Civil Liberties

Ripping Yarns for Orientalist Boys


It spent most of last year perched atop the bestseller list in Britain, and now the American version of The Dangerous Book for Boys, a Tom Brown's Schooldays for the modern lad, is mirroring its success (It's currently number three on Amazon's bestseller list). reason's Cathy Young recently noted that bloviaters on the right—most notably that intrepid gender expert Rush Limbaugh—are heaping praise on the book for its supposed reassertion of traditional gender roles. Or something. Now it's time for the other side to weigh in. Over at The Nation, a priggish Katha Pollitt warns parents that the book promotes sexist, racist and colonialist attitudes.

Take the militaristic nostalgia (even for the imperialist Battle of Rorke's Drift against the Zulus, and the pointless slaughter of Balaclava and the Somme). When I raised this issue in a radio debate on NPR's On Point, Conn Iggulden suggested that battles appealed to boys longing to test themselves–but why these battles, and why (Greece and Rome excepted) always told from the Anglo side?…Rosa Parks was courageous. Frederick Douglass was courageous. In fact, black history is full of heroes, but people of color barely appear in The Dangerous Book. Maybe the Igguldens think black boys don't need a book like this–they're already dangerous.

It hasn't occurred to Pollitt that perhaps, to use the nomenclature of The Nation, she is being a mite Amerocentric. While this American adaptation removes some particularly British references—excising a section on cricket and adding one on the Navajo code talkers, for instance—The Dangerous Book is still a distinctly British affair. It's unashamedly misty-eyed take on the recent past is chock-full of RAF heroes (the British, not German, variety) and hagiographic treatments of Duke of Wellington-types. And while Rosa Parks is indeed a great American hero, she would, it seems, be slightly out of place in this volume.

Check out Pollitt debating Dangerous Book author Conn Iggluden, who seems both bemused and irritated at being pegged as the 21st century mix of Field Marshall Haig and Bobby Riggs. And for a children's book that would surely please the Nation-reading parent, there is always this .