Bonfire of the Sanities
GOP book bans are "a form of censorship... specifically aimed at the lived experience of racial and sexual minorities," says PEN America's Jonathan Friedman
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The New Cancel Culture Is the One Targeting Books
It’s the year of Republican Jesus 2022 and conservatives are getting enflamed about the dangers their kids must face when they walk into their school.
They’re not worried about the virus.
They’re worried about books.
Once a staple of “education,” books are now viewed as a gateway drug to ideas and curiosity, a way for students to learn about women’s rights, sexuality, gender identity and the “uncomfortable” parts of American history.
In fact, things are getting so bad that pretty soon if kids want to learn about slavery, homosexuality, incest, murder and bestiality, they will be forced to read the Bible.
To understand what’s causing Republicans to go book-banning-bonkers and find out what pro-book Americans can do to protect their children’s right to read, I asked Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, to answer a few questions by email.
Q&A with PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman
What is the danger of banning books in general—and especially books that educate students about race and/or LGBTQ+ issues?
Banning books is a fundamental infringement of the right to free expression. As an organization of writers, PEN America exists to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others. Removing access to books is removing access to knowledge. It’s also a form of censorship that more often than not is specifically aimed at the lived experience of racial and sexual minorities. When students lose access to these books, they lose the ability to see themselves represented in history and literature, to have their own feelings and identities validated, or to learn about the lives of people who are different from them.
It seems like the “Tea Party” was only concerned about the debt when Obama was President. The “migrant caravans” disappeared from Fox News the day after the election. How much of what we’re seeing is part of a familiar political playbook?
The book bans and educational gag orders we're seeing right now are part of an older playbook than that! Banning educational materials, books, literature and magazines in America has a long history. I think of the Comstock era efforts to censor mailings about birth control from Margaret Sanger, the censorship of Ulyssess, bans on abolitionist pamphlets, bans on LGBTQ+ magazines as “obscene.” The broader moment we’re in with book bans, educational gag orders, snitch-lines, and other proposals of teacher surveillance also echoes the McCarthyism of the 1950s. But what’s unique right now is the speed with which this has come on and the scale at which it could soon be executed. The GOP is playing into the frustrations of parents over schools from the pandemic, and they seem to feel, as evidenced in Youngkin's win in Virginia, that a culture war over schools is a winning electoral issue. I think the difference too is that this movement is taking on real grassroots power and has significant legislative support. The Tea Party didn't immediately take over school boards; “migrant caravans” wasn't converted into state-level bills in the same way. So even if this began with the same playbook, it’s penetrating at a level of influence and impact that I think is actually more significant, when you think about the number of students, teachers, professors, and librarians in the country.
What is new this time? How much does pandemic anxiety and Trump-era misinformation play into what we're seeing?
What’s new is the scope and scale of the bans, and the level of coordination between the banners. We're seeing a confluence of old book banners and new ones, Religious Freedom Restoration Act language and other initiatives led by Trump-era officials. There is an ebb and flow to book banning, but this is definitely the biggest wave, I think, ever, especially when you consider reports this week that parents in some districts are now challenging hundreds (plural) of books in local school districts in Texas and Florida.
What is most concerning about what’s now happening at the school board level and with new laws being passed?
The specific targeting of books about LGBTQ+ and Black experiences is especially troubling. Equally troubling, to me, is the fact that school boards entertaining bans seem completely unaware of the free speech issues involved. One school superintendent in Utah supported a book ban because free speech, in his view, is a “liberal” value. Of course, freedom of speech, including the right to receive information, is an American value, enshrined in our Constitution. Others seem to think having a school board remove a book from the curriculum isn’t the same thing as a book ban. Any time you’re removing books from students’ hands without going through the established process for reviewing books, or using considerations other than the educational or literary value of the book, you are banning that book. Any time you are barring a book from people who might want to read it, you are banning that book. What’s shocking this week is also the number of explicit anti-LGBTQ+ bills in a number of states, led by the “Don't Say Gay” bill in Florida. The movement behind this has been around for decades but they are clearly newly emboldened to commandeer more mainstream GOP support to this agenda. These bills are driven by hate and intolerance, an inability to recognize that freedom and liberty extend to the LGBTQ+ community. Sure, parents have some rights over their children, but other parents, and students, have rights too. Ironically, I don't see much effort at civil debate about any of this. I just see efforts to ban, prohibit, and censor.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to ban the Bible (or just overwhelm their GOP governor’s “tip line”) because of the scene in which Lot’s daughters get him drunk so they can get pregnant by him (or any of the Bible’s disturbing scenes of slavery, rape, incest, bestiality and murder)?
While doing that might be tempting in this frustrating moment, I wouldn't encourage anyone to recommend banning any book, even in jest or in a tit-for-tat sort of approach. Banning books is always the wrong thing to do. We should be encouraging anyone upset about a book, offended by it, to talk about, to engage in counter-speech, to write about it. Seeking to ban the Bible at this moment reminds me of a Ghandi quote “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
Book burnings obviously create powerful imagery for social media. What suggestions do you have for supporters of free speech—or parents who simply want to protect their kids’ right to read Toni Morrison or Twilight or Harry Potter?
Anyone who supports the freedom to read, to learn, to think ought to make that position known to state lawmakers and at school boards. Part of why this movement has gotten so far is because school boards didn’t know how else to respond; but also because there wasn’t enough loud opposition. School boards need to be reminded that they serve diverse publics, not just the most prudish parents in their communities. State lawmakers need to hear from the people. That might not stop all of this, but people cannot be apathetic in the face of a clear, concerted, and widespread effort to ban books and dictate what all in our society have access to.
If I want to champion free speech—and prevent book banning—what should I be doing between now and the midterms?
Pay attention if book bans or educational gag orders are proposed in your school district or state legislature. Call or meet with your legislators or school board members. Write a letter to the editor or an op-ed in your local paper. Connect with local advocates who are active on these issues. Speak to other parents in your schools and communities. And talk to your friends and family—change really does begin at home. One of the biggest challenges any collective effort faces is getting enough people to stop and pay attention to it. Many people can play a role in this effort.
Jonathan Friedman is the director of free expression and education at PEN America, where he oversees advocacy, analysis, and outreach concerning educational communities and academic institutions. In this role, he drives forward PEN America’s efforts to catalyze a more informed, civic culture through education and advocacy for the rising generation and the general public.
Follow him on Twitter: @jzfriedman