[Updated 1/31] Both Sides Are NOT the Same: “Banned” Book Edition

People, details do in fact matter!

[Maus & To Kill a Mocking Bird Books]

As is often the case, when a notable cultural event happens–say a conservative school district bans a book for content–there is often a quest to find a counter-example. And in the wake of McMinn County Tenessee removing Art Spiegelman’s Maus from its eighth-grade curriculum earlier this week, folks have latched onto the news that the Mukilteo School District in Seattle has made a decision about requiring the teaching of To Kill a Mockingbird to ninth-graders.

“BOTH SIDES DO IT!” is proclaimed by very-serious-heterodox-thinkersTM on social media. “Liberals are the real hypocrites” proclaim conservative media pundits and outlets like the New York Post. Heck, some might make the argument that Mukilteo has a greater impact as the district is roughly three times the size of McMinn.

Unfortunately, all of these folks either (a) haven’t looked into the details of each case or (b) apparently decided said details are best ignored because they will get in the way of an awesome dunk on folks they disagree with any easy “likes” from their followers. And that ultimately reveals, for approximately the gazillionth time, the utter emptiness behind most “bothsiderism.”

Let’s review what happened in McMinn (Maus). Here’s the Cliffs Note version for those of you who didn’t do the assigned reading (for a deeper dive see this fact page by The Tennesseean–local journalism FTW!):

Mukilteo appears to be an almost completely different case. First, the book isn’t banned in the school district or from teaching:

The Mukilteo School District recently approved removing the text as a required assignment for ninth graders. Under the change, the district retains the book as an option for teachers who still want to assign it.

https://crosscut.com/news/2022/01/kill-mockingbird-hot-seat-wa-school-district

So, for those in the back row, the district isn’t removing books from the school or necessarily the curriculum. It’s just not requiring that teachers teach the book (which has been required since 2016). 

This review process started when three teachers made a request in the fall for the district’s instructional materials committee to review the book’s required status. The committee, comprised of about 20 teachers, librarians, administrators, and parents, reviewed the case. The group voted to remove the book from the required reading list but not to remove the book from the district’s approved novels list. The board then held an open meeting, with comments from teachers, students, parents, and community members before unanimously voting to approve the committee’s decision.

The makeup of the curriculum review committee represents another important difference. Unlike in McMinn, where the content review was conducted by elected community members, in Mukilteo the people who did the review were a cross-section of the people who were closest to the teaching and would be impacted by the decision: teachers, librarians, and parents. It’s unfortunate, though not unexpected, that there isn’t any student representation on the committee (perhaps the district isn’t quite that liberal after all).

Next is the issue of why the book was removed from the required list. To Kill a Mockingbird is a perennial member of the American Library Foundation’s infamous Most Challenged Books list. In part, it’s due to the book’s language (and in particular the use of the “N-word”). However, the more recent critique of the book is that it’s an example of the “White Savior” genre–when a helpless person of color needs to be literally saved through the work and sacrifice of an idealized White individual. Alice Randall, the author of The Wind Done Gone, captured some of that sentiment in 2017 when she wrote:

Many who defend “Mockingbird” as a choice for curriculum are imagining students emboldened by Atticus to “fight for right” or inspired by Scout to be better than the society into which she is born. But imagine instead that you are an African-American eighth-grade boy in Mississippi today, and are asked to read “Mockingbird.” Perhaps it reinforces your growing suspicion that you are unlikely to get a fair trial should you stand accused of something like Tom Robinson.

[…]

Every student who reads Lee’s book does not identify with Atticus or with Scout, and teaching it as though they do, or they must, may reinforce the very stereotypes about black men and impoverished women that teaching the book is supposed to combat. Some identify with Tom Robinson, or with Calpurnia, or with Mayella Ewell and, for these students, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a far more complex text which, in the hands of a less-than-effective teacher, can be damaging.

https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/why-are-we-still-teaching-kill-mockingbird-schools-ncna812281

Randall also points out that while the core White characters in the book are deeply fleshed out, the core Black characters are treated more as “set dressing” and shown as lesser and lacking in agency. This is also called out in a 2020 Washington Post opinion piece by Errin Haines.

[T]he story is one by a white author, told through primarily white characters. Rereading the book, I was struck that Lee offers rich profiles of the story’s white characters, their personalities, mannerisms, dress, histories, but there are no such character studies to be found for any of the African Americans in this story. Their humanity is obscured from us, suggesting that it is of little consequence to the author, reader or the whites in Maycomb. White privilege means not actually having to know black or brown people, to live among them but to never really see them, even in one’s own house.

And that privilege extends to the hero of Lee’s novel in the minds of many readers: Atticus Finch…. Atticus has come to represent more than just a white savior. He stood in an Alabama courthouse not to block justice for a black man but to fight for it. In doing so, he wasn’t just attempting to save Tom Robinson (in an alternate version, he would have been the hero); he was absolving the entire white race from the ills of racism. Atticus is the unimpeachable and quintessential example of what it means to be a Good White Person, inspiring young people across the country to become lawyers and enabling white Americans to point again and again to a fictional character as proof that not all actual white people are racist.

These concerns, raised by teachers and students in Mukilteo, are of a different order than being made uncomfortable by drawings of nudity and violence. They are part of a larger cultural dialog that has been going on about the book itself.1

I expect that by this point, you are already drafting a response in your mind (if not in the box on the page below): “why not use this as a teaching opportunity?!

That, is ultimate, the key difference between the McMinn and Mukilteo decisions. Mukilteo didn’t ban To Kill a Mockingbird without a plan to replace it. It didn’t ban its teaching at all! In fact, the Mukilteo curriculum review committee’s decision allows that teaching opportunity to take place at the teacher’s discretion. Teachers can still choose to teach Mockingbird. In fact, what this decision enables, by not replacing it with another required work, is allowing teachers to select another approved novel written from a different perspective and have the two books read against each other.

