Thursday June 7, 2007

Glimpse from inside the Vamos a Cuba appeal. The ACLU is all like, “All a publicly elected body has to do to ban a book is utter the word inaccurate? If that’s the case every library administrator and library association in the country should be worried.” And the judges are all like, “[what about] a book about Adolf Hitler that would credit the Nazi leader with creating the Volkswagen and bringing Germany out of the depression — but not mention the Holocaust.” Also, for the sake of posterity, I’m mirroring the court documents posted at the Herald: School Board’s Complaint [PDF]. ACLU’s response [PDF].

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  1. alesh    Thu Jun 7, 08:41 AM #  

    Just to play devil’s advocate, I’d like to preemptively address the Godwin’s law issue. Here’s the Wikipedia page on the law.

    As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

    Also: It is precisely because such a comparison or reference may sometimes be appropriate, Godwin has argued,[3] that overuse of Nazi and Hitler comparisons should be avoided, because it robs the valid comparisons of their impact.

    I think this misses the important point that Nazi/Hitler analogies are often used exactly because they’re the extreme example.

    In philosophical discussions, the killing of babies is also used as such an edge case. Note also the line “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

    The fallacy that “Adolf Hitler (or the Nazi party) supported X; therefore X must be evil/undesirable/bad” is indeed wrong. However, invoking H/N in a thought experiment is not wrong — if a principle is claimed to truly apply in all cases, then it must be able to hold up to edge cases. For moral issues, H/N are a perfectly suitable edge case.

    Such is the use in the example above. Clear-headed individuals will, indeed, oppose the banning of a book that puts Hitler in a positive light.

  2. Alex    Thu Jun 7, 10:12 AM #  

    Uh, wrong. That would be the case if the book puts Castro in a positive light, but it does not. Castro, the regime, the political system, etc aren’t even mentioned.

    The analogy fails again. But I wouldn’t expect somebody who likes the “killing of babies” analogy to understand why.

  3. Biscayne Bystander    Thu Jun 7, 11:29 AM #  

    Banning books is poor policy for the land of the free. We should stop fearing contradicting opinions and embrace the availability of contrasting viewpoints – even if they are historically inaccurate. The Bible is the world’s most popular book, but it is also a compilation containing known inaccuracies. Are we to ban Bibles from libraries?

    I would go the route of the music industry and support labeling disputed books with a warning, possibly a URL or ID number, so the reader (or parent) can see why the book is deemed objectionable. Given the multitude of challenges currently facing our school districts, it is disheartening to learn that we would even entertain the notion of prohibiting students from reading.

    What’s next? Canceling Recess?? Oh yeah…

  4. Jonathan    Thu Jun 7, 11:55 AM #  

    It’s certainly possible for a book to portray Castro in a positive light by not mentioning “the harsh realities of life under a communist dictatorship” (as the Herald puts it). Since those realities are an overwhelming fact of life in Cuba, to avoid mentioning them, or to avoid framing them as consequences of communist dictatorship, is to portray Castro in a positive light. It’s like a biography of a mass-murderer that doesn’t mention the murders. There can be dishonesty by omission as well as by commission.

    The school board’s decision not to make the book available in its libraries is a separate issue. It’s not like the book is unavailable outside of school libraries. Since the libraries can’t contain every book, there’s going to be some unavoidable arbitrariness in any decision about which books to put in them. Is it better that these arbitrary decisions get made by a school board that is at least somewhat accountable to the people it serves, or should they be made by a judge who is completely unaccountable? I think that’s the important question here.

  5. b.a.c.    Thu Jun 7, 12:05 PM #  

    The important question is the law and how it is applied. The judge eventually making the decision as the law should apply is better than biased school board members circumventing constitutional rights. I don’t care how far removed the judge is from SoFla.

  6. alesh    Thu Jun 7, 12:29 PM #  


    You’re missing the point. The situation the judge posits isn’t intended to be a perfect analogy with Vamos a Cuba — it’s a deliberate exaggeration. Yes, it does exaggerates along two lines.

    The point isn’t liking the baby-killing analogy. The point is that when you’re talking about a hypothetical terrible thing, you want the most terrible thing possible.

    Hope that clears it up!


