Using John Steinbeck

Using John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck died in 1968, four years before the landmark Furman v. Georgia capital punishment decision by the United States Supreme Court. It was the first moratorium on the death penalty in the U.S. (one that only lasted four years). Steinbeck’s death came more than 30 years before SCOTUS declared executing mentally retarded defendants violates the Eighth Amendment. Hold that thought.

John Steinbeck died in 1968, nearly 30 years before A Beka Book released its second edition of United States History: Heritage of Freedom, one of the books in question in a Louisiana battle over voucher schools. In that fight critics have wondered how cool it is to be teaching school age kids that “God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ,” that “mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative,” and that the Loch Ness Monster could exist and be a defense against evolution. Again, hold that thought.

You don’t care how I feel about the death penalty or using public money for private schools. I’m really fine with that. It’s fine that we might disagree and really, we could have these two arguments for days. It would still end with none of us agreeing with each other, because hey, this is the internet, and as soon as we start actually talking instead of shouting, the intertubes will close up like a cauterized vas deferens, am I right?

Nope, I’m not here for an argument. They’re exhausting, and my lunch hour is almost over. I’m here simply to point out the Renaissance of John Steinbeck. His name is popping up all over the place in the news. The problem is, people who I’d argue are in pretty close philosophical alignment are using the Pulitzer Prize-winning (and very, very dead) author in some fairly contrary ways. Two items over the past couple of days have made my eyebrows pop up. I’ll put them here for your analysis.

As you might have heard, Texas executed a convicted murderer last night who had an IQ of 61. For reference, 70 is the standard cutoff for mental retardation. As you might have noted before, the U.S Supreme Court said in 2002 that is a no-no. Texas looked at it differently, and set up its definition of mentally retarded, one based on…wait for it…Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, published in 1937. From The Guardian:

“Most Texas citizens,” the argument ran, “might agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt” from execution. By implication anyone less impaired than Steinbeck’s fictional migrant ranch worker should have no constitutional protection.”

And so it went that the man declared probably mentally retarded by the state of Texas’ own mental health expert was killed last night.

Hold that thought.

Across the border in Louisiana where the voucher schools fight rages, some of the contested curriculum might take some issue with using Steinbeck’s works as metric for something quite as serious as state-sponsored executions. Have a look at this admittedly very liberal but telling review from an opponent of the texts (emphasis is mine):

Under the subtitle “Socialist Propaganda” in an A Beka text, the Great Depression is described as having been exaggerated so that Franklin Delano Roosevelt could pass New Deal legislation. The text states, “Perhaps the best known work of propaganda to come from the Depression was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. […] Other forms of propaganda included rumors of mortgage foreclosures, mass evictions, and hunger riots and exaggerated statistics representing the number of unemployed and homeless people in America.”

Again, I’m completely fine with you rolling your eyes, accusing me of comparing two unrelated items, or giving me hell for reading MoJo. Fire away, because, again, I don’t expect to convince you anything I believe is right, and as Carl Showalter said, “I’m not gonna debate you, Jerry.” None of that is the point. The point is Steinbeck.

I just want to be clear. What we’re saying here is either that a character form a Steinbeck novel is a good basis for determining whether our government can kill a mentally retarded person for a crime, or that Steinbeck’s work is, again, “the best known work of propaganda to come from the Depression.” That’s what we’re saying, right?

“In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.” –John Steinbeck