“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” (Voltaire)
[Note: I won’t kid you, this is a long post. I repeatedly considered what might be cut, but never did so because all parts of it feel vital in this moment. As vital as the fight to protect our integral freedoms—the right to read, to think, to speak; the defense of democracy for all Americans, not just the privileged few. If you can’t read it in one go, I hope you’ll return to finish. I’ve given most of a month of my life to researching and writing it. When weighed against what we stand to lose, though, that seems precious little. Here goes:]
In the heyday of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Hollywood Blacklist, and Senator Joe McCarthy’s famous political “witch hunts”, author Ray Bradbury penned his most enduring work, Fahrenheit 451, a cautionary tale about a future America where books are forbidden and the state employs firemen to track down and burn every book they find—as well as the homes of their owners. It’s an image that’s been invoked over the seventy years since the book’s publication to warn against those who would censor our freedom to read.
As it turns out, Bradbury was spot on. The fascist censors are on the rise once again.
Last month, in a Nashville suburb, in an event livestreamed on Facebook, people tossed books into a bonfire, cheering as copies of Harry Potter, the Twilight series, and other books went up in flames. Books deemed “demonic” by Greg Locke, head pastor of Global Vision Bible Church.
“We’re not playing games,” Locke stated on Facebook. “Witchcraft and accursed things must go.” Posting on Instagram, he added, “All your Twilight books and movies. That mess is full of spells, demonism, shape-shifting and occultism.”
Like all fascist bullies, it’s my way or the highway with Locke. A pro-Trump conspiracy theorist (surprise!), he countenances nothing outside his own rigid belief system which includes turning away any churchgoer who dares to wear a mask and claiming that kids with autism are possessed by demons.
First They Came for the Books, Then They Came for the People
The banning of books, the burning of them, in an attempt to destroy the ideas they contain, is nothing new. In May 1933, the National Socialist German Students’ Association, a staunch supporter of the Nazi movement, publicly burned some 25,000 books in 34 university towns and cities. Books they claimed were “un-German”, i.e., those penned by Jewish, leftist, and liberal writers. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda, stirred a crowd of 40,000 in Berlin, declaring, “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state!”
The book burnings were theatre, the opening salvo in a war to obliterate everything—and everyone—the Fuhrer deemed a threat to the state: Jews, leftists, homosexuals, intellectuals, people with physical or mental disabilities.
In the wake of the bonfires, the Nazis raided bookstores, libraries, even publishers’ warehouses, and confiscated all works blacklisted by the German Students’ Association—books by writers such as Bertolt Brecht, Erich Maria Remarque, Karl Marx, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, and German son, Thomas Mann, who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature just four years earlier. Even Helen Keller did not escape censure. The Nazis loathed her outspoken support for people with disabilities, for the rights of industrial workers and women, her pacifism—all were anathema to those sporting Hitler’s swastika.
International reaction was swift to condemn the book burnings as barbaric acts, unseemly in a modern civilized society, a dangerous portent for the future. And they were right. Yet here we are again. Not in Hitler’s Germany, but in the good old U.S. of A.
The State of Book Bans in the U.S.
Despite America’s involvement in a world war to defeat Hitler—a war that claimed more than 400,000 American lives—and a First Amendment to our Constitution that protects freedom of speech, the banning of books, books considered “un-American” (oh, the irony!), has a long and troubling history in the “land of the free.” No sooner had Eisenhower wiped the mud off his boots from serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe and assumed the office of President, then his Department of State got down to the business of removing all books by “Communists, fellow travelers, et cetera” from the 230 U.S. libraries and information centers overseas. Libraries established during World War II “to function as model public libraries abroad and operated on the principle of free access to printed materials for everyone.” Libraries originally dedicated to “providing books by writers banned under the dictatorships we had fought a great war to defeat.”
Among the books pulled from the shelves were poems by Langston Hughes, writer, social activist, and a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance. “What happens to a dream deferred?… ”
Race Problem? What Race Problem?