    It seems like we’re moving in a direction in this country where someone with some particularly held viewpoints can more and more avoid being confronted with anything that contradicts those viewpoints (eg websites, radio shows, even whole tv networks with a particular political bias). I wonder if such a labeling system wouldn’t just exacerbate that situation.

    Of course I agree that banning books is moronic.


    I dunno. Is a book about the USA that doesn’t get into our wonderful democratic political system painting the country in an unfairly poor light? (I don’t know — i’m really asking.)

    I don’t think the alternative to the school board’s deciding what books are in the libraries is for a judge to do so. The judge’s role, as b.a.c. says, is to decide whether it’s a good idea to have the school board overriding the decisions of librarians.

  7. Alex    Thu Jun 7, 01:47 PM #  

    Nope, you and the judge are missing it. Reductio ad absurdum is never a good argument and certainly not in law (That’s the kind of thinking that leads to three-strikes laws, mandatory sentencing, etc).

    Plus, the analogy is flawed not because it’s extreme, but because is not comparing two equal things. If you had a book titled “Castro the Best Person Who Ever Lived”, and want to compare Castro to Hitler then yeah, by all means. But you don’t.

    And you do like the baby killing analogy. You brought it up before.

    Jonathan, you haven’t read the book, have you?

  8. alesh    Thu Jun 7, 02:55 PM #  

    Ah, I see the problem — you don’t understand how the justice system works. The judges on an appellate court don’t have quite the same function as in a regular court. They’re more like they would be in the Supreme court, where there’s a back and forth with the lawyers.

    The judge isn’t saying he believes the book should be banned just like the hypothetical N/H book should be banned — he’s prompting the lawyer to spell out why either (1) one should be banned and the other not (ie what’s the principle by which you’d decide) or (2) whether/why they should both be allowed. He’s pushing the lawyer to make a particular case, not extending a case himself.

    I’m not sure how interesting or important the second point, but I have no problem seeing that painting a rosy picture of life in Cuba by omitting the suffering that goes on there could be seen as a less extreme example of, or on the same continuum with, a view that actually has some praise for the regime.

    Baby killing is an example. I raise it because I find it pertinent, not because I enjoy it.

  9. Alex    Thu Jun 7, 03:20 PM #  

    Really Alesh? Explain to me why would I be confused with a “regular” court. In what instance in “regular” court does a judge introduce an argument? Where do I say the judge can’t question the lawyers with as many dumb analogies as he pleases?

    A well-executed sarcastic retort requires at least a passing connection with the other person’s point. Otherwise all the infantile patronizing does is show you don’t get the issue and can’t keep up with the discussion. But why stop there? You want to go back and include a “here in the US” line, for effect?

  10. Jonathan    Thu Jun 7, 04:20 PM #  

    I dunno. Is a book about the USA that doesn’t get into our wonderful democratic political system painting the country in an unfairly poor light? (I don’t know — i’m really asking.)

    There isn’t overwhelming political oppression in the USA, so I don’t think the comparison works. A better parallel might be a book about the USA that didn’t mention business or the economy.

    Jonathan, you haven’t read the book, have you?

    No and I’m not going to. You can make a point by omission. “Vamos a Germany” in 1938, “Vamos a North Korea”, “Vamos a Iran”, etc. You could write about those places without mentioning politics, just as you could write about Antarctica without mentioning cold weather, but you would be leaving out something important and, by doing so, might convey a false impression.

    b.a.c.: I don’t think the law is clear, which is why the issue is still being litigated. Anyway, you can vote against a school board member if you don’t like his decisions, but you can’t vote against a federal judge. The fact that you might agree with the judge over the school board in a particular instance doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea to give judges more power. You might disagree with the judge one day, and then what?

  11. alesh    Thu Jun 7, 04:48 PM #  


    “infantile patronizing”? I’ve no idea where the hostility is coming from Alex. Anyhow, in a regular court most of the discussion is between the attorneys and witnesses, except during the closing arguments, when they address the judge or jury. In any case the judge’s active contribution is making procedural decisions along the way. In appellate court the judges take an active part, and most of the discussion is between them and the attorneys.

    BUT it’s not really a debate. The judges question the attorneys to try to get the best possible arguments on both sides of the issue, then they make the decision. That’s the context in which the above Hitler/Nazi quote should be understood in. No infantile patronizing intended!


