A humbling experience in Humble

A sign of just how far behind I’ve gotten: this one was posted two weeks ago. But censorship never really goes away, so this will remain just as timely until at least the Teen Lit Fest after next (in 2013).

Pete Hautman recently blogged a nice little piece entitled “The Nasty Thing in the Corner.” It’s about censorship, particularly of works aimed at the teen/young adult segment. This one centers around Ellen Hopkins, who was invited to the Teen Lit Fest in Humble, TX (a suburb of Houston which, I might add, I’ve visited many times).

And then some parents read some of Ellen’s books. To say the least, they didn’t like what they read. Quoting Pete’s post:

“[S]everal” parents… objected to having her at the festival. They brought their concerns to the festival organizers, and one (one!) school librarian agreed with their concerns, and recommended to the school superintendent that Ellen be asked not to come. The superintendent went along with the one (one!) librarian’s recommendation. I believe that virtually every other librarian in the Humble ISD was embarrassed and furious over this decision.

… [A] handful of people — the superintendent, the one (one!) librarian, and “several” (three? five?) parents — took it upon themselves to overrule the vast majority of teachers and librarians and students who had chosen one of the most popular YA authors in America to be their headliner.

That is a form of censorship as damaging and inexcusable as setting fire to a library.

Indeed, popularity does not come without its price. It’s a lesson we should all take to heart.

Pete concluded the post by noting his own withdrawal from the festival, as well as that of Melissa de la Cruz, then updates in the following days to note the withdrawals of Tara Lynn Childs and Matt de la Pena.

And then finally just yesterday, this story hit the UPI newswire:

HUMBLE, Texas, Aug. 28 (UPI) — A teen literary festival in Humble, Texas, was canceled after writers protested the removal of best-selling author Ellen Hopkins from the event.

So here’s the lesson to be learned: if you deal in censorship, don’t expect those you are censoring to stick around. Authors are a more tightly-knit group than one might otherwise expect.

I do regret that the rest of Humble, the majority who anxiously awaited the appearance of Ellen Hopkins, have now lost their chance, and in fact, won’t even have a festival to go to. But one should not blame Ellen or the other authors for that. Blame the parents, the librarian (!), and the superintendent (!!) who partook of the vile, censorious acts that led to the withdrawal of Ellen’s invitation. And by all means, let the students learn about censorship from this experience as well.

UPDATE: I’ve just been made aware of Ellen’s own blog containing several entries about the situation, in particular this entry on August 10 and two later entries on August 18 addressing censorship.

The new Olympic creed?

Well, by the time I got to this one, the Ministry of Education had already retracted the original order. But I think it’s worth mentioning anyway because the fact this whole thing happened is merely the symptom of a larger problem, and it is marketing-related which has become one of my regular topics.

A recent blog entry by “mrbrown” at mrbrown.com showed a redacted copy of a letter to parents whose children were “specially selected to be part of the school delegation” of the Youth Olympic Games. The catch was that students had to bring their own refreshment money (and stadium refreshments are not known for being cheap), and were allowed to bring water bottles as long as they did not have the Nike or Adidas logos on them. This latter part was what caused a huge stink and as mrbrown later followed up was retracted.

What appears to have caused all of this to begin with was an IOC rule about athletes (note: not spectator) not being allowed to wear or display non-sponsor logos, and other rules prohibiting display of sponsors’ competitors logos under the guise of protecting sponsors. This chicagonow.com blog entry from February shows just how easy it is to accidentally break the rule, as Katie Uhlaender did (though it’s really hard to fault her for preferring her Perrier to Coca-Cola’s Dasani). I think it highlights just how absurd this rule actually is and how far the Olympic movement has come from being purely about sport to being a cash cow whose loud mooing is heard around the world in a hundred different languages.

What happened? How did the modern Olympics diverge from being purely about sport when they began in 1896 to being so blatantly commercialized? A little reading on Wikipedia reveals the answer. It goes back to the election of Juan Antonio Samaranch to president of the IOC back in 1980. His goal was to make the IOC financially independent.

While an honorable goal, it quickly became obvious the only way to do this was to sell exclusive sponsorship rights. This was something that Avery Brundage steadfastly refused to do during his tenure (and, we would assume, Michael Morris refused as well during his brief tenure as IOC president).

As an example, one nasty and likely unforseen side effect of the sale of national broadcast rights is the blackout of Internet streams from foreign countries’ media outlets. This means if you’re in the US, for example, you’re stuck with NBC’s coverage. Rationale? They paid for the broadcast rights in the US, so, say, the BBC gets blacked out on this side of the pond.

The huge influx of corporate cash may have helped the Olympic movement, but I postulate that it came at too big of a cost. It destroyed what the Olympics were supposed to be about to begin with: the purity of athletic competition. Now, it’s more about whose logos can be displayed at a press conference or McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, or any number of large corporations getting to display “Olympic Partner” and the five rings in their advertising.

I don’t think that’s what the IOC as led by Demetrius Vikelas had in mind in 1896. And I’m pretty sure they’d never have gone for this in ancient Greece, either.

Starting them off young: school’s insistence on brand name supplies

I’m writing this one based on a tip from a concerned friend of a parent of a Copperas Cove ISD elementary school student, and based on some replies I got on Twitter when I asked about this. I’m not mentioning the specific school for privacy reasons, and because it really doesn’t matter (I looked at the school supply lists for all of the district’s schools and they are all like this).

