If you’re just here for politically neutral and enthusiastic book reviews, come back next week. This week, I have opinions for you.
World events are especially terrible at this moment. Before they became potentially apocalyptic, they were still bad, featuring a wave of book bans sweeping across America, complete with vindictive school board meetings and concerning legislation. Unfortunately, this attitude is nothing new in the land of the free. How is this moment similar to past censorship movements? How is it different? Let’s talk about it.
America is proud of its tradition of intellectual freedom, particularly religious freedom. To be reductive for the sake of brevity, the Roman Catholic church was nearly the only religious game in town in late-medieval/early-renaissance Europe. They attempted to force unity of thought and belief by controlling the flow of information. Scripture was only read in Latin, not the local language. Congregants were completely subject to the interpretation of the priest, as approved by the church hierarchy.
You know how this story ends.
The population grows more educated. The protestant reformation explodes. The printing press spreads scripture in local languages throughout Europe. Suddenly, ideas cannot be controlled and contained by the few. Despite severe oppression, protestant denominations fight for their right to interpret scripture for themselves. Generations pass and the descendants of the oppressed become the new oppressors, driving puritans, Quakers, and Anabaptists across the Atlantic Ocean to North America, where a country founded on individual freedom of thought and expression is born – or so the story we tell ourselves goes. The first and most foundational of these freedoms is this:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”The First Amendment, the U.S. Bill of Rights
As the American public education system formalized and grew, this institution crashed into an increasingly divided culture in the mid-20th-century. In 1960, a Seattle school district dropped the Harper Lee classic To Kill a Mockingbird due to racist language used by fictional racists(1). Challenges over the next two decades banned the works of Mark Twain for similar reasons. These challenges ultimately culminated in two supreme court cases:
In 1965, Lamont v. Postmaster General, Justice William Brennan ruled that the first amendment protected more than the right to express ideas without fear of legal punishment, it also guaranteed the right to receive information to knowingly accept or reject those ideas after informed debate. “…the right to receive publications is such a fundamental right. The dissemination of ideas can accomplish nothing if otherwise willing addressees are not free to receive and consider them. It would be a barren marketplace of ideas that had only sellers and no buyers.”(6)
In 1982, Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico addressed a case of a school board banning 11 books for being “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy”(3). The court concluded in a close decision that while school boards have an interest in promoting “community values”, as hubs for the free and voluntary consumption of information school libraries in particular have a responsibility to err on the side of protecting free speech. The court specifically forbade the removal of books because school board members disagreed with their ideas(3). Remember that when we outline what’s happening today.
With the Pico case in the balance, Frank Trippett of Time magazine observed that the bans were both a reaction to “everything-goes New Permissiveness gusted forth in the 1960s,” and a result of “the rise of Evangelical fundamentalism and the ‘Moral Majority.’”(2) That sort of clash of cultures sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
In spite of the outrage against the ideas in these books, the highest court in the land consistently ruled that publicly funded institutions could not bar ideas from the marketplace of information.
The New Wave of Book Banning:
According to the American Library Association, until very recently, most book challenges concerned pornography and obscenity(1). This change has recently shifted. First, the sheer volume of challenges multiplied in 2021. In all of 2019, the ALA processed 377 book challenges(1). In three months, from Sept. to Nov. 2021, they received 330 challenges(1). Why? What’s causing this new wave?
An analysis of a wave of book bans in Pennsylvania found that 80% of the titles were written by black, indigenous, or persons of color (BIPOC)(8). As of Feb. 2022, 66 new gag orders in 25 different states have attempted to impose restrictions on how public schools can discuss America’s history of segregation(8). The aggressive attack on ideas continues to grow. As I researched this article, a source from November counted 28 states which had either attempted to or actually restricted teacher’s ability to discuss racism and sexism(2). By February, the number grew to 36(4).
