This article originally appeared in issue #34 of Lookout magazine, in the winter of 1989-90, in response to a local controversy that attracted national and international attention when logging supplies baron and school board member Bill Bailey tried to have the Dr. Seuss book The Lorax removed from the Laytonville Elementary School reading list on grounds that it was “anti-logging.”
The national media have come and gone, Bill Bailey and family have had their mugs plastered across the pages of People magazine, and Laytonville has been elevated from a local to an international laughingstock.
“The town that tried to ban Dr. Seuss” is an image we’ll be stuck with for a long time, thanks not only to Bill and his lovely wife Judith, but also the cowardly members of the school board who knuckled under to their bully-boy tactics.
Commentators like myself, who specialize in satire and sarcasm, have a field day when the likes of Bailey drag such patent lunacy into the political arena, but it’s not really that funny when you stop to think about it.
While the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries are broadening the freedom of expression, quite the opposite is happening here at home. Our local book-burners might seem ludicrous — they are by any objective standards — but they are going about the same ugly business of censorship that is always a hallmark of totalitarian societies.
It’s invariably done under the pretense of “protecting” people against dangerous ideas. Through the centuries we now know as the Dark Ages, the church kept whole populations in ignorance of anything beyond their spiritual and temporal obligations. It wasn’t until the ecclesiastical monopoly on knowledge was broken that we were able to enter the Renaissance that led to the formation of modern societies.
Since that time the prevailing trend has been toward more freedom of thought and expression, and the United States of America, with its Constitution and Bill Of Rights, led the way for much of the world. The suppression of ideas came to be regarded as far more dangerous than the ideas themselves.
That has changed in recent years. Schools, libraries, publishers, and artists are coming under attack from political and religious extremists attempting to prohibit the dissemination of ideas other than their own. A few weeks ago, the State of California knuckled under to Christian fundamentalists and agreed to present aspects of the pseudo-science of “creationism” in state schools. Excellent books like Catcher In The Rye and To Kill A Mockingbird have been yanked from classrooms and libraries across the country. Thanks to threats from Tipper Gore’s PMRC, stores and record companies are afraid to market anything but the blandest, most inconsequential forms of rock music.
Bill and Judith Bailey deny that their campaign against The Lorax constitutes censorship, that in fact they are merely attempting to shield our second graders from having to deal with complex moral issues until they are older. This sounds ingenuous enough, but let’s face it: the issues raised by The Lorax are not that complex. They are easily understandable to a second grader, and that is precisely why Bill Bailey won’t be satisfied until the last Lorax is drawn, quartered, and nailed to the last redwood stump on the Northern California Coastal Desert.
What, after all, was it that set Mr. Bill off on this tilt at the windmills of free expression? His son Sam read The Lorax and recognized his dad in it. The portrait of the greedy and megalomaniacal Once-ler bears an uncanny resemblance to Bill Bailey. You’d almost think Dr. Seuss had been lurking around here doing research.
While The Lorax‘s villain at least learns a lesson from the destruction he has caused and urges the reader to plant new Truffula trees and to make a world where the Lorax will be able to return, Bailey, unfortunately, remains an unregenerate Once-ler. He opts for the 1984ish approach of trying to wipe out all memories of Loraxes, Truffula trees, or a time when the land was given over to anything other than producing endlessly escalating supplies of Thneeds.
Because Bailey owns about half the Laytonville school board, there is still a chance he will get his way and that The Lorax will be banished. Tragic as this would be, it’s symptomatic of a larger and very disturbing trend.
Where once the purpose of education was, at least in the ideal sense, to teach young people how to think, it’s now being reduced to a sort of glorified job training. And not job training in the conventional or useful sense, either; students routinely graduate without even a rudimentary grasp of the skills required by employers.
Instead it tries to eradicate the tendency to question or doubt. It seeks to produce a generation of workers who will follow orders and abdicate responsibility for the state of the world to those they have been taught are their betters.
The results of this type of education are sadly evident. Many loggers and mill workers show a blind, almost familial loyalty to multi-national corporations that use and discard them like so many spare parts. They believe the assurances of their bosses that there will always be enough trees for them to cut if only the hippies and environmentalists would get out of their way. They become unwilling or unable to make the connection between silted-over streams, the disappearance of salmon and steelhead, declining water tables and the recurring droughts that have followed in the wake of 150 years of clearcutting.
These people are not stupid. They are merely showing the effects of an educational system that has directly or indirectly lied to them for most of their lives. At the risk of sounding unduly charitable, I would suggest that Bill Bailey himself is a victim of that system. And while we should extend our sympathy to him, we can’t allow his ignorance to tamper with the educational future of our children.
Laytonville schools have in many ways bucked the national trend by steadily improving during the past few years. There is a camaraderie among teachers and students that most big-city administrators can only dream of. Part of the credit for this has to go to Superintendent Brian Buckley, but it is also due to the influence of the many new parents and students who have moved to thus area in the past decade.
This is not to suggest that the newcomers are in any way superior to the old-timers in intellect or ability; merely that they have brought a variety of ideas and ways of thinking into an environment that had been quite homogenous. All great advances in civilization can be traced to the cross-pollination of cultures and philosophies, and we should welcome new ideas into our own community, not try to stifle them.
In The Lorax, Dr. Seuss makes an outstanding case against greed and reckless environmental practices. If Bill Bailey thinks the good doctor is in error, let him present a better case. Show us the book, Mr. Bailey, that will put a good face on what your friends in the logging industry are doing to our land. Instead of bullying and braggadocio, show us through intelligent argument the truth and justice of your cause.
Outside of your place of business, Mr. Bailey, you fly a large American flag, but I maintain that every time you interfere with the free dissemination of ideas, you disgrace that flag. There is much wrong with the American system and the American way of life, but one thing we can be undeniably proud of is the right to read and say and think whatever we choose. When you deny that right to our children, you strike at the heart of what is best about this country.
I’d also like to say how proud I am that the overwhelming majority of our community stood up to the Baileys. I wish the issue were dead and buried and that we could now go on with the business of building a happy and sane future, but I’m afraid that’s not yet the case.
In fact, just as this issue was going to press there was news of a new assault on academic freedom. A coalition representing corporate timber and chemical-based agribusiness persuaded the Board of Supervisors to block the showing in county schools of a film illustrating how salmon and steelhead fisheries have been almost wiped out by logging and agricultural practices.
Again the business interests are not trying to argue ideas, only to prevent their discussion. They have not offered an alternative explanation of how the fisheries have benefitted from tons of silt and pesticides being dumped into North Coast rivers. They have not told us where the salmon and steelhead have gone, or why we are better off without them.
They simply want to keep people ignorant until their dirty work is done. Then, with the forests gone, the streams dead, and our once verdant land reduced to a toxic desert, they might finally bring themselves to admit, “Perhaps you environmentalists did have a point after all.”
We can’t afford to wait that long for the truth. Neither can our children.