    Nope — our political freedom is as integral to everything that’s right in the USA as the dictatorship in Cuba is integral to everything that is wrong there.

    Again, the judge is deciding whether the school board ought to be overriding the judgment of a librarian. I’m not saying that the issue is clear, but I will say that a librarian is a trained and impartial professional, whereas the school board is a politically vulnerable committee. Do we only want books in our schools that the committee doesn’t see any problem with?

  12. mkh    Thu Jun 7, 07:49 PM #  

    If I was a Japanese children’s author in 1935 I might want to write a book about the United States. In it I would include topics like geography, with photos of the Rocky Mountains and California beaches and Nebraska plains; cities, with pictures of NYC and Chicago; food, illustrated with hamburgers and fried chicken; recreation, showing a baseball game; holidays, with scenes of fireworks and Independence Day celebrations; and music, with a brass band and maybe a cowboy singer with guitar.

    These are the things an eight year-old child would care about, not plutocracy, not chain gangs, not starving dust bowl refugees, not the omission of jazz, not the “strange fruit” of the South. Would this Japanese book be pro-American propaganda because it failed to call out these failings? Not to an eight year-old it wouldn’t.

    I’ve read Vamos a Cuba, and to a kid it is just a book about people in another country, and how their lives are similar to their own, and how they are different. Kids reading it would most likely be appalled that Cuban kids don’t get Nintendo, and have to play baseball with sticks, and have to go to work. Only an adult — and in my opinion a pretty twisted one — would think a kid’s book needs to show firing squads and mass graves to be accurate.

    If Castro dies tonight (and may it be so), will everything in the book suddenly change; will video games sprout from the ground like mushrooms, will tin plates overflow with meat, will buses be a thing of the past? I suspect that Vamos will remain sadly accurate for quite a while as the nation rebuilds. So why — for other than propaganda purposes — does the book need to go? It certainly isn’t for the sake of the kids.

  13. Manuel A. Tellechea    Thu Jun 7, 10:16 PM #  

    For the State to demand you do something that you personally consider reprehensible, such as pay a tax to underwrite an illegal war, was the catalyst that gave birth to civil disobedience in this country. No less defensible is it for the government to use tax dollars to fill public libraries with books that attempt to portray the abnormal lives which Cubans are compelled to live under Castroism as somehow comparable or superior to life in the United States. Any such comparison is unacceptable on its face and betrays at best the compulsion to mislead and at worst a statism that is a close cousin to Cuban Communism.

    As with pornography, community standards should prevail when deciding whether a book should be removed or no from schools or public libraries. There is, of course, no more objectionable pornography than one which objectifies an entire people, as “Vamos a Cuba” does.

    I have never heard anyone make the statement that once a book has been admitted to a library it should never be withdrawn for any reason. Libraries are always turning over their stocks, replacing older with newer books.

    The most banned children’s book in recent times was about a young girl’s love of her nappy hair. Hundreds of libraries banned it. The political incorrectness of the book, written by an African-American women to counter the perception which many blacks have that their hair is “not good,” did not prevent it from becoming a best-seller. The book nonetheless fell afoul of the most liberal librarians in this country because it happened to use the word “nappy” to describe the texture of black hair.

  14. Manuel A. Tellechea    Thu Jun 7, 10:26 PM #  

    The same thing also happened with a book that used the word “niggardly,” which, of course, has nothing to do with blacks. That word was deemed guilty by association (it sounded like a racist word even though it wasn’t) and the book that contained it was banned by libraries nationwide. If the “Ceasar’s wife” argument can be used to ban books containing innocuous words subject to misinterpretation by idiots, why should books that actually offend and misrepresent minorities not be banned for their content?

  15. Manny's Left Testicle    Thu Jun 7, 10:54 PM #  

    There you are, my master!

  16. Jonathan    Thu Jun 7, 10:58 PM #  

    Alesh: I don’t think leaving matters of public trust up to the professionals, whether the professionals are police or librarians or whatever, is wise unless the professionals are politically accountable. It’s not an ideal system but what is better?

    (I’d prefer it if the schools weren’t run by the government, except perhaps on the most local level, but if the city government is going to run the schools then I’d rather have the school employees be accountable to local voters via an elected school board than to no one or to some unaccountable judge.)