There is no way to teach Maus in McKinn county. There is no way to struggle with the discomfort it causes. Heck, it appears there is no way to even get the Pulitzer prize-winning work from a school library (including the one in the High School).

In Mukilteo county, you can still find To Kill a Mockingbird in school libraries. It can still be taught in Mukilteo classrooms. It may even be able to be taught better, contrasted with newer works written by a diverse group of authors. It just isn’t required.

The first is censorship. But, no matter how slippery you try to make the slope, the second one isnt. So, look elsewhere for an example of bothsiderism (and yes, they do exist on the liberal side) this one isn’t it.


1 – I expect some readers are going to bristle at the idea of Atticus Finch as a White Savior. It’s worth noting that, based on his representation in her posthumously released work Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee may have come to have seen him very much from that perspective. That reinterpretation of the character was something that many fans of To Kill a Mockingbird were upset by when that novel was released.


[Update 1/31/2022]

Last night Mu Yixiao rightly dinged me on not showing my work:

Show proof of it being banned from the district entirely-because that’s not what the story has been as I’ve read it. The story has been that Maus can has been removed from the 8th-grade curriculum as the core of a particular class.

Show me evidence that it has been removed from the school libraries.

While I consider my writing opinion analysis, I want to make sure I’m doing my fact-checking. Today I reached out to a few local journalists to see if they knew if my assumption is correct. Given how short-staffed newspapers are today, it may take a while to hear back. In the meantime, I did a bit of digging and discovered that the McMinn School Library Catalog is online. Searches for “Maus” returned no circulating copies. To ensure that this wasn’t because I was accessing the site from outside the District, I did an additional search for “Spiegleman” that returned the following results:

[Image of library catalog search containing no entries for Maus.

While students in McMinn appear to have access to some of Art Spiegleman’s other works, there are no circulation copies of Maus listed in the catalog. It is entirely possible that the district never had a circulation copy. Still, the fact remains that regardless of whether there were or were no circulation copies prior to the decision, you cannot currently borrow Maus from any school library in McMinn county.

Thankfully, because librarians rock and are amazing defenders of free speech and dangerous books, you can get copies throughout the county library system, including the E. G. Fisher Public Library. Librarians FTW!

FILED UNDER: Books, US Politics,
Matt Bernius
About Matt Bernius
Matt Bernius is a design researcher working to create more equitable government systems and experiences. He's currently a Principal User Researcher on Code for America's "GetCalFresh" program, helping people apply for SNAP food benefits in California. Prior to joining CfA, he worked at Measures for Justice and at Effective, a UX agency. Matt has an MA from the University of Chicago.

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Oh, please.

    On the Left we are now arguing that depictions of incest, rape and torture are no business of parents, but a panel showing a smiling slave is reason for a book to be destroyed.

    Let me be blunt: no one in kidlit gives a single fuck what conservatives have to say. We’re used to those people. And you’ll notice that the number of books actually destroyed, pulled from circulation and mulched because of conservative pressure is zero. The number for the Left is higher than zero.

    I am not defending these idiots in Tennessee and Florida, but we need to stop pretending that we are standing on principle, we aren’t. We abandoned our principles in the face of Twitter mobs. I hope this will be an opportunity for the Left to take stock, and return to the principles we once held sacred, but making excuses for the bad behavior on our side is not the way to start.

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  2. Erik says:

    I was excited when my daughter was about to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Growing up in a relatively rural place with zero diversity, that book was one of the first to challenge my view of the world. What a disappointment. She did not enjoy the book at all. It seemed dated, the characters flat, and she had already read a number of other books for school that were far more diverse and world challenging than Mockingbird could ever be. So I reread her copy, and she was right. There is a wealth of good diverse work now that can easily replace it in a curriculum. So to Mockingbird I say, “thank you for your service, enjoy your semi-retirement”

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  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Erik:
    So if you find a book that does a better (in your opinion) job of portraying the Holocaust, you’re fine with consigning Maus to ‘semi-retirement?’

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  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    Now distill that down so it will fit into a few tweets and perhaps add some graphics. It needs to be read by real Americans.

    Regarding the white savior criticism, given the milieu that the book is placed, a non-white Atticus may not have been a believable character. The criticism that the black characters are not fully developed hones into a weakness of the book.

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  5. mattbernius says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    So if you find a book that does a better (in your opinion) job of portraying the Holocaust, you’re fine with consigning Maus to ‘semi-retirement?’

    From a teaching perspective? Completely. The ultimate goal of having a curriculum is to achieve the specific teaching goal of a class.

    Provided semi-retirement means that (a) Maus is still available in some form in libraries (which is possible now with digital editions), and (b) it’s still a book that’s approved to be taught in the district, I have no issue at all. again I will note, both of those requirements were not met in Tenessee. They were in Washington.

    Put a different way, do you object to past classics like “All’s Quiet on the Western Front” or “Red Badge of Courage” no longer being required reading for students? Or why teach other authors than Shakespeare? He alone could easlier cover poetry and plays for ELA classes.

    The reality is that having a required reading list means that books are always going to be included and excluded. Again, I’ll point out that “To Kill a Mockingbird” was only made required reading in the district in 2016. It most likely knocked another “classic” off that list at the time.

    —-

    MR: I agree with you that cancel culture in Kids and YA lit is a thing. If folks doubt MR, I highly recommend listening to this segment from NPR’s Studio 1A where a number of progressive YA authors discuss it (it’s towards the end) – https://www.npr.org/2021/06/09/1004826113/the-writers-room-young-adult-fiction-and-social-media

    But this particular case isn’t pulping a book.

    Or if you think taking To Kill a Mockingbird off the required reading list is morally equivalent to completely removing Maus from a district, you need to unpack your response to the argument I made in the post.

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  6. Thomm says:

    @Michael Reynolds: https://www.wfaa.com/article/news/education/granbury-isd-pulls-over-100-library-books-for-review/287-fc1cb585-71a4-48be-98ac-158fe4fa185b You were saying? We get it…some whiny lefties we’re mean to you on Twitter, and now the whole progressive movement can die in a fire, but the claim that conservatives have never been able to remove a book from circulation is laughable. Maybe some of yours made this list so you might care enough to contribute more than, “yeah, but” whenever this is brought up.