Almost seventy years later, we are seeing efforts to ban books on a scale that Hitler’s German Students’ Association would salute. The American Library Association reports that last fall alone, a record 330 books were challenged as “objectionable”, up from 156 for all of 2020. In her twenty years with the organization, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, “can’t recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis.” Small wonder when people like Texas state Rep. Matt Krause are calling for a review of 850 books he believes should be pulled from the shelves of the state’s school libraries.
The uptick in challenges began with last year’s push by far right GOP officials and lawmakers to stop teachers from talking about diversity and racial inequality with their students, a push that quickly morphed into real legislation banning all books, articles, or classroom discussion about America’s racism. Between then and now, fourteen states have passed laws restricting or forbidding the teaching of Critical Race Theory. Another twenty-two states have restrictions or bans in the offing. And just what is this heinous theory threatening to teach our impressionable youth? That racism is built into our very structure, perpetuated chiefly through laws and policies rather than individual acts. Heavens to Betsy—fetch me the smelling salts!
It’s a telling moment in our history as efforts to expand voting rights for people of color are being crushed, while efforts to crush the discussion of racial inequality are expanding. And what it’s saying is: America belongs only to some of us. The rest of you can just sit down and shut up.
If We Silence You, You Don’t Exist
The second major target of Republicans is any book dealing with LGBTQ+ themes or characters. In late January, the mayor of Ridgeland, Mississippi, Gene McGee, threatened to withhold more than $100,000 in funding from the Madison County Library System—funding already approved in the city’s budget for 2022—until all such books were stripped from the shelves. Those books, McGee told Tonja Johnson, the executive director of the MC Library System, go against his Christian beliefs. To date, Ridgeland has withheld two payments, Johnson said.
Among the books are Katherine Locke’s What Are Your Words?, which shows kids how to ask about and use preferred pronouns with other children. Another book, Lori Starling’s Toby Wears a Tutu, encourages kids to love and esteem who they truly are, even if they don’t fit neatly with the stereotype—a boy who enjoys ballet lessons, for instance. Johnson said though four people complained about the books in September, no one had officially insisted on their removal. Until Mayor McGee.
Mississippi is not alone in holding badly-needed funding hostage to demands for library-cleansing. In more than a dozen states, legislators have passed or proposed bills requiring schools to provide a list of every book, excerpt, and activity teachers use in the classroom, a demand educators say would be costly and burdensome. But the price for non-compliance is the withholding of funds from our already underfunded public schools.
Some of these bills even mandate that schools give parents veto power over new curriculum and library purchases. Worse still, are the bills that allow parents to sue a teacher who brings any verboten material into the classroom. As a former teacher, I ask this question in all sincerity: We already have a serious shortage of teachers. Who among them, earning, say, $35,000 a year, would risk continuing in a job where some fascist arsehole can sue them for mentioning Martin Luther King, Jr., or the existence of LGBTQ+ folks?
Parents, as it turns out, are extremely useful in the far right’s push to purge our schools of anything resembling free thought.
Getting Parents Riled Up to Ban Books
Far-right parent groups like No left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty have become a major force in the war against the freedom to read. Among the demands Moms for Liberty is pushing are bans on lessons about Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ruby Bridges (too divisive), lessons about civil rights confrontations (too negative in their portrayal of police), and anything to do with Galileo, they insist, must have a pro-church makeover. Poor Galileo. He took it on the chin from the Roman Inquisition in the 17th century for supporting heliocentrism—you know, Copernicus’s theory that Earth rotates daily and revolves around the sun. Nonsense! the Inquisition replied. Not what Holy Scripture says! They sentenced him to house arrest until the end of his days. Now, four centuries later, the Moms want to silence him again. Or at least give him some sort of flat-earth makeover.
It might all be sadly funny—the ravings of crackpots—if it weren’t for the influence the group commands online. The long list of verboten books Moms for Liberty posts on their Facebook page has distraught parents huffing into school libraries and demanding that librarians tell them whether books about these filthy subjects are on the shelves. [It’s interesting to note here that Moms for Liberty has also been waging war on school mask mandates.]
The power of such groups is receiving a boost from far-right candidates across the country. Recently-elected Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, for example, made parental oversight of books in the classroom a BFD in his campaign, running an ad that featured a distraught parent wailing about the horrors of her high school son reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a college-level English class. But as one Black parent noted, “They’re packaging some of these laws as ‘parents’ bill of rights.’ What parents? Because my daughter is entitled to see her culture and her heroes, people who look like her, in the curriculum, too.”
