Commentary Magazine

Transgression à la Mode

Wikipedia Commons.

Laura Ingalls Wilder has finally won her rightful place alongside Mark Twain and Harper Lee as the Association for Library Services to Children moves to strip her name from an award given to children’s authors.

The complaint is the familiar one: A writer rooted in the 19th Century (b. 1867) failed to anticipate the courtly etiquette of the 21st Century, in which American intellectuals and their institutions (ALSC is a division of the American Library Association) demand groveling and total conformity in thought and expression. Wilder’s violations involve “expressions of stereotypical attitudes,” in her Little House on the Prairie series, particularly in passages involving African Americans and Indians, which are “inconsistent with ALSC’s core values,” those being gutlessness and stupidity.

The same arguments have been put forward over the years in the case for the partial suppression of many of the great American works of literature. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are the most popular targets, though authors ranging from Toni Morrison to J. D. Salinger to Joseph Heller all have had a turn in the barrel. The champions of illiteracy, which the American Library Association must now count itself among, demand that those books be removed from library shelves and stricken from school curricula. That’s not quite as dramatic as burning them at a public rally while singing hymns to the greatness and purity of the Party, but the effect is roughly the same.

It is useful to consider the intellectual character of the people calling for the suppression of books or the memory-holing of their authors. In Virginia, the charge against To Kill a Mockingbird was led by a parent named Marie Rothstein-Williams, who made this complaint: “There is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that.” The person who spoke that sentence does not have any business directing anyone else’s education in literature. If democracy demands that we defer to their judgment, then to Hell with it.

Mrs. Rothstein-Williams complained that To Kill a Mockingbird disturbed her teenaged son, who is biracial. A decently educated and halfway responsible school board member would have replied: “Good. It’s a disturbing book. It’s meant to be. You’re welcome.” The literal meaning of the word “education” is “to lead out” (from the Latin e ducere), but to lead out of what and into what? Our educators have forgotten that–if they ever knew. And so we are left with the blind leading the blind.

This is another of those paradoxes of progressivism that are mystifying until you develop cynicism sufficient to understand what they really are about: the opportunistic pursuit of power in matters momentous or petty.

On the one hand, progressives at the commanding heights of our artistic and cultural institutions insist that great art should be “transgressive,” e.g., this mess of words from Artspace: Vagina Painting stands as an iconic Fluxus performance and has been interpreted as a key moment in feminist art . . . Underneath a ramped floor built in New York’s Sonnabend Gallery, Vito Acconci (b.1940) spent eight hours a day over three weeks crawling around and masturbating in an attempt to scatter as much of his semen as possible . . . At the conclusion of the work, Schneemann dropped her apron and pulled a thin scroll from her body that had been wound up and hidden in her vagina.”

These works, Artspace informs us, “are some of the most famous examples of contemporary artists transgressing the agreed-upon limits of safety, sanity, and decency.” The friends of the National Endowment for the Arts have argued that part of the value in the works of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano (of “Piss Christ” fame) is that they are “transgressive.” When members of Congress protested the use of federal funds to subsidize a showing of Mapplethorpe’s photographs (a self-portrait of the photographer sodomizing himself with a bullwhip particularly seized their attention), Time magazine described him as a “persecuted artist.” An article about Gloria Watkins (better known as bell hooks) in the NEA Higher Education Journal assures readers that transgression is a necessary part of education.

At the same time they are celebrating transgression, the leaders of our artistic and cultural institutions insist that every piece of art—and every artist—should live up to the ever-more-refined sensibilities of their own particular tribe, which is to say, approximately, the tastes of high-income, college-educated white people who voted for Bernie Sanders. It’s a familiar bait-and-switch: Transgression is good and necessary when it serves the Left’s ends, and the social abolition of transgression (which is what “sensitivity” means) is good when it serves the Left’s ends.

Hence, the jihad against Laura Ingalls Wilder, which far predates this episode.

Partly, it is a jihad against the Little House on the Prairie books themselves, which are popularly understood as paeans to old-fashioned Protestant virtues and the westward expansion of the United States, two things that give progressives the screeching heebie-jeebies. Partly, it is a jihad against Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a well-known writer in her day whose silent role in the Little House books was something between editor and author. Lane, who still enjoys a following among libertarians with literary interests, was a trenchant (and cranky) critic of the New Deal who protested Social Security and war rationing, denounced Franklin Roosevelt as a dictator, and wrote as a fierce anti-Communist, having seen the ghastly results of that philosophy up close when reporting from the Soviet Union.

And so the Little House books are, in the progressive view, politically suspect. Sarah Palin was said to have adored them as a child. (Ronald Reagan, they say, preferred the television adaptation.) Judith Thurman wrote in The New Yorker in 2009:

Last June, Anita Clair Fellman, a professor emerita of history at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia, published “Little House, Long Shadow,” a survey of the Wilders’ “core” beliefs, and of their influence on American political culture. Two streams of conservatism, she argues—not in themselves inherently compatible—converge in the series. One is Lane’s libertarianism, and the other is Wilder’s image of a poster family for Republican “value voters”: a devoted couple of Christian patriots and their unspoiled children; the father a heroic provider and benign disciplinarian, the mother a pious homemaker and an example of feminine self-sacrifice. (In that respect, Rose considered herself an abject failure. “My life has been arid and sterile,” she wrote, “because I have been a human being instead of a woman.”)

Fellman concludes, “The popularity of the Little House books . . . helped create a constituency for politicians like Reagan who sought to unsettle the so-called liberal consensus established by New Deal politics.” Considering the outcome of the November election, and the present debacle of laissez-faire capitalism, that popularity may have peaked. On the other hand, it may not have. Hard times whet the appetite for survival stories

(Alert readers will note the familiar question-begging in “not in themselves inherently compatible.”)

It is difficult to say how much of Lane’s libertarian politics the typical Little House reader is likely to absorb from those books. Her own accounts of the same material in Free Land and Let the Hurricane Roar offer a bleaker picture of settlers nearly destroyed by “free” land that, like most “free” things, turned out to be crushingly costly. But the stink of right-wingery is on the Little House books, and that probably is enough for the American Library Association and the other idiot children of American letters, suffocating as they are beneath the weight of their own ridiculous and infantile self-centeredness. Too egotistical to read a novel: You couldn’t even say that about poor daft old Ayn Rand.

The librarians long ago joined the brigades of little suppressors, along with the teachers and professors, the museum directors, the deans of students, and the enforcers of uniformity who, in the Orwellian style, describe their portfolios as “diversity.”

Funny word, “diversity.”

A few years ago, I was teaching at The King’s College in New York City, a Christian school that attracts a considerable number of students with rather severe religious upbringings. There was a dress code, inevitably, which was roughly “business casual.” One posted memo advised young ladies that they shouldn’t come to school dressed for a night out on the town in Manhattan, but neither should they show up dressed “like a character from Little House on the Prairie,” that look being à la mode in certain evangelical circles.

There’s transgression, and then there’s transgression, and Little House on the Prairie does not offer the fashionable kind.

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