  17. mkh    Thu Jun 7, 11:21 PM #  

    Manuel, what’s the name of this nationally banned book that used the word “niggardly”? The closest reference I can find is to David Howard, but nothing about a book.

    “Nappy Hair,” by Carolivia Herron, was not banned at a single library. One school received parental complaints about it, got an explanation from the author; the school then made it required reading. Librarians were never involved. I’m not sure how this is a ban, but it is an(other) example of overzealous parents with a political agenda lashing out at an innocent book and author.

    Also, when you come across some books “that attempt to portray the abnormal lives which Cubans are compelled to live under Castroism as somehow comparable or superior to life in the United States,” let me know. Vamos certainly isn’t one of them.

    And Jonathan, you ask what is better? Allowing professionals to make the best decision based on facts and reason, rather than basing decisions on what best helps their re-election chances. No, it isn’t perfect, but it beats the alternative hands-down.

  18. Manuel A. Tellechea    Fri Jun 8, 04:43 AM #  


    Cuban children live, work and play just as American children do. No they don’t.

    If you are expecting dialectics in a children’s book, yes, Vamos a Cuba will disappoint. But for the age group at which it is aimed it is mendacious enough and misleading enough. But, apparently, it doesn’t bother you that children should be told lies. But it does bother me. You may be equipped to discern (though certainly not in this case) what constitutes propaganda; children are not. Should parents’ abdicate their right to guide their children’s education just so that political correctness may prevail?

    The point is that there are no books in any school in this country that extoll Adolf Hitler or the Ku Klux Klan; yet it is considered perfectly acceptable, even desirable, to inculcate the youngest children with false comparisons that equate the lives of children under tyranny to those of children in a democracy.

    You should read what Herron says about the banning of her book and the efforts of fellow liberals to banish her book from every library in the land as well as discredit her personally and destroy her career. And all because she used a word (“nappy”) which had never been regarded as racist before and which has been part of the black vernacular for centuries.

    The parallel with Vamos a Cuba is obvious. In the land of political correctness, all differences between groups, even insignificant ones, are denied. So it is a sin in the pc bible to point out that the texture of black hair differs from the texture of white hair, and a greater sin still to celebrate that difference. So, too, is it an inexcusable lapse in pc protocal to suggest that there are actually differences in the way that children are raised in a totalitarian state and the way they are raised in a free society. All differences must be denied, and if truth dies in the process it is no real loss for the advocates of political correctness for whom “truth” is just another construct to be deconstructed.

    As for “niggardly” it is one of those words that the language police has banned from the public discourse because it somehow sounds racist thought it has no history or etymology of racism. Not one but many books have come under attack for using it. For me it only confirms that pseudo-intellectualism is at the heart of political correctness.

  19. mkh    Fri Jun 8, 08:31 AM #  

    Any book that refers to America as “the land of opportunity” without including the disclaimer that your opportunities are severely limited if you aren’t a white, Christian male is being disingenuous and deceptive, and lies to children. The parallel is obvious.

    On the subject of Herron’s book, could you provide a cite for her feelings? I’ve read quite a few interviews where she expresses her frustration with a single group of parents at a single school, and frustration with the media circus that ensued, but not a single mention of the book ever having been banned. As an author I’m surprised she forgets to mention that so often.

    I am not a fan of political correctness, a term made nearly meaningless through uneducated use by right-wing ideologues. I have railed against this abuse of the language since the mid-1980s. Since that time I have also railed against its use as an artificially created bogeyman to distract people from the true topics at hand. But perhaps that’s not the reason why you are bringing it up now, although I can’t imagine what connection it has to Vamos. That book doesn’t have enough words in it to be PC. Gus Was a Friedly Ghost has more text.

    Nonetheless, thank you for tacitly admitting you were wrong about the banning of a book with the word “niggardly” and Carolivia Herron’s “Nappy Hair.”

    Are you feeling okay, Manuel? These diatribes aren’t up to your usual standard at all. It isn’t like you to make up “facts” and hope no-one calls you on it.

  20. Manny's Right Testicle    Fri Jun 8, 09:03 AM #  

    The right ball does not know what the left ball is doing!

  21. Steve    Fri Jun 8, 09:28 AM #  

    The “niggardly” incident had nothing to do with a book. It was a word used in conversation by David Howard, Office of the Public Advocate in Washington D.C. in front of a pair of morons who didn’t know what it meant but took offense anyway. An appalling commentary on the times we live in, and the disconnect from reality our government displays at every turn.

