The real story behind the book fair.
On Thursday my event at an elementary school was cancelled. On Friday, it got weird.
Welcome to The Experiment, where we’re wondering why they have road signs that tell you to “obey warning signs.” Isn’t that what the warning signs are for? This week, Jack Hughes looks at Al Gore’s presidential prospects in 2024, and I tell you what really happened when my author event at the adult book fair at a local elementary school was cancelled after a few parents complained, because it’s not what you heard.
As always, we recommend things to do (park downhill), read (Mark Manson on “The Limits of Belief”), watch (Narcos Mexico season three on Netflix), and listen to (Marc Maron’s episode of WTF on cancel culture in comedy).
But first, let me tell you what really went down at Doss Elementary this week.
Last month I got an email from a writer friend of mine, K.
“What are you doing the morning of November 11?”
She was speaking at a book fair for adults at an elementary school in a neighborhood where parents have time in the morning to sit around and listen to writers talk about writing, which to me sounds as appealing as listening to musicians talk about playing music. But she wasn’t inviting me to listen to her talk. She was inviting me to appear alongside her and talk about writing non-fiction. Plus, she promised, the local independent bookstore would sell books.
(I should point out that though there is a remote possibility of earning back my advance and making royalties some day, I don’t actually make any more money by selling books now. The bookstore makes money, which is fine with me, and the event would raise money for the school, which is great, and as a school district employee, I can’t use my public service job to make money.)
“Let me know what you think!” she wrote.
What do I think? A writer whom I admire was inviting me as a peer to talk not about the subject matter of my book but as a writer. Have you ever felt the sun shine gently on your back? I did not tell her what this measure of respect meant to me. I cleared the appearance with the general counsel and simply accepted, at which point everything went wrong, slowly at first and then completely and all at once.
If you’re new to this story, you haven’t been Very Online over the past 24 hours. If, on the other hand, you think you know this story because of what you’ve seen on Twitter, you’re under the impression that an elementary school principal cancelled my appearance at an adult book fair because a few parents complained and that this is the latest example of conservative cancel culture running amok in Texas public schools. Much like we wrote in Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, the story you think you know is simply not true.
Soon after, K begged off because a death in the family forced a research trip to be rescheduled. So the event became just me being interviewed by my buddy B. Despite the disconcerting news that there would not be breakfast tacos, it still sounded like fun until the emails started coming, many of them attacking the librarian of the elementary school.
One parent emailed the principal, calling my appearance “the last straw” in a “cultural war” that has taken away Columbus Day, switched Halloween for Spirit Week, and banned the very words of “Christmas” and “Hanukkah” from the mouths of schoolchildren. Forget the Alamo, she wrote, “completely falsifies and/or ignores the historical events of the most important battle in Texas history” and is “yet another attack on white historical figures.”
She also questioned my credibility, calling me a “paid political consultant from Washing [sic.] D.C.” I was born in D.C., but we moved to San Francisco before I entered the second grade, and I’ve lived in Texas with the exception of one year since 1993. But saying I’m from Washington, D.C. was more accurate than calling me a paid political consultant. In 2014, I handed my firm over to my wife to go to work for Planned Parenthood, and from there into public service and private industry. Furthermore, I can assure the good lady that when I was in fact a political consultant I often went unpaid.
Reading the email like a sour exhale. There was a time I would have reveled in upsetting someone like this. Now, the best I can do is to note the sincerity of a reaction like this and realize it has nothing to do with me. As my friend and co-author Bryan reminded me as this was going down, “You wrote a work of integrity.” Texas history professors, including the famed Bill Brands, had reviewed it favorably in The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. There simply is no fundamental debate among mainstream historians and academics over whether we got it right.
Another gentleman married to a teacher at the school was outraged, galled, and possibly bilious that the school would invite me to besmirch the founding heroes of Texas. He demanded they provide equal time for the other side and invited Jerry Patterson, the former Land Commissioner who had oversight over the Alamo, to attend as his guest and challenge me in Q&A.
This line of reasoning leads to where fun goes to die. The Ben Shapiro-esque, foot-stompy insistence upon both-sidesing an author event makes the comments section sentient. This was like being asked on a date, but then the date backs out and is replaced with Ben Shapiro.
My job as a writer is to write a good book and then explain it to people. My job is not to convince people who are dug in against our thesis, nor is it my responsibility to meet them in rhetorical combat whenever they want, much less in front of my friends in a school I have a professional interest in keeping out of the culture wars. This event had turned from an author event to a bad date. With Ben Shapiro.
I also think I have a responsibility to take care who I share a stage with, which is not to say anything against Patterson, whom I like personally. But I can’t consent to pretend that there is a serious debate about our book’s thesis because there isn’t. The consensus among experts is that our book accurately synthesized historians’ understanding of the Alamo. “At numerous points in their account of the siege and battle, the authors challenge the traditional view. In doing so they follow historians who abandoned the traditional view decades ago. They sometimes appear to be beating a horse that, if not dead, was put to pasture awhile back, at least outside the political classes,” wrote Brands.
