About Those Censorship Attacks
It's worse than we know.
Seriously, what is happening here?
You may have seen the recent news of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel, Maus, being removed from the 8th grade curriculum by a school board in Tennessee. The book is Spiegelman’s rendering of the Holocaust substituting mice for Jews and cats for Nazis. The board objects to the book because of its “objectionable language” (an utterance of “God damn” and nudity (a partial panel of the body of Spiegelman’s mother after she commits suicide in the bathtub, and also mouse genitals).
In Polk County, Florida sixteen books were removed from area middle and high schools “quarantined” under a law that allows the public to challenge materials as “pornographic.” The materials are removed pending review.
The books targeted include Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, as well as Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. The irony-unaware group challenging the books is called the County Citizens for Defending Freedom.
A mayor in Ridgeland, Mississippi is threatening to withhold funding from the library system if they do not remove LGBTQ books that he finds objectionable.
In one of his first acts as Governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin set up a “tip line” for parents to report teachers who were engaging in “divisive practices.”
Numerous states have moved to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools, including specific bans on the 1619 Project.
Pen America calls these educational gag orders, which is exactly correct.
We’re not having a “debate” about these things.
One thing that I think it is important to be clear on here is that we are not in the midst of a debate about what kind of school curriculum is appropriate or how the history of slavery or the Holocaust should be taught.
This is textbook white majoritarian backlash, and they are utilizing the power of the state to attack what they perceive as liberal institutions. This is Joseph McCarthy’s playbook, and there is no debate to be had about whether or not a book is “pornographic” simply because it contains two girls kissing.
I highly recommend Georgetown professor Don Moynihan’s piece running down some of the different strains of backlash working through these bans. As he notes, the effect is real, and teachers are starting to self-censor, rather than potentially running afoul of vengeful government officials or parent groups.
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, some folks got very uncomfortable about the prospect for genuine progress on achieving the dream of a multi-racial democracy because it would mean losing their privileges. We are now in the midst of that backlash.
Perhaps the strangest part of all of this is the insistence by some conservative legislators that Martin Luther King would have been against CRT, all based on a selective reading of a single line of King’s public advocacy. Writing at FiveThirtyEight, Hakeem Jefferson and Victory Ray tease out that what is really at work here is a desire to stop the quest for equality at the symbolic, rather than the substantive. Martin Luther King becomes a kind of mascot to a backlash movement that at least now knows it can’t appear so overtly racist, but in doing so, makes their racism even more manifest.
It has gotten so bad that even John McWhorter, who has risen to increased prominence as a critic of so-called cancel culture on the left, saw fit to write a column noting the attempts of Florida governor Ron DeSantis to silence faculty at Florida universities who would’ve testified in legal actions challenging state policies. What is even more telling is that when McWhorter attempts to both-sides on the question of silencing, he compares a government entity gagging public employees to a dispute among academics over material that appeared in The Journal of Schenkerian Studies.
I understand a principle is a principle, but I’m a little more worried about a state’s chief executive preventing people from testifying in a legal action than I am about internal disputes in the land of Schenkarian studies.
What it boils down to is that these modern day censors cannot handle the thought of a diverse, multi-racial democracy that recognizes the dignity of individuals regardless of their race, sexual orientation, or anything else.
It’s not about curriculum.
Christopher Rufo, the driving force behind the anti-CRT moral panic has a Bond-villain style tendency to announce the true rationale for his schemes. While he claims that his objections to CRT are principled, he has a much larger goal that he happily tweeted into the world.
Rufo’s latest crusade is to advocate for “transparency” in school curriculum. On its face, transparency seems unobjectionable, but as with CRT, Rufo has more in mind.
By Rufo’s own declaration there is no intention to have a debate or discussion about school curriculum or what is good for students. It is a purely political project, an attempt to create a wedge issue that will break poorly for Democrats.
It is important to recognize, however, that Rufo’s political games are happening while students are going to school, teachers are teaching, families are trying to live their lives.
And yet Rufo is advocating for maximum disruption of schools with lawsuits and culture war politics. Another of Glenn Youngkin’s day one actions as governor was to issue an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of their district’s masking requirements. This came in the midst of a Virginia woman threatening to “bring every single gun, loaded and ready” to her children’s school if they were made to wear masks.
As Dahia Lithwick writes at Slate, Youngkin is purposefully causing Virginia public schools to “melt down.”
The purposeful destruction of public education
Here’s what it boils down to:
These folks either want public education to be subject to the demands of the white Christian world view, or they want to be able to take public money and use it to fund private, non-sectarian education through vouchers. They call it “school choice,” but this is a misnomer in the same way as Rufo’s “transparency.”
This is not a new movement. As Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider outline in their recent book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School, it has been a long project that has brought dogmatic free-market and religious conservatives together.
The very purpose of these disputes is to demonstrate that it is impossible for people of different points of view to co-exist as part of public serving institutions. Rufo wants to “lay siege” to the institutions that he believe oppose his religious project.
This strategy may have worked already in Virginia to help bring Youngkin to victory.
