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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Litigious Reading BY LOUIS DUBOSE BATTLEGROUND One Mother’s Crusade, The Religious Right, And the Struggle for Control of our Classrooms. By Stephen Bates. . 365 pp. New York: Poseidon Press. $25. jp UST AS SAFELY as you could “bet your nut” that Gunga Din would be “wherever there .was trouble” your money is safe riding on Mel Gabler to be carrying water for textbook censors.. Whether school textbooks are under attack in Tennessee, or here in Texas where Gabler lives and where’ he has done the most harm, the retired Htirtible Oil clerk from Longview and his wife Norma are likely to be involved. And, yes, Kipling is utterly politically incorrect. And, alas, some discussion of political correctness cannot be avoided in a review of Battleground, a book that is as good as its author is, in the final two chapters, disingenuous. But the PC Police, who for the purposes of efficiency in process, intellectual honesty and poetic justice, should be made to share offices with the Gablers, are relegated to a small though important part in this book that Bates, a Harvard College and Harvard Law graduate, has written. The immediate battleground of Bates’ book is the public school system in a small, rural il and thoroughly Christian East Tennessee’ county. Hawkins County, as described by Bates, is place where on Sunday morning the roads are “clogged with churchgoers.” The county’s 45,565 residents “are served by more than a hundred places of worship … all are Christian, almost all are Protestant, and most are fundamentalist.” It is a place, conventional wisdom would suggest, where any battle fought in the public schools would unite the community in a common assault against an individual or small group of progressive school teachers, in an us-against-them fight that is such an intractable image in the urban stereotype of rural America. Yet the bitter and divisive fight that Bates so well chronicles in Battleground is an “usagainst-us” fight, the stakes of which were greatly increased by outsiders. First came Concerned * Women for America, the California-based moral majoratorians whose leader, Beverly LaHaye, helped design and implement the social agenda of the Reagan Administration. Then followed People For the American Way, the liberal anticensorship group founded by TV producer Norman Lear, and the fight over fundamental Christian children’s rights to opt out of a reading program began to take on the characteristics of a confrontation of superpowers in a tropical country whose people and geography don’t matter that much, after all. The national press, of course, was partisan, too, aligning itself with the right side for the wrong reasons. It was 1983 in August, “the haziest month in Hawkins’ County,” Bates tells us, when Rebecca Frost approached her mother, Vicki, with a request for help with a story in a sixthgrade reading text. “A Visit to Mars,” the story her daughter was struggling with, included a friendly, or at least non-judgmental, depiction of telepathy. And, as Constance Crumbley had warned in The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow that the AntiChrist will be telepathic, the book Rebecca was reading “seemed to be proselytizing ungodliness.” Frost instructed her daughter to stop reading, called a friend she had met five years earlier at church, and with the only line in the book that evokes the gentle bucolic humor of Mayberry R.F.D., announced: “It’s here, Jennie. Humanism in Hawkins County.” There is humor that’s not so gentle, when the plaintiffs pray for deliverance in federal court and the judge suffers an attack on abdominal pain that results in surgery and a twomonth suspension of proceedings. Obviously, among fundamental Christian plaintiffs, “prayer for relief” does not mean what it does in the secular practice of the law. But that’s not what Bates is after; he is, rather, a skillful and compassionate documentarian who avoids demeaning his subjects. Humanism had arrived Hawkins County in the form of a Holt, Rinehart & Winston reading series adopted by the state of Tennessee and acquired by the Hawkins County schools. By September, more than a hundred concerned Christian parents assembled in a middle school cafeteria, where Jennie Wilson used wall charts to explain how telepathy, evolution and other themes included in the Holt reading texts were connected to Hinduism. “I could have picked any religion in the world Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Islam,” Wilson said, explaining that they were all religions, while Christianity is not a religion, but “salvation by Jesus Christ.” Frost claimed that 130 pages in the basic reader were devoted to mental telepathy and that the book “teaches mind control and how to do telepathy.” She also argued that the books endorsed evolution, women’s liberation and gun control, while disparaging free enterprise, the military, Christianity and the government. Teachers were accused of keeping the books in the classroom to prevent parents from examining them. Perhaps it wasn’t deliberate, Frost said, “But the force behind it is the work of Satan.” Before the meeting had adjourned, a preacher named Billy Christian, whose specialty was ferreting out satanic messages hidden in rock music, warned that reading the books might invite demonic possession. Hawkins County did not acquiesce to a small group that literally defined the religious right and among the 800 to 1,000 who responded with a pro-school rally were a number of eloquent and passionate defenders of the community and of what author and psychiatrist Robert Coles describes in the book as the “school as a sovereign place.” One school administrator, however, was more accommodating and allowed students to find substitutes for objectionable texts. And when Vicki Frost returned to the middle school to borrow more Holt readers to evaluate, he reassured her that the Holt texts couldn’t be that bad, “after all, they are on the Gabler’ s list of approved books.” Who, Frost asked, are the Gablers? Soon, Frost was receiving materials from the Gablers, who were later called to testify when Frost’s case \(there were “federal court. The books were on the Gabler’s other list. “Among the worst,” Mel said. The Gablers, according to Bates, who has done his research well, began their lifelong work in 1961 when they glanced at their children’s textbooks and were “appalled to find that the books endorsed one-world government, played down American accomplishments, and disregarded Christianity.” Jerry Falwell describes Mel and Norma Gabler as dedicated Christians working to “improve the textbooks of America’s schools.” In the literature of People For the American Way, the Gablers are described as “professional censors … with a plan to control the minds of the nation’s youth.” “According to Encyclopedia Britannica,” Bates continues, “they are among ‘the most influential voices in U.S. Education.'” As the dominant textbook critics in the adoption process in Texas, Mel and Norma Gabler exercise considerable influence over 10 percent of the nation’s public school textbook market. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15