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  7. mattbernius says:

    BTW, for more context on the case that Michael has been mentioning, here are two articles I found on it:

    https://www.vice.com/en/article/78dkka/a-book-about-slaves-making-cake-for-george-washington-stirs-up-major-controversy

    https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/18/463488364/amid-controversy-scholastic-pulls-picture-book-about-washingtons-slave

    Here are Scholastics statements on the book:
    First: https://oomscholasticblog.com/post/response-birthday-cake-george-washington

    Second: https://oomscholasticblog.com/post/new-statement-about-picture-book-birthday-cake-george-washington


    Aside: in doing some quick research on this, I discovered the “wonderful” weasel word “self-emancipate.” As in Hercules the Chef, represented in the book, self-emancipated himself and his family* from Washington’s ownership. In other words, they risked life and limb to escape (illegally, at the time) from Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

    [* Update: It appears that only Hercules and possibly his wife escaped. His daugther, featured in the story, remained a slave until Washington freed her and most of his slaves upon his death.]

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  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    Lead characters are better defined because they’re lead characters.

    There is a deep chilling effect for writers. I know a YA writer who quit because he was attacked over lacking female characters. And when he explained that he knew boys better, he was attacked for that. But had he written a book centering female characters he’d have been attacked as inauthentic. (How dare he write about blah blah.)

    I know a middle grade author who has walked away from writing anything about society at large, or history, because of the chilling effect imposed entirely from the Left.

    I was attacked for having the effrontery to write POC characters. Did they have a problem with the characters? Nope, just the color of my skin, and sometimes my gender. I quit kidlit altogether because I refuse to work in an environment made hostile by left wing Twitter mobs.

    There is not a writer in this country who is intimidated by conservatives because we make bank off Right-wing attacks. The well-documented toxicity in YA comes entirely from the Left. They’ve created a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t trap for writers. And that is not coming from Tennessee or Florida, it’s coming from New York.

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Thomm:

    I didn’t say removed from library circulation, I said destroyed.

    We (libs and progs) run publishing, especially kidlit. Conservatives don’t impress anyone in publishing. I guarantee you that as soon as the publishers hear a book is being banned in Florida they order a new print run. When the attack comes from the Left, the book may be destroyed, and the chill spreads like Covid. Art Spiegelman is justly alarmed at efforts to ban Maus, but he’ll also see his royalty check increase.

    What you dismiss as ‘people being mean on Twitter’ has had a chilling effect comparable to McCarthyism. You don’t want to believe that? Fine. But I’m on the inside on this, and I know what’s going on at the writing and publishing end, and you don’t. Further, my dude, I’m a rich(ish) old man, and I already had one foot out the door. This isn’t about me, it’s about a principle.

    Let me lay some Jesus on you. 3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? 5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

    Rationalizing Lefty intolerance is not helpful to the unsung heroes of literature, the librarians, most of whom are sticking to their principles while their political allies are selling them out. Matt wants to focus on TKAM, well, take a look at Huckleberry Finn, and tell me who is pushing for that book to be yanked.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    One last thing, then I have work to do. The title of this post is: Both Sides Are NOT the Same. But they are. Both sides are book banners, book mulchers, book burners, using kidlit to push political agendas. Obviously I’m well to the Left – as anyone who has read any of my books would clearly see – those are my people, but as we rail against conservatives selling out their principles whenever convenient, we’d be on firmer ground if we weren’t doing the same damn thing.

    Clearly Matt is right that choices have to be made about what goes on a school’s reading list. But when those choices are nothing but a pissing match between Right and Left to control kid’s minds, it’s time to take a big step back and return to principle.

    Here’s my principle: destroying books is evil. Turning kids into a battleground between Left and Right is contemptible. Jesus Fucking Christ, we are desperately trying to get kids to read, and we’re already competing for eyeballs against TV, movies, games and social media, and having anyone, of any political stripe tell kids that books are dangerous and bad is intolerable.

    To re-purpose Pink Floyd, Hey, politicians, leave those kids alone.

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  11. @Michael Reynolds:

    but making excuses for the bad behavior on our side is not the way to start.

    I had to admit, your response sounds like it is for some other post. All this one discusses is the difference between curricular choices over To Kill a Mockingbird and the outright removal of Maus in another.

    These are manifestly not the same thing.

    I was never required to read To Kill a Mockingbird in High School (1.5 years in Texas, 2.5 years in California. My wife, all 4 years in CA didn’t read it either). That doesn’t mean it was censored. I am sure it was in the library.

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  12. BTW, I didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird until I was well into adulthood and had lived in Alabama for close to 20 years at the time. I can see the white saviour critique, but I was struck by the degree to which, regardless of the characters/characterizations, of what it said about Alabama and race in the 1930s/40s (and, paired with something like Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy shows about how even decades after that story, things had not changed as much as they should have).

    I read Go Set a Watchman not long after I read Mockingbird and while I understand why a lot of Atticus lovers freaked out, I was also struck that the Atticus in that novel was probably a more accurate portrayal of a white Alabama liberal at the time.

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  13. @Michael Reynolds:

    tell kids that books are dangerous

    I say this with only semi tongue-in-cheek, but that might be the best way to get them to read.

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  14. @Michael Reynolds:

    Here’s my principle: destroying books is evil.

    I don’t think anyone here is disputing that, are they?

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  15. Dude Kembro says:

    Teachers can still choose to teach Mockingbird [in Seattle]…There is no way to teach Maus in McKinn county.

    That’s it. That’s the tweet. Obviously not “the same.” No amount of hysterical, angry, scenery-chewing screeds can make banning a book the same as not banning a book.