    Manny, you cite the same sentence and make the same remark as the judge: Cuban children live, work and play just as American children do. No they don’t.

    If one takes this sentence literally, examining it under a microscope, it’s not even true of Norwegian or Japanese children, or even all American children. Not all American children live, work, and play just as all OTHER American children do. Hardly the point here, though. This is just a way of explaining to American readers that on a neighboring island in the Caribbean there are little boys and girls who are very much like them. That’s all it means, and it’s a good thing to tell American children because breaking down differences among people promotes community, understanding, sympathy, etc. while puncturing prejudices against people who are “different.” That’s the sole agenda of the book, and from what I understand, the series.

    The attendant issues about community control, leaving decisions to professionals, the authority of the school board, etc., are interesting, but extraneous. The deal here is uniquely Miami, and specifically another edition of the rift between elements of the Cuban-American community and what used to be called the mainstream. Couching it in loftier terms is just another exercise in political correctness, and fails to address the problem face on as mkh and Manny do.

  22. Manuel A. Tellechea    Fri Jun 8, 03:14 PM #  


    American, Norwegian and Japanese children are not compelled by the State to perform forced labor from the time they are in elementary school as Cuban children must. American, Norwegian and Japanese children can drink milk throughout their childhood; Cuban children lose their milk ration at age 7.

    Yes, there are very real and concrete differences between a Cuban childhood and an American, Norwegian or Japanese childhood. The main difference, of course, is the lack of freedom.

  23. Manuel A. Tellechea    Fri Jun 8, 03:26 PM #  


    I did not admit tacitly or otherwise that I was “wrong.” I don’t “make up” facts. Everything I have said on this thread has been shown to be substantially correct. Since I write extemporaneously and from memory, and without recoursing to google for every other thought, I may synthesize more than I would in more formal circumstances than a blog comment; but nothing that I say here or anywhere is ever out of place or bereft of truth.

    Lately I have created my own blog, which you are cordially invited to visit by clicking on my name. Judge for yourself if I am in my decline.

  24. mkh    Fri Jun 8, 04:46 PM #  

    Manuel: No librarians banned the books you mentioned. Nappy Hair has never been banned, and its author was only upset with a group of five misinformed parents. Inclusion of the word niggardly has not been involved in any book bans, either, although as Steve and I pointed out, it was the center of a PC debate in Washington, DC. Perhaps in your world these are not substantive errors, but in mine that’s 0 for 3 without even mentioning Vamos.

    I wasn’t trying to imply that your mental health is deteriorating, either. While I disagree with the majority of what you say, you are usually reasonably erudite, as long as politics are left aside. I was honestly surprised at the gross errors in your comments, that’s all, and thought perhaps you were posting while under the effects of medication (a sin of which I have been guilty).

    I also appreciate the invitation to visit your site, but as I have admittedly little interest in Cuban-American political blogs, I will pass. If I want indigestion I will LGF or Freeperville. Nonetheless I applaud your willingness to create your own forum. It’s hard enough to find someone of my own advanced age with a site; someone older still deserves extra credit for the effort.

  25. Manuel A. Tellechea    Fri Jun 8, 09:54 PM #  


    Carolivia’s Herron’s “Nappy Hair” is on the American Library Association’s List of Banned and Challenged Books. It is also on the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression’s List of Titles Challenged or Banned by or Concerning African-Americans. <i>The New York Times</i> reported on Dec. 4, 1998 that a New York City third-grade teacher had been accused of racism and suspended for reading the award-winning book to her class. This latter, by the way is the worst kind of censorship, because it is humans that are penalized and banned, not books.

    As for “niggardly,” no books were banned that I can find but both the Economist and The Dallas Morning News were protested because they used the word correctly, that is, to denote a cheap person, the word having nothing to do with race.

    If you don’t read my blog for the content, read it for the style, not that yours needs it.

  26. kingofrance    Sat Jun 9, 12:49 AM #  

    Out of everyone involved in this, the only one that is actually going to benefit is Jordan Burt. Let’s start a contest: whoever guesses how many teachers could have been hired with the money spent on this appeal will win a toaster oven.