Banning Kurt Vonnegut and other sins against man

By Brian Pierce

Anybody who is an avid fan of “The West Wing” will remember an episode early in the series in which President Bartlett becomes obsessed during midterm elections not with a potential Democratic takeover but instead with an ultraconservative candidate running for a seat on the school board in his New Hampshire hometown. Nobody is taking the race quite as seriously as the President is, and finally he breaks down and argues that all candidates like these have to do is, “bit by little bit, get themselves on the Boards of Education and city councils, because that’s where all the governing that really matters to anybody really happens.”

There is a kernel of truth in President Bartlett’s statement in spite of his hyperbole. For all the charged debates we have on the national level, it is local government that does much of the decision-making that affects the most basic elements of our daily lives.

And so it is no surprise that this fictional West Wing subplot can teach us a real-life lesson about a school board race that could affect the younger brothers and sisters of some of the readers of this page.

District 214 is an Illinois school district that covers six high schools in Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, and Wheeling. The school board election is tomorrow and will be the culmination of the most expensive campaign District 214 has ever seen.

The incumbents – Bill Dussling, Alva Kreutzer, and Robert Zimmanck – have collectively raised $40,000 in a race that usually sees fundraising goals set at around the $500 level. Two challengers – Dennis Konczyk and Ken Frizane – have garnered the support of conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly and former Republican senatorial and gubernatorial candidate Jim Oberweis. The two challengers have collectively raised $8,000.

The race has managed to achieve such record-breaking fundraising levels and attract such unprecedented levels of attention because it centers around a proposed ban on books that failed by a 6-1 vote by the school board last year. The single dissenting vote was that of Leslie Pinney, who in 2005 raised $20,000 – mostly from the conservative Family Taxpayers Network – to win her election.

Among the nine books that Pinney and the Family Taxpayers Network saw as such an affront to a proper education are Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Stephen Dubner’s and Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics,” Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” and the late Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

The feelings of fond remembrance and admiration for Kurt Vonnegut’s work in the wake of his death should remind us that book bans like these are not merely entertaining hotspots in the ongoing culture war.

Discovering a writer like Vonnegut in high school has been in no small way a life changing experience for many Americans. Books like “Slaughterhouse-Five” have a way of touching us most profoundly when they are read at a certain age, during the confusing, angst-ridden years of adolescence.

The best of these books lasts with us for a lifetime.

And so it should be treated not as a small distraction but rather as a grave social wrong that the schoolchildren of District 214 could be denied the experiences of Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s World War II prisoner of war, as he witnesses the firebombing of Dresden and becomes disconnected from time and space.

And while the challengers in this school board race are not campaigning in support of a book ban, the level of support they have garnered from the far right should make anyone suspicious of their intentions if actually elected to office.

If nothing else, the ousting of the incumbents will send a message to any future candidates that opposing a book ban is a surefire way to lose reelection.

Forces like Schlafly and Oberweis will find candidates with their backwards values and fund them until they win.

And sooner or later, the far right will get candidates elected who will eliminate great writers like Vonnegut from the classroom.

And President Bartlett will, as usual, be proven right.

So it goes.