    But I am dismayed to hear that a kid read To Kill A Mockingbird, and it didn’t resonate. Not that everybody has to like the same thing, but dang. I would be so disappointed if I introduced that classic to a kid and they weren’t as taken by it as I and my classmates were, in Miss McDavid’s 6th Grade English class. Very few other books from elementary and high school impacted me as much (Beloved, Great Expectations, Johnny Tremain, Treasure Island, Fahrenheit 451, Death Be Not Proud, A Separate Peace, and Animal Farm among them).

    I’m still under-40; I don’t think Mockingbird did me any harm. I do recall thinking it was dated, but it was written when my mom was a kid and set when my grandmother was a kid, so, duh, of course. Has culture changed that much, that fast? I guess so. It is what it is, change is inevitable.

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  16. john430 says:

    Many of you “liberals” and “ultra-progressives” are demanding the end to book reviews currently in school libraries. It is funny that you think books must be available to young minds regardless of content but curiously, say nothing of film rating guidelines done by the Motion Picture Association of America ( MPAA) that rate a motion picture’s suitability for certain audiences based on its content.

    Other media, such as television programs, music, and video games, are rated by entities such as the TV Parental Guidelines, the RIAA, and the ESRB, respectively.

    I don’t want my 8-year-old granddaughter to learn about oral sex in books and wouldn’t let her see an X-rated film about it either.

  17. Gustopher says:

    @john430:

    I don’t want my 8-year-old granddaughter to learn about oral sex in books and wouldn’t let her see an X-rated film about it either.

    How are you going to teach her that Bill Clinton was a scumbag then? Don’t you risk her never knowing?

    I’m only half joking. The Holocaust was not particularly kid friendly, what with all the violence, the naked bodies stacked like chord wood, the people being starved and worked to death, the genocide, etc. Honestly, I blame the Germans for that. But we also live in a world where that can happen again — see Bosnia and Rwanda in the 90s, that Muslim population in China whose name escapes me right now, and the coming FEMA “re-education” camps here. How will your child learn to recognize the dangers?

    Maus is basically the most kid-friendly depiction of the Holocaust possible that still captures the essence of the horror that humanity can inflict upon the other. It’s also one of the best examples of its entire medium — fancy serious comic book. It’s basically unparalleled as a book for teaching the Holocaust, from content to execution.

    What do you suggest replacing it with?

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  18. Matt Bernius says:

    @john430:
    I have read your comment a few times and honestly cannot make heads or tails out of it beginning with:

    Many of you “liberals” and “ultra-progressives” are demanding the end to book reviews currently in school libraries.

    I seriously have never heard about this or even understand what “book reviews” mean in this context. Using context clues, I’m guessing you might have mean “book ratings” (i.e. mature etc).

    Can you please link to where you heard/read this story? I’d love to investigate. I even promise to write a post about it if you do–regardless of whether or not it paints “liberals” in a good or bad light.

    Other media, such as television programs, music, and video games, are rated by entities such as the TV Parental Guidelines, the RIAA, and the ESRB, respectively.

    This is correct, in these cases, these industries banded together to create consistent rating systems (in part to avoid governmental regulation). To my knowledge that hasn’t happened in publishing or libraries in the same way. Michael Reynolds probably knows more.

    I don’t want my 8-year-old granddaughter to learn about oral sex in books and wouldn’t let her see an X-rated film about it either.

    I’m also not sure who is arguing for the placement of books on oral sex in a school library that caters to 8-year-olds. In the case of Maus, it was an 8th grade audience which is typically 13 to 14 years old.

    Again, I’m serious about the “doing away with book ratings” thing. Can you provide a link? I really will write about it as this is a topic of interest.

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  19. charon says:

    @john430:

    Oral sex? MPAA? That all seems pretty off-topic, how is any of that relevant to Maus or Aticcus Finch?

    I don’t want my 8-year-old granddaughter to learn

    Different strokes for different folks, at eight I was free to read whatever I wanted, which is how my kid was raised too.

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  20. MarkedMan says:

    The death of many movements and organizations come about when people with different agendas hijack them for their own purposes.

    The liberal desire to challenge books and how they are written is, on the whole, a good thing. I suspect that if Michael read a review pointing out how one of his teenage POC characters reacted to some plot point or dialog differently than what the critic believed, perhaps with more experience, an actual teenage POC would, well, Michael might not like it but at some level he would appreciate it and engage with it.

    And I have sympathy for parents who are legitimately concerned about the age that certain topics are introduced. I think most would agree that 16 year olds should already be familiar with the horrors of the Holocaust, I think most would agree that 5 is too young. That alone guarantees a debate about when to teach it. It’s not just on the right. Consider parents whose child is one of only a handful of black children in a HS class and they are uncomfortable with the constant use of the N word in Huckleberry Finn. Do thirteen year olds really have the maturity to treat that as an anachronism?

    These are reasonable discussions and merely having them can improve how books are taught even if they remain in the curriculum. But there is a category of activist I think of as the Outrage Junkie. They are constantly looking for new sources of outrage so they can get their rocks off with an orgy of righteous indignation and contempt. I suspect that in all too many cases they learn the tropes of a movement but have no real understanding of it. Their goal isn’t change, it’s to be outraged. And yes, this is a both sides issue, or rather, all sides and organizations have their outrage junkies. If the take over, it kills any good that might be accomplished.

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  21. DK says:

    @john430: Nonsense. Maus and Beloved are not “X-rated.” Read both in high school, have owned both since.

    Helicopter-Karen Republicans can’t admit the GQP’s regressive attitudes and polices are the primary reason youth are alienated from conservativism. So they scapegoate schools. This anti-CRT race baiting may work short-term in 2022, but the War on Teachers is likely to backfire long term as millennials and Zoomers start to dominate the electorate.

    One, most people, including kids, see the hypocrisy of crying about CAncEL cULtUrE on your way to book banning.

    Two, most people, including kids, know schools don’t teach “X-rated” books, that the focus is on whitewashing history and banning books by black or queer authors.

    Three, schoolkids have access to actual “X-rated” content and liberal/libertine influence via TikTok, YouTube, Netflix, Instagram, Telegram, WhatsApp, etc etc etc. Social media and online content has more impact on youth culture than school reading lists.

