Can I chop down this oak tree?

Those plucking books out of libraries forget they belong to a community including people unlike themselves.

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An oak tree on the banks of the branch of the Chicago River in Northbrook.

An oak on the banks of the branch of the Chicago River in Northbrook. People are so alienated from the idea of community that they feel empowered to craft public spaces to suit their whims. We wouldn’t allow it in public parks; why allow it in public libraries?

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Northbrook boasts a park in the heart of its downtown, with a ballfield and a playground, a gazebo and a river — the West Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River. A person could, theoretically, with a shallow-draft kayak and about 12 hours effort, paddle to Marina Towers.

Too much work for me, more given to meandering through the park, my wife’s arm tucked snugly in mine. All is right in the world as we stroll under the towering old oaks, past younger trees planted to comfort future generations.

But what if all weren’t right? Let’s say I take offense at one of those saplings. Perhaps I decide there are too many oaks already. Perhaps I bear some grudge against the person honored on the bronze plaque. Perhaps I am worried an inept village child could be tempted to climb this tree, because of a low branch, say, and, in doing so might fall and be injured. Even killed. The reason doesn’t matter.

Opinion bug


So I take it upon myself to go to the park with a chainsaw and cut down the offending tree.

How do you think passersby would react? Would they say, “There’s old Steinberg, responsible citizen, exercising his constitutional right to live in a community free from the menace of perilous trees”? Or would they call the police, who’d haul me away for destroying public property?

The second scenario is a sure bet. And I think we can all agree: They would be right. The park is for everybody, not to be defaced by irked individuals following the random dictates of their disordered minds.

Given that, why do we tolerate people plucking books out of public libraries? Unlike trees, which really do occasionally cause injuries to careless climbers, no child has ever been hurt by a book. The damage imagined by alarmed parents is purely notional and, when you think about it — someone should — quite ludicrous.

Book banners hold their sexuality so lightly they fear their child will glance at the drawing of a pee-pee and be lost to a different orientation. Their faith is so tenuous that the merest puff of disrespect sends it crashing to the ground in a cloud of anguish. A dozen satirists couldn’t concoct a dimmer view of their supposed beliefs than they freely offer up themselves.

What’s really going on? Loss of community coupled with a Golden Age of Bullying. Remember your schoolyard toughs: Rare is the thug who strides up to a smaller child and wordlessly punches him in the face. First there must be the aggrieved positing of harm. The ritual complaint. The victim is looking at the bully wrong.

Do you ever wonder why the condition of trans individuals is such a hot topic? Were I to list the challenges facing this country in order of severity, the unease caused by an erstwhile boy wearing a dress would be so far down the list — way beyond the need to get rid of the penny or adopt the metric system — it wouldn’t even register.

Yet there are the governors of several Southern states, talking endlessly about it, passing laws, ginning up real tears over the risk that youngsters might encounter a book describing lives unlike their parents’ lives.

There’s no harm. The trans community sits in that sweet spot that gays — and Jews, and Italians, and Irish, and such — once filled, prevalent enough to serve as ready victims without being so numerous as to put up a solid defense.

Funny. Were I a novelist trying to illustrate the gross hypocrisy of these bullies, I might imagine them orating about the full humanity of rice-sized fetuses in women they’ve never met, and how these pre-born Gerber babies deserve every protection of law and ritual of individuality short of monogrammed towels. Then, in the next breath, they would deceive a bunch of asylum seekers — who strike me as being even more tangibly human — who crawled out of their South American nightmare only to be press ganged into a publicity stunt designed to abuse fellow citizens guilty of the sin of welcoming strangers, as the Bible urges us to do. It would look improbable, maybe even silly, in fiction. It looks pretty silly in real life.

Now I wish I hadn’t traced the Northbrook branch of the Chicago River all the way downtown. Traversing it in a kayak seems a challenge. Maybe in the spring.

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