The Power—and the Threat—of Orwellian Doublespeak
No Left Turn in Education seems to head up an even oilier operation, if their website is anything to go by. The site opens with a “vision” statement: A future education where appreciation of American founding principles is fostered, family values are preserved, and every individual can pursue truth, virtue, beauty and excellence.
Scroll down through a series of subtopics “Educating”, “Empowering”, “Engaging” to find a cute video capture of two preschool girls—one white, one black—holding hands. This is one race. The human race, the caption reads. The capture, itself, is from a CBS news video wherein the little girls insist they are twins. “We have the same soul,” they tell the reporter. Ah, a sweet video to suck you into No Left Turn’s message: That all this messy business about racism in America is just ginned up by the left.
If that’s not clear, then wait for the fade to the photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., with his words: The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically…” The page then morphs to a screen with the words: MLK not BLM. Okay, we’re getting closer to the truth about No Left Turn here.
The real whallop comes when you click on the menu bar. Get the Facts, for example, calls up these zingers: Leftist indoctrination in our K-12 public schools; North Korean defector compares Ivy League campuses to living under Kim Regime.
No Left Turn avows that: Our fight is not over until malleable young minds are free from indoctrination that suppresses independent thought. Right, just ban all books used to “spread radical and racist ideologies to students”, books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race,and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Ime Indian (among many others) and everything will be hunky dory.
No Left Turn’s website is a masterful tapestry of Orwellian doublespeak, reminiscent of the Republican National Committee calling the violent January 6th attack on the Capitol “legitimate political discourse” when it was, in fact, sedition. Which is a crime.
The slide into fascism is made frighteningly smooth by such doublespeak. It confuses people. As George Orwell said in his prescient novel, 1984: The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.
Or, as Trump told a group of veterans in July 2018: “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening. Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.”
What’s at risk? The stifling of free thought; the silencing of ideas not conducive to the interests of the rich, not in line with a male-dominated, white-powered world; the invalidation of people of color and those who identify as LBGTQ+. Censorship is a cornerstone in all fascist societies where any dissent is met with threats, imprisonment—or a bullet.
The Birth of the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights
Every September for the past thirty years, the American Library Association has celebrated Banned Books Week, honoring all the books that have ever been banned from libraries and classrooms.
“Politics, religion, sex, witchcraft — people give a lot of reasons for wanting to ban books, but most often the bannings are about fear,” said Judith Krug, ALA’s director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom from 1967 until her death in 2009. “They’re not afraid of the book. They’re afraid of the ideas. The materials that are challenged and banned say something about the human condition.”
John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is a classic example. Published in 1939, it depicts the harrowing plight of the Joad family—poor tenant farmers from Oklahoma, driven off their land during the Great Depression by drought, bank foreclosures, and an agricultural industry moving toward the big and greedy. Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize, the book’s championship of the right of laborers to organize did not sit well with rich landowners who exploited poor and downtrodden folks like the Joads, and the book was banned in a number of places including Kern County, California—a spot depicted in the novel where the Joads live for some time in a migrant camp.
Kern County librarian, Gretchen Knief, alarmed at the county supervisors’ decision to ban the book, risked her job by writing a letter in protest. “It’s such a vicious and dangerous thing to begin,” she wrote, “… banning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don’t die because a book is forbidden reading.” Knief’s plea fell on deaf ears in the moment, but Krug claimed the banning of the book was a seminal event in creating the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, a document that says, among other things, that: Libraries should provide material and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
Defending the Freedom to Read
That fight for the right to read whatever we choose—the one Gretchen Knief championed—is being challenged in America today on a scale surpassing even that of the post-war “Red Scare” of the late 1940s/early 1950s. But, thankfully, people are standing up, raising their voices, fighting back for that freedom. For the freedom of ideas.
Voters of Tomorrow, a youth-led activist group, is sending hundreds of copies of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Toni Morrison’s Beloved—two books high on the list of targets for removal from schools—to students in Virginia and Texas.
