Review: A Rule is to Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy

Posted: January 31, 2013 in Literature
Tags: , , , , , ,

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I received John and Jana’s A Rule is to Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy as a belated holiday gift ostensibly for my 5 year old daughter (but probably moreso intended for me). I missed it originally, but apparently this book caused a bit of tantrum among easily-outraged Tea Party types who equate anarchy with terrorism or liberalism or communism or whatever. Which is weird when you think about it (and forget that most Tea Party folks aren’t all that bright) because libertarianism is in several ways quite similar to anarchism (yes, the capitalism thing is a huge divide, but still).

Alternately, nearly everyone who isn’t a frothing Obama=Socialist, they’re-gonna-take-our-guns-and-ban-Jesus half wit seems to think the book is among the best kids’ books ever and uncritically lauds it. A quick scan of the reviews on Amazon (a great source of scientific data, I know) demonstrates a split response to the book between a bunch of 5s, absolutely no 4s, 3s, or 2s, and a couple of 1s from people who probably didn’t even read the book.

To say the critical response to the book is largely ideologically-driven would be too obvious, right?

Well, as a practical anarchist who has read more than a bit on anarchist theory over the years, I’m going to break with our esteemed Amazon reviewers (and the other glowing reviews or harsh condemnations I’ve read) and land pretty squarely in the middle on this book. I’d give it a 3/5 or C-plus.

First, the art in this book is great. I’ll be looking for other books by John and Jana based solely on really liking the way the book is drawn, lettered, colored, and uses the space on the page.  For example:

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I approve this sentiment

Overall, the art is top-notch and works really well with the sentiment of the book.

However, for anyone who knows anything about the history and theory of anarchy (or Greek), the book has a major problem on page one:

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quote: “the opposite of rules is anarchy”

Setting aside any quibble I might get into about dualisms of this sort, anarchy is not the the opposite of rules. Anarchy, as it is traditionally and theoretically defined, and as it is derived from its Greek roots, is the absence of rulers or authority (ie, hierarchy), not rules. It’s not worth getting into a long discussion of this here since there are other places you can read about this distinction, but it seems to me that authors who seem sympathetic to anarchy would understand the difference. It is an important one. Furthermore, the claim that anarchy means the absence of rules is one that is often used, along with a Hobbesian view of human nature, to advocate for state control over people lest we walk around murdering one another–or worse–with impunity.

So, in a manner fitting the spirit of the book’s advice to kids, I edited our copy:

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Much better

Outside of that major problem, I did really like the overall thrust of what the book was advising kids to do: “Give away stuff for free,” “Speak your mind,” “Educate yourself . . . use your brain,” and the like (though as a responsible parent trying to promote good eating habits I can’t get behind “Cake for dinner” even if the cake in question is vegan made with organic ingredients, sorry).

But then it hit me . . . if this book claims that kids should ignore rules and the like, and ends with “Do what you want!” why in the world is the book itself presented as a list of rules? Seems a bit ironic.

Seriously, nowhere in the book are phrases like “Maybe you’d like to X,” or “Trying something like Y could be fun,” or anything along the lines of how Seuss’s less-overtly-radical Maybe You Should Fly a Jet! Maybe You Should Be a Vet! presents potential options to kids. Instead, the anarchistic advice is presented as imperatives to the reader/listener without reasons for why you would want to do them. What if I’m too tired to “Stay up all night!”? Am I doing it wrong?

So, while I admire the art, and the impulse that drove the authors to create this book, I think it is ultimately a failure at promoting what it is trying to speak for. This is unfortunate given the number of people who are probably uncritically reading it with their kids. I’ll be reading it with my daughter, but, as tends to happen with most books, we’ll be discussing it during and after.

If you are considering picking up a copy, visit your local bookstore or order it from the awesome people at AK Press here.

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