    So by focusing their authoritarian attention on schools, conservatives look even more bigoted, hypocritical, and hopelessly out of date than kids already think Republicans are.

    Worsening personnel shortages as teachers leave the profession to escape abuse and attacks are also a landmine for the right.

    Republicans should stick with outrage over unsavory CRT-adjacent ideas about ‘whiteness being an inherently racist identity’ and the like. But since 99.99% of public schools and public school teachers don’t teach that, conservatives have overreached into a full blown panic and anti-education witch hunt, banning Holcaust books and flipping out over Big Bird, M&Ms, and Minnie Mouse. Y’all look insane, and FYI, your kids are laughing at you (and organizing against you) on TikTok.

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  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I didn’t read it in middle school or high school either. Still have never gotten to it (part of my ambivalence about reading “literature” as opposed to “trash,” I suppose). And I’ve never seen Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the movie either.

    But I did think that the idea of the black/poor characters in the novel being “flat” because it was “not necessary to see them” would make an interesting class discussion for a day or two and even a potential paper topic for some enterprising young scholar. I would absolutely do that–it maybe even dovetails into the why of the comment above about GWTW seeming old and tired as a read for a contemporary audience. Fair numbers of books “that have stood the test of time” may simply be mediocre reads that are being kept on the canon because they’re easy to teach–“I already have the notes.”

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  23. DK says:

    @charon:

    Different strokes for different folks, at eight I was free to read whatever I wanted, which is how my kid was raised too.

    Today’s kids are free to read (and watch) whatever they want to, with or without parental consent: they do so on laptops, tablets and phones — their own and their friends’. Imagine wanting to restrict what kids learn and are exposed to in 2022 and beyond, and focusing on books and school curricula. Truly hilarious.

    The right is engaged in a fool’s errand that is not going to work long term, at least towards their real goal of stopping young people’s drift towards multiculturalism and libertine liberalism, so Republicans have a future.

    To that end, it would more advantageous for conservatives to just stop lying about climate science and/or outfiank Democrats on marijuana legalization.

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  24. Gustopher says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Consider parents whose child is one of only a handful of black children in a HS class and they are uncomfortable with the constant use of the N word in Huckleberry Finn. Do thirteen year olds really have the maturity to treat that as an anachronism?

    Yes. It requires a little bit of context and discipline, but yes.

    It’s not like it is a brand new word, filled with meanings and subtext that the kids have never encountered. There will be one or two assholes, and that’s where the discipline comes in.

    I do favor just replacing the word — I prefer the robot edition — in a way that is clearly artificial rather than simply softening it. Everyone knows what it replaces, but honestly the N word itself has changed over the nearly a century and a half since the book was published and is more pejorative now*, and that also has to be taught. If anything, replacing the word makes the work more accurate to its original intent.

    Yes, the Black kid is going to squirm. Particularly on the day that the history of the N-word, but history is full of moments that make people squirm. The question should always be whether the squirm is worth the lessons. Maybe excuse the Black kid that day and explain to the class that listening to a bunch of crackers and honkeys discuss the various racist words is not the best use of that kid’s time.

    It is amazing that 140 years later, Huckleberry Finn still holds up. It’s probably the greatest American novel.

    ——
    *: A n-clang was valuable back in the day. Actually a fairly expensive investment requiring quite a bit of upkeep. Like a good horse, except human although “people” tried to overlook that. And n-clang was just the word used to describe them (used by a large swath of society, with “negro” being virtue signaling), holding a dozen shades of pejorative while today it holds only the worst.

    It was never a good word, mind you, but it’s a worse word now, or at least a very different awful word.

    2
  25. charon says:

    @DK:

    Today’s kids are free to read (and watch) whatever they want to, with or without parental consent: they do so on laptops, tablets and phones

    True as a generalization, there are exceptions depending on the psychological dynamics at the family.

    Young Republicans exist, Turning Point exists.

  26. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    All this one discusses is the difference between curricular choices over To Kill a Mockingbird

    Yes, I expanded on the subject. I don’t think that is unique to me. It part of what makes a conversation.

    I say this with only semi tongue-in-cheek, but that might be the best way to get them to read.

    Might be. I was thrilled when my UK publisher added a warning label. But this is not just about what kids read, it’s about what is being written, what can be written.

    Look, I’m not talking out of my ass about this. I can’t get into more detail without violating confidences, and you can believe me or not, but McCarthyism is not too strong an analogy for the effect on writers of Lefty bullying and attacks. And again, in case it isn’t clear: there is no parallel in Right-wing attacks because no publisher is going to pay them any mind and we writers would be thrilled.

    @MarkedMan:

    if Michael read a review pointing out how one of his teenage POC characters reacted to some plot point or dialog differently than what the critic believed, perhaps with more experience, an actual teenage POC would, well, Michael might not like it but at some level he would appreciate it and engage with it.

    Indeed. But that never happens as to race or gender or sexuality. Rather the contrary. Take a look at my Twitter followers – gay kids, trans kids, Black kids, autistic kids (and adults) are heavily over-represented. It’s not because I’m some defensive, out of touch old white man who can’t take criticism. The readers know what they’re reading, as opposed to school board members and the general public.

    But I did get some push-back on a character I described as autistic. I listened to the criticism, agreed with it, and promised that if the series goes to TV or is re-issued, I’ll fix it. We had an intelligent, reasonable discussion and I was convinced. I am powerless against the truth logically presented.

    3
  27. Scott says:

    @Matt Bernius: Here’s what he’s talking about. Some minor Texas legislators started here in Texas. This is my school district which my 3 kids attended and to which I pay a lot of taxes. It is considered one of the top districts in San Antonio.

    San Antonio-area school district reviews 400 books flagged by a Texas lawmaker’s inquiry

    A San Antonio-area school district is reviewing the contents of more than 400 books that were flagged in a Republican lawmaker’s investigation into the titles that schools keep in their libraries.

