Op-Ed: Book bans are part of broader attacks on democratic norms
In the ever-escalating culture wars, schools have become a battlefront, with fierce arguments raging over curriculum content and ownership of particular books. Debating literature and ideas to teach students is the hallmark of a healthy democratic society. But coming amid assaults on the right to vote, the right to protest and respect for dissent, these efforts to suppress disadvantaged ideas and books must be recognized as part of a larger attack on democracy itself. same.
Since January 2021, more than 150 bills have been introduced in 39 states that would restrict the teaching of certain programs, primarily on issues of race and gender. Of these bills, more than 103 have been introduced since the start of 2022. Twelve have already become law. About two-thirds of the bills target K-12 schools, with the rest focused on higher education, libraries and state agencies. Sixty-two include mandatory penalties for those who violate the bans.
Initially, most of these measures used the misnomer of “critical race theory” in an effort to push back against teachings that supposedly overestimated the role of race as a driving force in American history and culture. But the restrictions introduced more recently go beyond any single concept.
South Carolina Bill 4605 seeks to protect students from material that may cause “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their “race, ethnic origin, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, heritage, culture, religion or political belief”. Such language, common to many of these bills, is dangerous. It is incredibly broad, opening the door to the elimination of “an endless array of works and subjects. It also undermines one of the very purposes of education, which is to help students move beyond their existing assumptions about the world.”
Most book bans target works by and about people of color as well as LGBTQ topics and storylines. Polk County Florida ‘quarantined’ 16 books, including Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’” and “The Bluest Eye”, based on complaints from a group called County Citizens Defending Freedom. And as calls to ban books grow, so does the vitriol that accompanies them: Last fall, two school board members in Spotsylvania, Va., called for books banned in the county be burned.
International examples offer a disturbing clue as to where this might lead. In the 20th century, South Africa’s apartheid state banned 12,000 books, at one point commandeering a steelworks furnace in order to burn slanderous texts. And in the 1930s, the Nazi Party railed against “non-German books,” featuring book burnings of Jewish, Marxist, pacifist, and sexually explicit literature.
More recently, in 2018, Iran banned the study of English in primary school to ward off “cultural invasion”. Legislation passed in Hungary last year banned any curriculum referring to homosexuality in schools in the name of “child protection”. In 2014, Russia passed a new law adding Nazi propaganda to the topics it prohibits and restricts – LGBTQ content, attacks on traditional values and criticism of the state are among others. Booksellers were so worried about breaking general law that they pulled Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel ‘Maus’ from stores because of the swastika on the book’s cover, despite its powerful anti-fascist message. . Last month, a school board in Tennessee banned “Maus” from its curriculum.
Book bans and curriculum debates in the United States have erupted episodically over time as shaken communities have sought to curb social change in areas such as evolutionary science, sexuality and the acceptance of ethnic differences. Although some of the arguments made today – about protecting innocent students from corrupt ideas – echo traditional reasons for banning books, the current crusade has a more sinister twist.
Peak figures – what the American Library Assn. called an “unprecedented volume” of book challenges, including more than 155 unique “censorship incidents” between June and November 2021 – indicate something organized is afoot. In many cases, the new bans are not simply spontaneous initiatives by local citizens. Donors, think tanks and conservative organizers have drafted and purchased model laws, lobbied lawmakers, recruited parents and community activists and provided manuals on what to ban and how.
Some of the same institutions and funders that fuel the book and curriculum bans are mounting parallel and partisan efforts to restrict assembly rights, make it harder for members of minority groups to vote, commandeer election administration and cast doubt on the integrity of the elections. It’s all part of the job of a vengeful political movement bent on trampling on civil liberties in order to gain and retain power. Organizers have found the bans a powerful tool to excite suburban parents with an issue that affects their own children’s schoolbags.
The techniques used to enforce these bans are fueling an already threatening atmosphere of political schism. School board members in Redding, Connecticut, and Eureka, Mo., resigned last year after receiving death threats during school battles. In incident reminiscent of Cold War-era purges, a Colleyville, Texas school principal was investigated for his teachings on racial issues, eventually resigning under pressure after being accused of “encouraging the disturbance and destruction of our district”. School officials across the country were similarly targeted.
The book and curriculum blitz is one flank in a broader attack on institutions and norms, aligned with part of our nation’s resistance to the political and social implications that come with demographic and ideological shifts. Holding on to democracy means holding on to the books, defending the judgment of teachers and librarians, and vigorously defending the rights to read and learn.
Suzanne Nossel is Executive Director of PEN America and author of “Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All”.