In Texas, a legislator introduced a slapdash list of 850 books targeted for imposing “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress”(1). Distress? Any book worth reading will, at some point, cause the reader some distress. 97 of the top 100 books on this prioritized list were written by ethnic minorities, women, or LGBTQ writers(1)(2). Just proposing this bill caused 400 libraries across Texas to pull books from shelves without any formal review of their contents, citing no specific complaint, before the law even passed(1). Another law in Texas proposes requiring “opposing perspectives” on the Holocaust(8).
Can we sit on that last one for a second? The Holocaust is universally understood to be objectively and unquestionably evil. I question the motives of any group or individual that seeks to require we give the Nazis a sympathetic fair shake. Of course, in the spirit of this whole discussion, they can put their books in the library… but to require teachers to present a specific niche, controversial, and objectively false point of view gives away the real goal: legislative thought control.
Speaking of which, the internet caught fire last month when a Tennessee school district banned the award-winning graphic novel Maus, which depicts the holocaust with mice and cats in a format accessibly to younger students. Why the ban? Because the holocaust is “disturbing,” and over purported concerns about “anthropomorphic mouse nudity”(1). You can’t make this stuff up. In this same state, a school district attempted to ban a picture book about Ruby Bridges by Ruby Bridges – the first black student to integrate an all-white New Orleans public school(8). In their own words, the school board was concerned that this children’s book was not sufficiently “redemptive” to the people who targeted and harassed her. The anti-Ruby-Bridges group also wants to pull a middle-grade book about Martin Luther King Jr. because it may inflict “emotional trauma”(8).
A Florida school removed 16 books, including award-winning novels The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and Beloved by Toni Morrison, claiming they contained “obscene material”(1)(2). Beloved follows the life story of an African-American slave, while Kite Runner catalogues an Afghani youth’s experience with both the Russian and American wars in Afghanistan. Obscene, or uncomfortable?
Some states are not satisfied to stop at removing books from shelves. Emboldened by their banning success, they seek to intimidate librarians and teachers with criminal penalties.
Legislators in Florida and my own Iowa want to install cameras to monitor teachers(4).
The Indiana state senate approved a bill allowing the criminal prosecution of school librarians for disseminating “material harmful to minors”(1). As of Feb. 7th, the Oklahoma legislature was considering a bill banning public school libraries from offering books on sexuality or gender identity(1). This same bill would impose a $10,000 fine on teachers for teaching “in opposition to closely held religious beliefs of students”(4). Which students’ beliefs define this standard? The law doesn’t say.
In Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida and Texas, lawmakers are pushing these thought-crime laws beyond public schools. They propose prohibiting government employers from implementing workplace training which would cause “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin”(4). The Florida version attempts to extend this beyond the government to private businesses.
To top it all off, on Nov. 8, two members of a Virginia school board called for a literal book burning(2).
What Does It Mean?
I want to take a moment to warn against overreacting, as in the fact check of this tweet (7). These incidents and trends are concerning, and we should be vigilant against them, but we shouldn’t vilify the very real human beings on the front lines in our schools and libraries trying to weather this storm. The real danger comes from disingenuous political actors and the parents they have radicalized to fight their battles for them.
One of the dangers of this wave of bans is the risk of soft-censorship and self-censorship. The threat of crushing fines, jail time, or job loss is very motivating. We are already seeing libraries preemptively pull books by BIPOC or LGBTQ authors to avoid the danger book-banners impose(1).
“What you can see with book bannings is that they are tied to whatever is causing anxiety in society,” says Emily Knox, author of Book Banning in 21st-Century America (2). What anxiety sparked these bans? School boards are bombarded with concerns about “Critical Race Theory.” The term has lost all meaning as a media frenzy has applied it to any discussion about race that makes certain people uncomfortable. So, what is it, really?
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a decades-old legal framework taught in some American law schools(8). Note that law school always means post-graduate education, beyond a 4-year bachelor’s degree. It is a reaction to the post-civil-rights “colorblind” movement which looks at ways racial bias affects our laws and institutions. It seeks to examine how the world is, not how we wish it was(8). Note that it is not taught in elementary or secondary schools.