At issue here is the practice of mentioning brand names on school supplies. There are tons of examples like this, but as a random example here’s the Martin Walker elementary list for pre-kindergarten (this is a screenshot of my PDF reader edited only by cropping; I have made no attempt to correct misspellings of brand names):


I count at least four brand name mentions: “Ziplock” bags (the brand name is actually spelled Ziploc without the “k”), Crayola crayons, Elmer’s glue, and “Playdough” (the actual brand name is Play-Doh). (Don’t worry, I’ll get to the spelling issue in a moment; it’s tangential to the core reason for my post.)

Now, the rationale one of my Twitter followers gave in the specific case of crayons is that the colors change between Crayola and, say, Rose Art or a store brand. I would assume this applies to colored markers or other colored art supplies as well. As true as this may be, while I’m a fan of good marketing and branding, I find this a bit disturbing in two, possibly three different ways.

The first is that not all parents can necessarily afford to pay a premium for name brand products. I will admit at one point I was one of those kids growing up: I was called among other derisive names “the K-Mart kid” (this was before Wal-Mart’s dominance, in fact, this was when we still had K-Mart in Houston, years before K-Mart bet the farm on Martha Stewart prior to her legal difficulties in 2004). However, there is an amusing anecdote here: with some help we (my mom, grandmother, and I) did find a pair of Nike Wimbledon tennis shoes at a discount clothing outlet (Weiner’s) that all the kids thought we bought at Foot Locker for $70. (To my former classmates out there reading this: Fooled ya!) Anyway, kidding and humorous anecdotes aside, I think it’s a bit over-the-top for schools to insist upon brand names from parents pinching pennies for school supplies.

The second, which may be somewhat related to the first, is that we already have enough jealousy among school kids about clothing, shoes, and other fashion-related items such as backpacks. This adds to the “uneven playing field” when little Johnny or Jane are making do with Rose Art crayons while the better-off kids are showing off their set of Crayola. As much as the schools would like to make it so, asking for brand name items does not magically put money in the pockets of parents who have to buy them. It means maybe more of the kids will show up with, in this case, Crayola crayons, but the poorer kids will stand out that much more as a result.

The third, kids are impressionable. There are strict limits on advertising during children’s television programs for a reason. Now this is where my admiration of branding and marketing is really put to the test. I’m not opposed to marketing towards kids, but I think the first years of elementary school are a bit too young to surround kids with the insistence on name-brand items. There will be plenty of time for kids to learn consumerism and the nuances of branding and advertising from a consumer point of view. I’m pretty sure they won’t get it in kindergarten or first grade.

Now, the least the school districts can do, if they must put brand names in the school supply shopping lists, is spell them correctly. This is first and foremost, respect for the companies and their trademarks, and second, it’s also an example for the kids that will get to see these lists as well (they see them more often than school administrators think). Usually the school supplies change little from year to year, so it should be a simple matter of keeping a list of the name brands and how to spell them to refer to when late July/early August rolls around (or whenever the list comes out). Really, what does it say about our public school system when the school supply lists are published with mistakes such as these? What kind of confidence does it give the kids that know better and may even say “look mommy, they misspelled Ziploc” when they find it?

Fall of a farm

A recent New York Times editorial documented the unfortunate closing of the oldest family farm in the United States. Tuttle’s Red Barn in Dover, New Hampshire, is the latest victim of the economic downturn, though it would not be entirely correct to state it is entirely the economy which led to its demise.

To fully grasp the impact of this, one should note just how long this farm has been in operation. The Tuttle farm was founded in 1632, from a land grant in the New World from King Charles II to John Tuttle. Yes, 1632, well over a century prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The demise of the Tuttle farm has as much to do with the radical change in food production over the past century. From the article:

It is too simple to say, as the Tuttles have, that the recession killed a farm that had survived for nearly 400 years. What killed it was the economic structure of food production. Each year it has become harder for family farms to compete with industrial scale agriculture — heavily subsidized by the government — underselling them at every turn. In a system committed to the health of farms and their integration with local communities, the result would have been different. In 1632, and for many years after, the Tuttle farm was a necessity. In 2010, it is suddenly superfluous, or so we like to pretend.

While it is admirable that the Tuttle farm lasted as long as it did, I am saddened by the loss of a centuries-old institution. While I’ve never been to New Hampshire (in fact, I’ve probably done about 10% of the travel I would like to have by this point in my life), I do have a significant respect for farmers and ranchers which do things the old fashioned way. I hope the site at least continues in operation as a farm, ideally operated similar to the way the Tuttles kept going for so long. (In 2006, the farm was granted a deed restriction as conservation land, so at least the land will not be turned into yet another subdivision or strip mall.)

Anyway, on to my next point. It says a lot about how we, as a society, have changed, and not necessarily for the better. We’ve gone from getting our food from family-run farms, and for the most part respecting the dividing line between urban and rural areas, to mass-market, genetically-engineered produce and meats, and a level of urban sprawl that’s downright scary. To underscore what I mean, take for example the house I’m sitting in right now. It’s about a mile north of the I-610 loop. Back in the 1950s, when my grandparents moved out to this area, this was the outskirts of town. Now, one doesn’t see farmland as such until one clears The Woodlands going north (a good 20 miles up I-45).

I’m not saying we should tear down everything in the suburbs, but I have serious doubts this kind of sprawl is sustainable, especially given what it’s costing us. And the true cost of a lot of things is not evident at all from the price tag on the shelf.