Thursday July 28, 2022

Book-banning is on rise, as part of assault on democracy

Book-banning is on rise, as part of assault on democracy

Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel ‘Maus,’ about his parents’ experience during the Holocaust and as survivors. Tribune News Service

Michael Hiltzik, Tribune News Service

Attacks on books occupy a special place among the signposts of philistinism and anti-democratic suppression.

So it’s proper to be alarmed at the upsurge of efforts to ban books from public schools and libraries, largely because they represent political views, lifestyles and life experiences that organised groups characterise as objectionable.

“It’s not that book banning itself is new,” says Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at the free-speech group PEN America. “The biggest trend is the force and the coordination around the country. What’s different is how school districts are giving in to these demands so quickly, in some cases without much due process whatsoever.”

Another disturbing aspect is how campaigns to ban books are linked to partisan political goals. “These are deliberate campaigns being waged with the support of political groups ... who use them as a new and promising front in our political and cultural battles,” Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of PEN America, told me.

Nossel ties book-banning campaigns to other efforts to control educational standards — “what we call ‘educational gag orders,’ bans on the teaching of certain topics, essentially to turn back the tide of demographic change in our country.”

Local school authorities have been handed lists of scores, even hundreds of books, accompanied by demands that they examine every one for purportedly inappropriate content.

A new Georgia law gives school officials no more than 10 days to respond to a parent’s demand for a book to be removed. Some school officials have been threatened with firing or even criminal prosecution.

Confronted with such possible consequences, some superintendents, principals and librarians simply capitulate. “If anybody brings that kind of case,” Friedman says, “there’s going to be a lot of pressure to simply give in.”

The nexus between book-banning campaigns and political campaigns has gotten stronger in recent years. Recent book-banning demands have erupted in states such as Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania. “They map pretty well to highly contested political territory,” Nossel says.

These campaigns are related to the frenzy over “critical race theory,” a fabricated conflict designed largely to instill fear about the educational system in the conservative political base.

One ad for Republican Glenn Youngkin’s successful campaign for Virginia governor featured a mother who had waged a campaign to ban Toni Morrison’s 1987 book “Beloved” — one of the works for which Morrison won the Nobel Prize, from her son’s school. (Never mind that the book had been assigned to her son nine years earlier, when he was a high school senior — by the time of Youngkin’s campaign he was 27 and an employee of the National Republican Congressional Committee.)

Political grandstanders often cast their objections in the context of parental rights to control what their children are exposed to in the classroom or the school library.

That was the rhetoric employed by Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, when he signed the state’s so-called Parental Rights in Education bill, which prohibits lessons in gender identity or sexual orientation unless they’re deemed “age-appropriate.”

“In Florida, we not only know that parents have a right to be involved — we insist that parents have a right to be involved,” DeSantis said in signing the measure in March.

No one disputes the right of parents to exercise control about what their own children read. The debate is about whether their desired restrictions can be applied to every other child who might take the same class or visit the same school library.

“It’s my right, my duty to help my kids make the best choices for themselves, in accordance with my wife’s and (my) beliefs and values,” Jake Alexander, a parent with children in the Spotsylvania, Virginia, school district, said at a November 2021 school board meeting. “It is not my right to force my beliefs and values on every other parent and their children. ... That is censorship, and it has no place in a public school setting.”

Bowing to objections by Alexander and other parents, the school board voted to rescind an order that the school superintendent screen every book in district libraries for illicit content. Two board members who agreed with the book ban even expressed the desire to burn the challenged books.

Book bans periodically reach the courts, though not recently. The quintessential case, United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses, reached a federal appeals court in 1933, which allowed “Ulysses” to be published in the US on the finding that its occasional use of obscenity did not outweigh its unmistakable literary value.

In a 1982 decision involving a New York school board’s decision to remove 10 books from school libraries after they appeared on a list circulated by a conservative group, the Supreme Court overturned the board’s removal of the books, warning that its discretion “may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner.”

Book-banning in English-speaking countries “has usually been spearheaded by activists inspired by moral panics,” says Kevin Birmingham, author of “The Most Dangerous Book,” a 2014 book about the ultimately successful effort to overturn the banning of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in the U.S. “One hundred years ago the panics were about candid political radicalism. Today they’re about race, gender and identity.”

That’s true, judging from the most recent rosters of the “most challenged books” published every year by the American Library Association.

Many of the challenges suggest an effort to eradicate any viewpoints or historical concepts other than those traditionally considered “mainstream” — that is, white and male. “It’s an effort to assert a certain identity and lifestyle as the norm in education and push other narratives to the sideline,” Nossel told me.

That’s why many targeted authors take these campaigns personally, Nossel says — the book-banners are taking aim at “the very purpose of their writing,” which is to “offer kids who may not conform to a certain majority identity a chance to find role models, see a path to their future.”

The banners’ goal is often concealed by their focus on discrete snippets of explicit content rather than the full sweep of an author’s work.

In January, when a suburban school board outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted to ban “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about his parents’ experience during the Holocaust and as survivors, the board cited a smattering of “curse words” in the work and a drawing depicting his mother’s suicide in a bathtub.

“They’re so myopic in their focus and they’re so afraid of what’s implied and having to defend the decision to teach ‘Maus’ as part of the curriculum,” Spiegelman said at the time.

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