The banners would argue that even if the theory isn’t called out in the curriculum at public schools, the ideas are taught. The question is, then, what ideas do they find objectionable? In their own words, they want to avoid feeling “uncomfortable” or “anxious.”
Did slaves have the chance to avoid discomfort under the horrible conditions of American slavery? Did the marchers for Civil rights avoid discomfort when authorities beat them, attacked them with dogs and fire hoses, then arrested them? Was MLK – who everyone, including CRT opponents and book banners, loves to quote – afforded comfort when they killed him? Have black and brown people been comforted by bigotry, hate, and over-policing? I’m just a white guy with a blog. I’m not the authority on this. I recommend Bakari Sellers’s podcast and Amber Ruffin’s “How Did We Get Here?” video essays as excellent starting points if you want to learn about the continued impact of racial injustice in America.
The point is, avoiding history because it makes you uncomfortable is foolish and futile. Our children have a little thing called the internet. They will encounter ideas about race and gender. They will hear about current events. They will hear the names George Floyd, Trevon Martin, Adam Toledo, Amir Locke, Jacob Blake, and Ahmaud Arbery. Using laws to suppress ideas you don’t like is the polar opposite of everything America stands for(4). As the Supreme Court has consistently upheld, public institutions such as public schools and libraries are obligated to protect free speech by promoting the free exchange of ideas.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis advised Americans with differences in values and beliefs to work towards resolution through “more speech, not enforced silence”(6). I wholeheartedly agree. If parents are concerned about anything taught in school short of blatant obscenity, they should discuss those ideas with their children, not start a campaign to erase those ideas from history.
(1): “Why are Certain School Books Being Banned in the US?” By Anthony Zurcher, BBC News, Feb. 7th, 2022 <https://www.bbc.com/news/correspondents/anthonyzurcher> Accessed Feb 16 2022.
(2): “Librarians Grapple with Conservative Effort to Ban Books” by Olivia B. Waxman, Time Magazine, Nov. 16, 2021, <https://time.com/6117685/book-bans-school-libraries/> Accessed Feb 16 2022.
(3): “Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico by Pico.” <Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/1981/80-2043> Accessed Feb 16 2022.
(4): “Conservative Book Bans Are Part of GOP’s Fascist Turn” by Christopher Rhodes, Harvard University via Al Jazeera. Feb. 11th 2022. <https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/2/11/conservative-book-bans-are-part-of-gops-fascist-turn> Accessed Feb. 16th 2022.
(5): “Book Censorship in the United States.” Wikipedia. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_censorship_in_the_United_States>. Accessed Feb. 16th 2022.
(6): “Freedom and Censorship” by the American Library Association. <https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/censorship> Accessed Feb. 16th 2022.
(7): “Fact-check: Are some books being banned from Texas schools, while ‘Mein Kampf’ is allowed?” by Nusaiba Mizan, Feb. 13th 2022. The Austin American-Statesman. <https://www.statesman.com/story/news/politics/politifact/2022/02/13/fact-check-which-books-being-challenged-texas-schools/6663239001/>. Accessed Feb. 16th 2022.
(8): “The War on Truth: Anti-CRT Mania and Book Bans are the Latest Tactics to Halt Racial Justice” by Ishena Robinson, NAACP Legal Defense and Education. <https://www.naacpldf.org/critical-race-theory-banned-books/>. Accessed Feb. 16th, 2022.
(9): “Book Banning” by Susan L. Webb. The First Amendment Encyclopedia at Middle Tennessee State University. <https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/986/book-banning >. Accessed Feb. 16th 2022.
(10) “All 850 Books Texas Lawmaker Matt Krause Wants To Ban: An Analysis” by Danika Ellis. Nov 5, 2021. Book Riot. <https://bookriot.com/texas-book-ban-list/> Accessed March 7th, 2022.