Great humanitarians are now suspects in culture wars

February 27, 2023 3:00 am

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Clemente was nearly my son’s middle name, after Major League Baseball’s Roberto Clemente. The Pittsburgh Pirate legend is one of my heroes, a marvel of electric energy and skill at bat, daring on the base paths and power in a mythic throwing arm, a gift from the baseball gods.

Clemente’s heroism extended well beyond the baseball diamond, providing financial assistance to struggling families in his native Puerto Rico, holding baseball clinics for underprivileged youth and spearheading relief efforts after an earthquake devastated Nicaragua in 1972. He was on such a trip there with supplies he had purchased himself when he died in a plane crash. He was 38.

Since 1973 MLB has annually awarded the “Roberto Clemente Award” to a player who has exhibited “extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”

In the end, after some intervention from my very wise wife, we went with Thomas for the middle name, a family favorite. I tell you all this because Roberto Clemente is back in the news as his life story has become a recent victim of the distemper that is book banning.

Duval County, Fla., banned a beautiful K-3 book. Spurred by a new state law — part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ongoing campaign of cultural dysmorphia — Sunshine State suppressors objected to passages in the book detailing discrimination that Clemente faced in his professional life as a pioneering Latino ballplayer. They objected, essentially, to the truth.

After several weeks in the banned bin, the Clemente book was returned to Duval County shelves last Thursday.

DeSantis has ignited a literary inquisition that has in many districts removed all the books from public school classrooms. The books are being vetted by media specialists applying a DeSantis suppression formula that eerily evokes 1933 Germany.

Roberto Clemente, humanitarian and baseball legend, didn’t make the cut.

Before Nebraskans throw shade on sunny Florida, we need look no further than our own Legislative Bill 374, oozing its way through the Legislature. That bit of mischief, aside from solving problems not in evidence, champions the phrase “Parental Review Recommended,” a triggering device that can call into question any material used in a public school classroom “unless the item is unequivocally not deserving of such designation.” On the road to banning books in a state where school districts already have processes in place for challenges to school materials, “Parental Review Recommended” reads like nothing more than a rest stop.

The trend is moving in the wrong direction, too, with more instances of books being banned or challenged. According to PEN America, in the year ending last July, schools and libraries logged 2,532 individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique titles. Nebraska, gratefully, added no titles to PEN’s research.

Among the reasons for parents, school boards, state legislators and governors to question a book, anything with LGBTQ+ themes and characters leads the pack. Race and sex follow with a disturbing number of titles with protagonists of color chosen for “review.” Language usually makes the list, but, oddly, violence does not specifically show up on PEN America’s roster of reasons and is down the list of others, including the American Library Association and the First Amendment Museum.

And now, at least in Florida, even a humanitarian who could destroy a misplaced fastball has made the dubious index of review.

Book banning is a part of a troubling trend to narrow learning in school. Nebraska’s proposed LB 374, for example, would also require schools to put the kibosh on anything even remotely related to critical race theory, the ill-defined apparition currently haunting cultural warriors everywhere. The upshot of such thinking erases large swaths of the extraordinary American story.

In aggregate, banning books, ignoring history and shielding students from inconvenient truths doesn’t just sanitize the world for them, it misrepresents it, setting it in vague, inaccurate relief. When that happens, we, as adults, run dangerously close to exercising a form of informational malpractice.

To be fair to the book banners in Duval County, I decided to read “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates.” I found it in the children’s section of my local library, tucked among the sports biographies. There I sat in a small chair at a small table, my knees up to my chin, and read a life story that I already knew, a hero’s story, an inspiring story, a true story.

We don’t have to name our children after heroes who changed the world. We do at least owe it to our kids to tell them their stories … and the rest of the truth.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.