Books, Education

The Greatest Threat to America is Not a Book …

We have reached the book banning stage of democratic collapse. The end can’t possibly be far away.

In states from Tennessee to Idaho ultra-rightwing lawmakers are enjoying spring by roughing up librarians, cutting their budgets, banning books and intimidating teachers. It’s a coordinated effort that echoes through the alt right determination to wage endless culture war. After all, how better to demonstrate your commitment to “freedom” than by banning a book?

A photo from the New York Times

“It’s definitely getting worse,” Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of the free-speech organization PEN America, told The Guardian recently. “We used to hear about a book challenge or ban a few times a year. Now it’s every week or every day. We also see proposed legislative bans, as opposed to just school districts taking action. It is part of a concerted effort to try to hold back the consequences of demographic and social change by controlling the narratives available to young people.”

As National Public Radio reported earlier this month: “More than 330 unique books were challenged from September through November last year, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. That’s twice as many as the entire year before.”

Not surprisingly, most if not all the book banning has featured works that consider already marginalized individuals or groups, while dealing with what are apparently frightening concepts like sexuality, gender identity or race. It’s apparently not enough for some Americans to be openly antagonistic to the LGBTQ community or to people of color, they demand that no one read about their stories.

If book bans were merely a manifestation of old fashioned, small-bore bigotry that would be in keeping with American history. In the 1830’s, after all, the U.S. House of Representatives forbid members from even discussing slavery, let alone legislating about the peculiar American institution. Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852 in the run up to the Civil War, was banned in the South for fear it’s anti-slavery message would stir dangerous ideas. Lots of books over a long period have been banned for being too sexy or too graphic, however you define those terms.

But the current battlefield in the alt right’s culture war is more calculating and more strategic than simply old-style American bigotry, and therefore more dangerous to the ideas of free expression and anti-censorship. Moreover, the book ban mania has not grown organically, but rather has emerged in harness with intense new attacks on public schools and educators, animated by misinformation and fear about how American history is taught.

This fight is all about ideology and surely represents a concerted effort to limit what Americans, particularly young Americans can read, absorb, debate and decide about.

“You’re seeing really powerful movements under way to constrain expression,” says Jeffrey Sachs, an academic who specialized in free speech issues. “It’s not about discussing ideas objectively. It’s about not discussing them at all,” Sachs told the news website Vox.

The agenda here is being advanced on two fronts. One involves the systematic demonization of public education. The farthest fringe elements of the conservative moment – the Idaho Freedom Foundation, for example, or former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – are hardly subtle in advocating an end to public schools. This movement is lavishly funded, and there is a vast amount of money to be made by those hyping charter schools and other forms of privatization.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a very Trumpy Republican, recently used his State of State speech to tout a charter school plan for his state that would channel public dollars to a small, private, Christian school in Michigan – Hillsdale College – that has been an incubator for school privatization efforts. Lee reportedly wants as many as 50 Hillsdale-supported charter schools in Tennessee. They will teach a sanitized, false version of civics and history.  

Betsy DeVos, the Trump Education Secretary and public school privatizer

Hillsdale’s president chaired the laughably incompetent, yet ideologically frightening history commission Trump established near the end of his term. And it’s no coincidence that DeVos used a speech at Hillsdale last fall to help stoke the alt right’s anti-public school crusade. DeVos and others in this movement talk a lot about “freedom,” but they really advocate control. They want to dismantle the long-established system that many states require – a uniform system of public schools. A good entry point is through the library.  

Banning books or destroying public education are wildly unpopular ideas, so it becomes necessary to clothe the efforts to ban and destroy in the guise of protecting you from something sinister and dangerous. Success in this anti-democratic effort requires standing the truth on its head, because controlling thought, banning books and diminishing valuable institutions like local schools and long-established colleges and universities are not the tactics of freedom loving people. They are, however, tools in the service of authoritarianism.

The absolutely unprecedented attacks on libraries and librarians during the recent Idaho legislative session, actions that included threats to jail librarians, were straight up authoritarian. I doubt most of the political geniuses behind the Idaho library wars actually visit libraries or read books, but if they did, they might know that a mediocre Austrian painter once used this very playbook.

Idaho legislators, as the Spokesman-Review’s Shawn Vestal noted recently, eventually “agreed to form a legislative committee to investigate library materials statewide, a McCarthyite tribunal that promises to be every bit as intelligent and productive as last year’s task force investigating indoctrination in schools.”

This is a red-light flashing moment.

It is time for all Americans to defend with new vigor and new commitment the American institutions that the alt right plans to destroy, and openly speaks of doing so. Institutions, as the Yale historian Timothy Snyder has often pointed out, cannot defend themselves. People defend institutions. And people destroy them, too.

Visit the local library. Praise a teacher. Support good people who believe in genuine American values like intellectual freedom, dissent, inquiry and who aren’t so insecure and filled with grievance that they see threats between the covers of a book.

Institutions, Timothy Snyder has written, “fall one after the other unless each is defined from the beginning.” We are well past the beginning in the assault on educational institutions in America. Time is of the essence to defend them from evil, misguided people who would in the name of freedom destroy freedom.

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Additional Reading:

A few other items that may be of interest …

Banning The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 California

Steinbeck and his controversial book

As noted above, book banning is an old tactic in the United States, even as I think it’s important to note that the current wave is something particularly unseemly and destructive. Kern County, California banned Jon Steinbeck in 1939.

“Officials there actually got the idea from a newspaper story reporting that the Kansas City Board of Education had removed it from public libraries there.”

Read the story.


Will Smith Did a Bad, Bad Thing

You probably have read all you need to read about the “slap seen round the world,” but perhaps you haven’t read Kareem.

“Worse than the slap was Smith’s tearful, self-serving acceptance speech in which he rambled on about all the women in the movie King Richard that he’s protected. Those who protect don’t brag about it in front of 15 million people. They just do it and shut up. You don’t do it as a movie promotion claiming how you’re like the character you just won an award portraying. By using these women to virtue signal, he was in fact exploiting them to benefit himself. But, of course, the speech was about justifying his violence.”

The guy could play so hoop, too. Read his essay.


The Dramatist

This a really terrific piece about the historian Barbara Tuchman.

Author of The Guns of August, among many other books

“In addition to acknowledging that she had help, a frequently taboo subject for successful women, Tuchman was forthcoming over the years about how being a woman with children influenced the development of her career. In 1978, she told the New York Times: ‘My obligation was primarily toward my three children. . . . When the children came home from school or had the measles, I had to drop everything. If a man is a writer, everybody tiptoes around past the locked door of the breadwinner. But if you’re an ordinary female housewife, people say, ‘This is just something Barbara wanted to do; it’s not professional.’ For a woman, it’s very difficult to work behind a closed door.'”

Meredith Hindley is a senior writer for Humanities. Read her piece here.


LBJ Announced He Wouldn’t Run Again. Political Chaos Ensued

I remember watching the speech – 54 years ago this week in .

“LBJ’s announcement was so dramatic partly because it was so unexpected. When LBJ sat down to deliver the speech, even he wasn’t certain that he would utter the words his aides had written for him. LBJ had acquired a reputation, rooted in decades of service in Senate leadership and then in the White House, as a brilliant legislative operator, a masterful manipulator of men and laws, a politician who wished both to advance his own self-interest and outdo FDR as the greatest reform president of the 20th century.”

Good piece of political history as told by Matthew Dallek.


Be careful out there. Keep reading. And thanks.

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