I am both too smart (Because who knows what to do in these situations?) and too dumb (Because how could I know what to do in this situation?) to tell you what the best political strategy might be to counteract these efforts.
All I can say is we should resist falling prey to phony debates, and do our best to name things for what they are.
Banning books with LGBTQ+ content simply because it has LGBTQ+ content is bigotry. Banning the 1619 Project is racist. Disrupting the school year with political B.S. because you want to make teachers miserable or wrong foot your political opponents is bad for children.
On the bright side, sales for Maus have spiked. In my opinion it’s one of the great artistic achievements of the 20th century, so if you can get your hands on a copy, it’s very much worth your time.
In my column this week at the Chicago Tribune I broke a pledge to myself to never learn anything about cryptocurrency, bitcoins, and NFTs because those things happened to cross over into book world. Bottom line is it all looks like Beanie Babies to me.
Also at the Tribune, Christopher Borrelli writes about a new biography of Lorraine Hansberry.
The New York Times tells you 12 books they think are worth paying attention to in February.
Pen America not only advocates for the free speech rights of artists, they also give out $350,000 in literary awards. They just announced their finalists for the 2022 honors.
This is for the writers in the house. My favorite indie press, Graywolf, is now accepting entries for their nonfiction book prize.
NPR lists some of the best translated literature from 2021 and titles to anticipate for 2022.
Wajhat Ali, author of Go Back to Where You Came from: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American has a reading list at LitHub on “Loving a Country that Doesn’t Love You Back.”
This is exciting: Open Books is in the process of opening a large, nonprofit bookstore to help fund the organization’s activities in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood
My guess is that there’s plenty of Wordle enthusiasts in this audience. At my other Substack newsletter, I wrote about how Wordle is an example of good pedagogical practices.
All books linked below and above are part of The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago.
Affiliate income gets a bit of a bump to $18.40. Remember that I’ll match any total up to 5% of the annualized revenue for the newsletter or $500, whichever is larger, as a donation to Open Books.
The list of 2022 recommendations will be filling up week by week.
Recommendations are always open. Send in your requests by clicking below and following the instructions.
1. We Run the Tides, by Vendela Vida
2. Mind of My Mind, by Octavia Butler
3. Malibu Rising, by Taylor Jenkins Reid
4. Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
5. The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel
Rob S. - Lewisburg, PA
Just read a terrifically involving short novel that I literally didn’t put down. Based on this list, I think it’s going to be up Rob’s alley, Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson.
1. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
2. The Black Echo by Michael Connelly
3. Lightening Strike by William Kent Krueger
4. Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy
5. The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
Tamara R. - Fairbanks, AK
Sometimes I still think about the twists in Dennis Lehane’s Since We Fell. I think Tamara will enjoy that ride as well.
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John, thanks for this important column and the great links/resources you include in it. I hope it's ok if I add a few more. The answer to "Who knows what to do in these situations?" might just be: librarians. They're smart, fierce and resourceful, and they've built a robust defense against book challenges and censorship.
The American Library Association (ALA)'s Office for Intellectual Freedom is a vital resource for book challenges. (Fun fact: The ALA began developing its intellectual freedom policies in the 1930s to help protect U.S. information institutions from the kind of censorship happening in totalitarian regimes. Guess some things never change.)
If you're an educator or administrator facing a book challenge, the ALA offers free, confidential challenge support: https://www.ala.org/tools/challengesupport, as well as free consulting services to help you develop intellectual freedom policies at your institution: https://www.ala.org/aboutala/offices/oif/consulting.
This weekend the ALA's publishing division sent out a reading list of books for educators who need support dealing with book challenges, including Pat R. Scales' "Teaching Banned Books: 32 Guides for Children and Teens, Second Edition" and "Books under Fire: A Hit List of Banned and Challenged Children's Books, Second Edition." Here's an additional wealth of resources about fighting censorship from the ALA website: https://www.ala.org/advocacy/fight-censorship.
Or, if you just want to learn more about book challenges and the threat they pose, check out the ALA's Intellectual Freedom Blog: https://www.oif.ala.org/oif/ or sign up for its weekly newsletter, which includes updates on book challenges: https://membership.informz.net/membership/pages/oif_ifnews_signup. Or spend a few minutes in the wild world of library Twitter. (@BannedBooksWeek is a great place to start.)
Also, please don't forgot to support your local libraries and librarians, including school libraries--Volunteer, donate and use/promote their services! My biggest fear is not just that educators will self-censor challenged materials, but that school districts will struggle to justify funding library programs if they're seen as threatening. School library programs are already massively underfunded, even though there's ample evidence that they improve educational outcomes for students, especially under-served students who may not have access to these materials otherwise. It's easy to forget in all this hullabaloo that these challenged books can be a lifeline for some of these kids.
Anecdotally, I volunteer at a school library in Florida, and our librarian said she had more challenges last year than ever before. She said the parents seem surprised they had to go through an official review process and that she didn't just walk up to the shelves and remove the books immediately. The entitlement runs deep, folks!