are turned over to other countries known to torture.
But Americans don’t see these images, outside of a few photos of soldiers posing with Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Because while the United States of America — or at least, one of its two major parties — is the world’s leading proponent of the legality and efficacy of torture, photos and evidence of the torture done in Americans’ name don’t get widespread circulation.
Why, even a few fairly mild drawings of the practice are deemed unfit for seventh-grade eyes.
It’s this the administration of Chicago’s public schools — and those protesting parents in 2009 — want to keep their kids from seeing.
But then, while tame in its brief images of torture, Persepolis doesn’t glorify what’s shown, nor depict it as titillating and entertaining in its own right, without a moral dimension. No, that’s left to TV shows like 24 — and, in comics, to violent super-heroes like Batman. All of which is frequently enjoyed, if not actually marketed to, young adults, without being sold in plastic bags.
It is of course any artist’s right to make and sell such work — a right I’ll gladly defend. I’ve enjoyed some of this material, even as I recognize it’s morally problematic. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t pretend, when we’re talking about two pages of Persepolis being kept from impressionable eyes, that this sort of material isn’t part of the conversation.
I suspect that the Chicago school district will relent to public pressure. While what it’s done may be censorship, it’s no more so than many similar decisions around the nation and the world, most of which are treated as mundane.
No, the real problem here is the hypocrisy in thinking that this sort of thing — in real life, mind you, to real people — is not only okay but a defense of American freedoms…
Take whatever position you like, on which of these three are okay, or in what way, or in what context. That’s your right, as it is mine. We can argue about these things honestly and reasonably.
But let us not pretend we’re not discussing censoring images of torture in a particular historical and political context, in which images and stories of torture have been kept from the public, while the practice itself continues to have champions — and shall probably continue to haunt the nation for decades to come.
If we’re going to discuss the subject of torture honestly, whether in real life or in fiction, the least we can do is look. Whether Chicago’s schoolchildren are permitted to or not.