“There are people who would rather not have conversations around these books because they address legacies of racism and fascism that are still alive today,” says Maya Mackey, head of the group’s Texas chapter. “In order to have a truly educated society and democracy, we need to have conversations around books like these.” [In a heartening note, sales of Maus skyrocketed on Amazon after the book was banned.]
Colorado’s Governor Jared Polis, the first openly gay man to helm a state, condemned the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation being promoted in states like Florida, where Republicans are advancing a bill that would ban discussions on sexual and gender identity in the classroom and require teachers to inform parents if their child identifies as LGBTQ+.
“Words matter. Laws matter,” Polis told a CNN interviewer. “When a group of people, LGBTQ youth, feel targeted by the words and laws that some politicians espouse… it can increase anxiety, depression.” Indeed, a recent poll reports that 85% of transgender and nonbinary teens say the deluge of anti-trans bills has negatively affected their mental health.
A group of Texas school librarians, enraged at the politicians and parent orgs leading what the librarians call “a war on books”, have formed “#FReadom Fighters” to resist all efforts to remove books from school libraries and dictate the parameters of classroom discussion. The group bombards Texas lawmakers with emails and tweets. To spread their message and encourage others to take action, their website, https://www.freadom.us/home, sells I support #FReadom T-shirts, hoodies, and tote bags.
The National Coalition Against Censorship has condemned this “sudden rise in censorship and its impact on education, the rights of students, and freedom of expression.” The law, they argue, “clearly prohibits the kind of activities we are seeing today: censoring school libraries, removing books–and entire reading lists–based on disagreement with viewpoint and without any review of their educational or literary merit.” The NCAC’s statement was signed by hundreds of organizations, publishers, bookstores, and individuals, including the American Civil Liberties Union who is currently representing two students in a class action suit against St. Louis, Missouri’s Wentzville School District for its removal of eight books from school libraries, among them Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The suit claims the books have been banned because they portray people of color and/or LGBTQ+ folks.
Earlier, I mentioned Ridgeland, Mississippi Mayor Gene McGee—the dude who was holding hostage $100,000 in funding budgeted for the Madison County Library System until they agreed to strip the shelves of books that conflict with his religious beliefs. Well, there’s a hero in that story. His name is Jerry Valdez and he’s the president of MCLS’s board of trustees. The books McGee ranted about are all back on the shelves now and in circulation, funding be damned. “The public library is the institution in our society that attempts to provide a diversity of viewpoints on a wide range of topics of interest … no matter how controversial or objectionable those ideas may be to some people,” Valdez declared.
For the Love of Books
In many ways, books have been my life. The reading of them, the writing of them, the sharing of them with others in critique groups and book clubs. I still enter a bookstore with the kind of anticipation a five-year-old brings to a candy shop. I still crack the spine of a new (or used) book with the hope of being transported, challenged, changed.
The attempt to kill ideas by fire, legislation, or suppression—it’s been around for over a thousand years, predating even the printing press. Manuscripts written by the Greek and Roman authors of classical antiquity—Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, Lucretius, among many others—were left to molder in dank basements of monasteries (monks were the primary copiers of manuscripts in the Middle Ages) because the Church frowned on their talk of science, of atoms, of life not eternal but perishing with death. If it weren’t for the Renaissance of the 14th century, with its passion for humanism, its thirst for the lost works of the classical world, and the determination of men like Poggio Bracciolini to recover them, all those books might have been buried forever under the weight of the Church’s insistence on the non-negotiability (as Thomas More called it) of divine providence and the soul’s eternal existence.
I learned about these struggles in the pages of two marvelous books: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve and Ross King’s The Bookseller of Florence. I’m grateful to both of them. History always illuminates the present.
If you are appalled by this latest fascist campaign to silence the freedom to read, the freedom to discuss, I urge you to make your feelings known. Talk to your local librarians, your local booksellers, your town’s school board members (even if you have no school-age kids). Write a letter to the editor of your local paper. Or any paper for that matter. Contact your reps and senators at both the state and federal level. The freedom to read literally, sooner or later, becomes the freedom to live.
I leave you with a song. It’s not directly about banning books, but it does celebrate the power of organizing, of standing together against those who would take away our rights, our freedom, our democracy. Now, go read a good book!