As I write this we are in the midst of a national effort to ban ideas. This isn’t anything new; our politicians and pundits have been involved in what has become known as the “culture wars” for years, and previous country-wide attempts to control political and moral speech go back more than two centuries. The United States Constitution was less than ten years old when the first Sedition Act was passed in 1798, making any speech or writing illegal that spreads “false, scandalous, and malicious” concepts about the government. The modern culture wars have a much broader purpose. Conservatives have long been complaining that such broad categories of tradition as Christianity, free enterprise, gun ownership, marriage, gender identification, and U.S. history are under attack. They are leading into the 2020 mid-term elections by stepping up their arguments, targeting liberalizing movements that are attempting to foster more open discussions about gay and transgender people and about the less savory aspects of the national historical record.
The conservative method of choice is, first, to distort and exaggerate any concepts they oppose. In their recent formulation there is a dangerous “gay agenda” that wants to convert or “groom” young people into “perverted” sexual behavior, and an associated “woke” agenda that wants to shame white people by telling them they are responsible for slavery and lynching and discrimination and native genocide and all of the other negative events in our shared past. Second, as part of pushing back against cultural liberalization they want to severely limit what can be taught in our schools, prohibiting discussions of inclusive gender roles and accurate history in all classrooms.
These efforts, of course, have spilled over into banning books that refer to the unwanted topics. They reject not only non-fiction books like The 1619 Project (Nicole Hannah-Jones) or And The Band Played On (Randy Shilts) that specifically discuss the banned historical record, although those are also included, but also fiction that features any minority or gay or transgender characters leading lives that are as ordinary and honest as people in their social situation can experience. The objections remain even if the references to discrimination or non-heterosexual activities are minimal. So the list this year contains notable award-winning fiction, including To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Gender Queer (Maia Kobabe), The Handmaids Tale (Margaret Atwood), The Bluest Eye and Beloved (Toni Morrison), Maus (Art Spiegelman), The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie), Heather Has Two Mommies (Leslea Newman and Laura Cornell), Lawn Boy (Jonathon Evison), How to Be an Anti-Racist (Ibram X. Kendi), Where The Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak), and In The Dream House (Carmen Maria Machado). And, in an act that verges on self-satire, some activists have once again called for banning Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), a repeatedly banned book about destroying all books, not just those with specific content. I don’t know about you, but I am somewhat familiar with most of these books and I am at a loss at figuring out what they all have in common.
These are only a few of the most familiar books on the many lists that have been created across the country. Other lesser-known titles have also been questioned and slated for removal from classrooms and libraries, almost all of them either about gay or transgender people or about racial or cultural minorities. In the past year more than 1,500 books have been banned in more than 90 school districts in half of the states in our country. Members of the school board in the Rapid City School District in South Dakota went further, asking about investigating their list of books to see whether they should be not only banned, but destroyed. Many school and city librarians have been threatened for having the temerity to argue against banning books, and a teacher in Norman, Oklahoma—incidentally, the home of the University of Oklahoma—was suspended because she provided her students with a QR code they could use to seek information and order books from the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned program. After the teacher resigned under pressure, the Oklahoma State Secretary of Education pushed further, demanding that her state teaching certificate be revoked. As he explained, “This is completely the tool of a far-left extreme group that is using the profession and using schools to indoctrinate, groom kids and to try to hyper-sexualize [children] and teach them to hate their country. And we’re not going to allow it.” This statement indicates that the book ban is only one part of a multi-directional appeal to paranoia directed against public education.
The book-banning effort is not merely a collection of local or regional grassroots efforts. It is a national campaign coordinated by such activist conservative groups as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Family Research Council (FRC). This movement encourages people to file similar challenges against the same books in multiple school districts in almost all states. For the local participants, that provides a significant advantage, for they can receive their lists of objectionable books and offensive content from a central source. This frees them from the drudgery of searching for and actually reading parts of any of the books they oppose. It also allows the campaign to bring in individuals other than concerned parents. Many conservative politicians have been promoting book bans as part of their usual electoral activities, a strategy that is a direct extension of their ongoing culture wars, the decades-long crusade of fear-mongering being used to build voter enthusiasm in advance of elections. They’ve expanded their crusade with manufactured outrage and anxiety about transgender use of public bathrooms and teaching Critical Race Theory. They’ve incorporated it into broader attacks on public education and campaigns for school board members. In other words, more of the same, only more of it.
My own first personal experience with book banning also involved a national effort, one that occurred during my high school years. In that case the cause was anti-pornography and it was sparked by the publication, in 1961, of Henry Miller’s semi-autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer. The book had first been published in France in 1934, but had long been banned by the United States government because it “dealt too explicitly with his sexual adventures and challenged models of sexual morality.” The early 1960s campaign followed and built on the late 1950s controversies regarding Lady Chatterly’s Lover (D. H. Lawrence), Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov), and Howl (Alan Ginsburg), and it expanded to embrace William Burrough’s Naked Lunch and J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, among other novels containing questionable dialog. But the one set of actions that most impressed me was the extraordinary campaign against the Dictionary of American Slang, a book edited by Stuart Flexner and Harold Wentworth and first published in 1960.
The Dictionary of American Slang was, as advertised, a dictionary in the standard format. It was therefore dry, matter-of-fact, a lengthy list of individual words with their definitions and, often, sample usages. This project, properly done, quite obviously required not only including some slang terms that were considered objectionable, but explanations that sometimes referred to a variety of body parts and bodily functions that at the time weren’t commonly found in “acceptable” books; for example, books other than the ones written by Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence. The mere appearance of this book in public and school libraries was strongly protested, and removed from some locations, because it actually contained some “obscene” terminology. In other words, it was a fairly complete compilation of American slang. What was most surprising about the effort to ban this book, however, wasn’t the book itself. It was the strategy used by those who opposed it. The morally incensed individuals who showed up at meetings of school boards and city councils and library boards brought with them handouts, printed pages listing a large number of the offensive words and phrases that were contained in the dictionary. These they passed out to anyone who would take one. Their intent must have been to spread to others the outrage they felt at finding a book that actually contained such words, but the reality was that they were actively distributing the very content that they were hoping to have banned from public access.
The same odd strategy is still being used as I write this. People who oppose specific books based on overt sexual descriptions or objectionable words are showing up at public meetings with printed handouts containing many of the offensive passages they object to. Their lists include only those short passages, having separated those “perverted” and “obscene” phrases from any of the pesky “socially redeeming content” that surrounds them in the actual book. In other words, they remove the broader context, which is the vast amount of inoffensive material that has allowed the Supreme Court to reject censorship in so many other cases. Could these individuals be arrested for distributing pornography? By their own definitions it would make sense. Instead, the media generally passes on, without comment, their argument that they are doing all of this to protect children. That happens to be the same justification that was used by those who fought against the Dictionary of American Slang. Back in the 1960s supporters of the Dictionary had replied that those who opposed it were “protecting” most children from words they had already heard and used. These days the book banners seem to be going further, trying to protect children from reality, a reality with which many of them are already all too familiar. I must admit that it would be easier to remove descriptions of reality than to revise the reality itself—the very real historical and current systems of oppression—but the people who ban books are only interested in the first of these two options.