    North East Independent School District, one of the largest districts in the state, is seemingly the first district to directly respond to state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, whose inquiry in late October targeted books that pertain to race or sexuality or “make students feel discomfort.”

    “For us, this is not about politics or censorship, but rather about ensuring that parents choose what is appropriate for their minor children,” said North East ISD spokesperson Aubrey Chancellor on Monday. “Out of an abundance of caution, NEISD asked our staff to review books from the Krause list to ensure they did not have any obscene or vulgar material in them.”

    Krause, a member of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus who chairs the House General Investigating Committee, produced a list of about 850 books that touch on race and sexuality — mostly authored by women, people of color and LGBTQ writers — and asked school districts whether they had them in their libraries.

  28. Matt Bernius says:

    @Michael Reynolds I’m going to reply to a number of your points.

    The title of this post is: Both Sides Are NOT the Same.

    Ahh… ok. I get your point. If it helps with the reading of this post, imagine “In this case…” was at the front of it. I was calling out a behavior I was seeing on Twitter and in the press drawing a parallel between the two sides. That was the intent and hopefully this reads a little better that way.

    Again to be clear, I don’t see these two instances as the same. I’m not prepared at this moment to argue one way or another about your larger issue as I’m not well grounded enough on most of the specifics (beyond what I reply to below).

    Matt wants to focus on TKAM, well, take a look at Huckleberry Finn, and tell me who is pushing for that book to be yanked.

    Again, what do we mean by yanked? Banned entirely in the school district and removed from libraries? Taken off “approved” lists, meaning that it can’t be taught? Or just no longer made required. I think the devil is in the details.

    My bet is that most of these cases are being taken off “required” lists. Provided that’s the case, I have no objection for exactly the reasons said above. And I also wonder the degree to which the issue, in this case, is concerned *Black* parents, students, and teachers. I do think they should get a say in this.

    Which, looking a a quick selection of Google News stories, seems to be the case. See for example:
    https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2018/02/07/duluth-reading-list-racial-slur/

    Michael Carry, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, told The Duluth News Tribune that the books will still be optional reading and available in the school libraries, but they’ll be replaced next year by other books that touch the same topics without language that makes students uncomfortable.

    “We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” Cary said.

    Ironically, Huckleberry Finn is actually a book that I have little concern about in that it’s now firmly in the public domain and it’s difficult to imagine it ever disappearing thanks to that fact alone. That’s an entirely different case than “A Cake for George Washington” or some of the works of Dr Suess that are still currently controlled by publishers and/or estates via copyright laws.

    [Edit 1/31/2022 – In doing some research for a potential future post, it turns out that you can still get copies of “A Birthday Cake for George Washington”–both “new” (I guess from the initial printing) and on the secondary market: https://www.amazon.com/Birthday-Cake-George-Washington/dp/0545538238 — I will probably order one if I decide to go ahead with the post.]

    Clearly Matt is right that choices have to be made about what goes on a school’s reading list. But when those choices are nothing but a pissing match between Right and Left to control kid’s minds, it’s time to take a big step back and return to principle.

    Michael, this has always already been the purpose of education. Pretty much from the beginning. It’s always been cultural indoctrination. And in that way there have always been Right/Left struggles in what was taught. The thing is that we have in about a century gone from a more homogenous set of people making those decisions (but even then I remember reading lots of Mad Magazines from the 60’s and 70’s complaining about “new math” and “throwing away the classics”) to actually needing to meet the needs of a more diverse group.

    Here’s my principle: destroying books is evil.

    Sure. I agree. Also, where does require kids to repeatedly read “great American” classics featuring racial slurs directed at their ethnic group (not to mention members of their racial groups being largely placed in non-agentive positions waiting for White folks to save them) fall on the good/evil scale? Asking for a friend… 😉

    One thing I think we can both agree on is most librarians, school and otherwise, are goddam saints and some of the fiercest fighters for the First Amendment and I suspect the new few years are going to get especially hard for them.

    8
  29. Matt Bernius says:

    @Scott:
    Thanks. I’ll read into it and see what else I can find. And even though he didn’t post it, I probably will hold true to my pledge to John to post about the facts (regardless of whether or not they may “liberals” look bad).

    I will say I find this analysis of the list that the Conservative Lawmaker (and potentially John430 as well) find objectionable completely unsurprising:

    Krause, a member of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus who chairs the House General Investigating Committee, produced a list of about 850 books that touch on race and sexuality — mostly authored by women, people of color and LGBTQ writers — and asked school districts whether they had them in their libraries.

    Emphasis is mine.

    4
  30. Matt Bernius says:

    MR, one last thing…

    @Matt Bernius:

    That’s an entirely different case than “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” or some of the works of Dr Suess that are still currently controlled by publishers and/or estates via copyright laws.

    This was the first time I heard about the Birthday Cake book. I plan to read up on it and then will probably write something about it. It’s going to require a bit of digging as Scholastic has apparently taken some of the defenses off their website.

  31. @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    (part of my ambivalence about reading “literature” as opposed to “trash,” I suppose). And I’ve never seen Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the movie either

    I will confess that my pleasure reading tends to be decidedly non-literary. I must confess to recently reading a lot of comics on my iPad.

    I did decide to fill in some of my literary gaps, and Mockingbird was on the list. At some point I will resume that quest a bit.

    Also: I have never seen the movie, either.

  32. @Michael Reynolds:

    Look, I’m not talking out of my ass about this.

    I don’t doubt that. Indeed, I defer to your experience and knowledge in this area.

    Having said that, you have to admit you expanding the topic rather substantially and rather quickly, largely without actually addressing the post itself.

    5
  33. Scott says:

    @Matt Bernius: In Texas, School Board members are elected volunteers, i.e., they are not paid. Our district is about 60,000 students with a $500M budget. The Board is pretty professional as is the Superintendent. Like most humans beings, when confronted with something unpleasant, they just want it to go away so they can deal with more important topics. As some point, members will get tired and just say, “I don’t need this ****. Which is the problem going on around the country with the culture warriors on the war path.