In other words, there is no historical debate about the Alamo, only a political one. If I show up to a political slap fight, I legitimize the misperception that there is a historical debate. Plus, and I can’t emphasize this enough, there would not be any breakfast tacos. This had turned from something fun into something unpleasant I was going to have to endure in front of friends in public, so last Monday I backed out.
Last week was a bad one for the librarian. If it wasn’t reactionaries mad at her for booking me in the first place, it was area liberals mad that, as the story quickly became, I was disinvited. Did any of these people email or call me? No. They picked on a librarian who is also being accused by the governor and a legislative investigative committee of pushing gay porn on little children. If you think kids are getting porn at libraries, may I introduce you, sir, to the internet? Also, if your choices in life have led you to attack a librarian, get therapy or get bent. Seriously, people: shush.
The principal felt the same way, apparently, because he sent a letter to the parents of his students explaining the situation, sort of. This happens A LOT in education. There are busted pipes at one high school, a skein of off-campus sexual assaults at another. Earlier this year there was a false report of live shooters at yet another high school. Working at a school district is like managing more than a hundred intersecting communities, each with their own daily emergencies. And when something happens, parents get a letter from the principal.
On Thursday, the principal, Dr. Nathan Steenport, tried to jump in front of the attacks coming at his librarian and, unfortunately, gave the mistaken impression that he cancelled the event to prevent upsetting “anyone that may have been offended” after “a few families respectfully emailed me.”
People, he didn’t cancel the event out of cowardice; he took responsibility to protect his librarian. Unfortunately, that wasn’t how it came across when NBC News national reporter Mike Hixenbaugh, co-host of the deservedly buzzworthy podcast Southlake tweeted about it on Friday. “New one in the Texas book wars,” he tweeted. Mike’s a good guy, but this was a miscommunication. He asked me ahead of time to confirm that my event had been cancelled, saying he was going to tweet an angry letter from a parent. I was off on Friday for a family thing and had no clue the principal had sent out his letter. I gave him a thumbs up that it had been cancelled without telling him I’d done it. This isn’t Mike’s fault, either. Also, listen to his podcast.
Friday was a joyful day for my family. My oldest son got his class ring at Texas A&M. He struggled early in college and worked hard to build a successful career there. He is now making the Dean’s List, hanging out with friends, and, as I write this, playing on the quidditch team. There is a tradition at A&M in which the father puts the ring on his child. He didn’t tell me ahead of time because he wanted to surprise me. I told him I was proud of him and that he’d earned what this ring meant, and that for the rest of his life he could feel that ring on his hand and know that he could handle whatever came his way. He told me that he had been thinking the same thing. I’ve never seen him as proud as he was that day. He even suggested taking pictures all over campus.
If I haven’t been as engaged with this story as I might have before now, this was why.
But while I was focused on my son, everyone else was going nuts.
“Disinvitation alert!” tweeted Jonathan Friedman from PEN America.
“If this happens in Northwest Hills it’ll surely happen anywhere!” tweeted M, a friend and a published author.
“Books shouldn’t have stronger spines than educators,” tweeted a locally prominent satire account.
That last one hurt. Because of my position in the school district, I would have been happy to let the storm blow over, but I can’t leave the impression that an elementary school principal or librarian buckled under pressure. They not only withstood the pressure but took blame that rightfully belonged to me. I called off the event, not them. And as I’m writing to you, I’m not sure I did the right thing, even if showing up would have furthered the damaging impression that the traditional interpretation of Texas history is anything other than a heroic myth that disenfranchises Hispanics.
If those words make you all foot-stompy and you really want to yell at us about the Alamo—or if you’re interested in hearing what we have to say—show up at the San Antonio Book Festival this Friday, November 19 at 6:30 in the pee-yem. My co-authors and I will be there. So will food trucks, and some of them might even be serving tacos.
Jason Stanford is the co-author of NYT-best selling Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. His bylines have appeared in the Washington Post, Time, and Texas Monthly, among others. He works at the Austin Independent School District as Chief of Communications and Community Engagement, though he would want to point out that these are his personal opinions and his alone, but you already knew that. Follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.
How we’re getting through this
Turning off the news
Trying but failing to hire Santas
Cheering the Texas Institute of Letters
What I’m reading
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Mark Manson: “The Limits of Belief” - This one elicited an audible response of surprise.
A 2014 review found that fake surgeries are just as effective as real surgeries in roughly half of the procedures studied.
Charles Pierce: “This Story Makes Me Feel Completely Hopeless About the Future of This Country” - Right there with you, big guy.
It’s bad enough that right-wing fanaticism has been marbled through police departments throughout the country, but if that fanaticism is shared by prosecutors, or even if it merely scares them out of doing their jobs, then we’re all going to wake up one morning in a failed state with strip malls.
Dan Zak: “Obama, playing ‘hype man,’ tries to jolt COP26” - Love me some Dan Zak.
“We can’t just yell at them or say they’re ignorant,” Obama said at the Scottish Event Campus, along the River Clyde. “We can’t just tweet at them. It’s not enough to inconvenience them through blocking traffic in a protest. We actually have to listen to their objections and understand the reluctance of some ordinary people to see their countries move too fast on climate change.”
What I’m watching
Narcos is back!
What I’m listening to
This was a brilliant episode about censorship in comedy from Marc Maron. Well worth the listen.
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