    I wrote the Board this letter after the news came out:

    Dear NEISD Board and Superintendent Maika:

    I am writing to express my extreme disappointment in your actions in response to this blatant political bullying from a legislator from North Texas. The correct response would have been what other district have done: ignore them. It demonstrates the wrong example on so many levels whether it is pedological, ethical, or leadership.

    We educated three children through the NEISD school system and, by and large, were pleased with the district and its quality. This nonsense does not please us. It is a sign that excellence takes a back seat to a loud, ignorant minority.

    The Board needs to back its educators and protect them from this bullying. Because it won’t stop and the Board will be next.

    Thank you for listening,

    —————————————————————————-

    I got this as a reply:

    Thank you for your email to the Board. Administration started having conversations about books a little over a year and a half ago due to the nature of some text that they found on elementary campuses. They began to discuss ways in which to ensure that all the books were age-appropriate for all students on the campus and for ways to increase parent communication.

    Recently, Krause released a list of books that he thought should not be in school libraries, but his list made up .0036% of our collection and seemed very targeted. Therefore, we only used his list as a starting point to verify that we did not have vulgar or obscene text, that was not age-appropriate, on our campuses.

    Our effort was designed to ensure that our collection of books supports our district guidelines and provides a comprehensive collection that is age-appropriate and supportive of all students and their backgrounds. The District asked our librarians to review and verify that our collections were age appropriate. Once books were reviewed and deemed appropriate, they were immediately returned to circulation.

    Books were only to be labeled “under review” and not removed unless the librarians deem it necessary. Librarians have always had the responsibility to weed books to ensure the collections are current, relevant, and age-appropriate for the community they serve. Central Office and the Board have no responsibility for weeding the books.

    Once the review of the books by the librarians is complete, a report will be provided to the board and will be available to the community.

    I believe they are sincere but they need help in pushing back against the bullying going on in communities across the country.

    2
  34. Matt Bernius says:

    @Scott:
    Thanks for the extra context. I am a bit familiar with Bexar county from work. I am consulting on a team doing work with some family help agencies in that county.

    I have tracked down the list of questioned works and it’s about what I expected.

    I will write on the topic at some point and will include your local context.

  35. CSK says:

    OT: Matt, you and OTB were cited in Morning Shots in The Bulwark today.

    2
  36. wr says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “I don’t think anyone here is disputing that, are they?”

    Well, they have to be. Because if they’re not, then MR can’t be the Last Righteous Man.

    8
  37. Kurtz says:

    @john430:

    Oh please.

    This conversation started because of a Tennessee school board pulling a book that was taught by kids in grade eight, not kids age eight.

    Discussing censorship in the context of books doesn’t obligate anyone involved to decry every form of censorship in every other context. Moreover, you will notice that virtually everyone here agrees that government censorship is bad. The point of contention surrounds the role of social movements taking action.

    Why is it that so-called conservatives who claim to be skeptical of government over-reach seem to defend and practice State censorship?

    6
  38. Mu Yixiao says:

    I’m dealing with a new kitten and two pissed off cats, so I don’t have time to get into this right now, but…

    it appears to have been banned from the district in its entirety.

    unanimously banned the book.

    Show proof of it being banned from the district entirely–because that’s not what the story has been as I’ve read it. The story has been that Maus can has been removed from the 8th-grade curriculum as the core of a particular class.

    Show me evidence that it has been removed from the school libraries.

    I’ve known more than a few school librarians in my time and I can’t imagine a single one of them saying “Oh.. the school board is telling us to remove this book from the library? Well… golly gee willikers! Let’s get on that right away!”

    Democrats are the party of science and verifiable facts (or so I’m told). And I’m a journalist. So… Don’t give me “it appears to be”. Give me verifiable facts about what is actually happening. If you can’t cite 2 independent sources (or one verifiable, neutral, involved source) then don’t make any claims as to what is or is not happening.

  39. Gustopher says:

    @john430:

    I don’t want my 8-year-old granddaughter to learn about oral sex in books and wouldn’t let her see an X-rated film about it either.

    Why single out oral sex? Is it somehow dirtier than other forms of sex?

    It’s sort of like saying “I don’t want my grand kid learning about helium atoms.” Dude, if you think helium atoms are freaky, you better watch out for lithium. And carbon, well, that’s just the c-word around here.

    (And sometimes an atom will gain or lose a proton and become an entirely different element.)

    2
  40. Gustopher says:

    And now I remember the story Hickenlooper tells about going to see Deep Throat with his mom.

  41. Erik says:

    @Michael Reynolds: yes. Why not?

    1
  42. DK says:

    @Kurtz:

    Why is it that so-called conservatives who claim to be skeptical of government over-reach seem to defend and practice State censorship?

    Because conservatives are not actually against censorship, they’re against anyone but conservatives doing the censoring.

    Note, the MPAA (now MPA) is not a goverment body. It’s a private trade association that was created by Hollywood studios as a self-regulating body. Movie ratings do involve government.

    2
  43. Matt Bernius says:

    @CSK:
    Wow. Thank you so much for that heads up! I need to send him a thank you for the kind cite. I don’t agree with Sykes on a lot of things, but he is (or has become) the type of person I wish made up more of the public face of the Republican party.

    @Mu Yixiao:
    Fair. I need to be clear I’m not a journalist and I’ve worked with enough of them and respect what they do to a degree that I would not pretend to be. I’m at best an opinion writer. That said, not having an editor or someone to fact-check yourself is always a dangerous thing. And I don’t want to spread false information.

    I’ve sent an email to folks at The Tennesseean to see if they know if it’s being removed from the libraries. I’ll also send an email tomorrow to one of the district libraries to confirm.

    I’ll update this and the previous story with what I learn (if I hear anything back).

    [Update 1/31 – See new details in the post. At this point I stand by my initial interpretation.]

  44. Andy says:

    Ok, as is probably clear to regulars from my other comments tonight in other threads, I’m in a bit of a cranky/snarky mood. And while this and the previous post on this topic is the catalyst, none of this is meant to say anything about the author – Matt – or his personal views. I’m just annoyed that this is even a national story in the first place.

    I’ll state my priors upfront which regulars here should know well – I’m a free speech guy and not just in the limited sense of government regulation, but generally. I think free speech is an important principle to be upheld, not just an inconvenient part of the Constitution. So I’m very skeptical of banning anything resembling an idea, I’m skeptical of “de-platforming”, and I’m skeptical of any other attempts to stifle the flow of ideas. I’m a firm believer that the best response to dumb/bad/evil speech is smarter/less bad/less evil speech.

    That said, I think this whole situation with a schools district in TN is kind of dumb and I look at it mostly from a media criticism perspective rather than a speech perspective. So let’s review:

    Here we have a single small school district (out of ~13k school districts nationwide) with a whopping ~5500 students k-12 students (out of ~48.1 million k-12 students nationwide) that decide to ban a book. And “ban” is the appropriate word here, since the district, it seems, did not make a judgment based on age appropriateness. My view is that Maus, like any other book, should not be banned.

    To me that seems pretty cut-and-dry, but others decided to make this minor event into an issue of national importance and imbue it will all kinds of ideological and political meaning. The left, predictably, picked this up and goes “aha!” those baddie conservatives are at it again, with the most stupid alleging this is proof that conservatives hate Jews and are also Holocaust deniers.

    And also very predictably, this triggers a counter-reaction on the right and the really dumb ones turn to Google to look for evidence of hypocrisy as a defense. And it seems they fail, according to Matt’s post at least. Which is sad since it is trivially easy to find lots of evidence of people on both the right and left wanting and attempting to ban ideas and books and all kinds of other things they don’t like. The one thing that ideologues have in common is a strong desire to suppress opposing views.

    Now that this minor local issue has become nationalized, it follows the usual culture war script wherein people act very passionately about it (but only online) until the news cycle serves up the next culture war debate, after which it’s totally forgotten.

    This repeating cycle of stupid online culture-war fights makes me want to start drinking daily again.

  45. Monala says:

    @mattbernius: the Netflix documentary series High on the Hog, an exploration of the history of African American culinary arts, did a very good episode on the enslaved black chefs who served Washington and Jefferson. It covered how they used their roles to their advantage, with Jefferson’s chef James Hemings (brother of Jefferson’s exploited slave mistress Sally Hemings) arranging to free his younger siblings in exchange for his cooking. The series was simultaneously candid about the harsh realities of slavery, and celebratory about the creativity of black chefs in combining African traditions with American foods to create new dishes and cuisines.

    2
  46. charon says:

    While it is best, most effective, to communicate with kids in an age appropriate way, censorship is not the right way.

    If it is not age appropriate, the kid will not have much interest, if any, will disregard. If the kid wants to read it or see it, it’s age appropriate.

    “Cultural appropriation” is a whole separate issue. To me, the big cultural appropriate seems not to bother anyone is Christians taking the Hebrew Bible and revising it with deletions and resequencing to fit Christian theology as the “Old Testament.”

    1
  47. Matt Bernius says:

    @Monala:
    Thanks for that suggestion. High on the Hog has been on my need-to-watch list for a while. The host and curator, Michael Twitty is someone who I have been following on Twitter for years. His book The Cooking Gene, which the show is based on, is a singular work and definitely deserved the James Beard award. I highly recommend it.

    Your comment has given me an idea for something that is a bit of a moonshot. I won’t go any further but keep your fingers crossed.

    [Update] It turns out the Twitty did write a commentary piece on the topic back in 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/19/slavery-childrens-books-literature-george-washington-birthday-cake

  48. Matt Bernius says:

    @Andy:
    First, I wish my pissed-off writing had the thoughtfulness and presence of mind yours does. If you had not mentioned you were in a bad mood, I never would have known.

    Second I agree with your core point. This speaks to a failure of my previous piece on the Maus case. Beyond trying to accurately unpack what happened in TN, I unsuccessfully tried to call attention to the fact that while the Maus situation has become a national story, the story of the over-policing of the schools in that other TN county didn’t. In fact, almost no one in the comments addressed the back half of the article.

    Steven and I had an email discussion about that and we both think that the more immediate outrage typically takes precedent. I also suspect that given that was the first half of a very long post (for OTB) I might have lost most readers by that point. Or perhaps I didn’t clearly articulate that part of my opinion.

    As for the rest of your points, I actually think that is sparking an idea for a post about the problem of “feeding the beast.” But that will have to wait until later this week.

  49. Monala says:

    @Matt Bernius: thought-provoking article by Twitty. Thanks for sharing it.

  50. Ha Nguyen says:

    Apropos of this, I just read in the Seattle newspaper this story about how a high school principal is actually removing books from the school library, if they’re about LGBTQ+ kids. No announcement, just removal. The school librarian noticed a book missing from his order of books and found it on the Vice-Principal’s desk.

    https://bookriot.com/lgbtq-books-quietly-pulled-from-washington-state-middle-school/

  51. Andy says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    Matt,

    I don’t think you did anything wrong – you didn’t turn this into a national story and you have every right to post about something that is in the headlines. I’m more frustrated with how our political culture takes these relatively minor events and then blows them up.

    I actually was much more interested in the back half of your first post. I didn’t comment because I really didn’t get time to read catch up until later last night and I thought I would focus on the newer posts. But I hope you return to the issues you raised – particularly school resource officers because they are well worth a broader discussion.

  52. mattbernius says:

    @Ha Nguyen:
    Thanks. I’ll look into that.

    @Andy:
    Thanks for the feedback on the SRO topic. Honestly, when it comes to writing on those topics I’m hit by a bit of a reverse Dunning Kruger effect and I want to make sure I’ve done enough research not to make an obvious error (to the point of over-researching). So more are coming but they will be slow.

    1
  53. Andy says:

    @mattbernius:

    Quality is better than quantity IMO!