Good guys don’t ban books — which you would know if you read books

Informed Dissent

The logical end of the panic over cancel culture and critical race theory was always staring us in the face: to stop the left-wing oppression of school indoctrination, leftist ideas — in other words, any idea that doesn’t reinforce white conservative mythology — must be removed in the name of freedom.

That’s not how the culture warriors frame it, of course. They portray themselves as shielding young eyes from obscenity and pornography and protecting children from racial shaming. Take a look at what they’re actually doing, however, and that veneer crumbles pretty quickly.  

A school board in Tennessee removed the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, which recounts author Art Spiegelman’s parents’ experience during the Holocaust, due to “its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide,” because only sanitized versions of genocide will do. 

The superintendent of a North Carolina school district banned the MLK-themed novel Dear Martin — which the superintendent admitted he never read — after a 10th-grader’s parent complained that the book contained the “f-word” and “sexual innuendos.” 

A Florida school district removed 16 books from school libraries after a conservative group complained that they were pornographic: among them, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and just about anything that touches on LGBTQ experiences.  

National campaigns have targeted books such as All Boys Aren’t Blue, Lawn Boy, Gender Queer, A People’s History of the United States, even The Handmaid’s Tale — sometimes picking titles from lists that promote diverse reading material, other times attacking books that might turn little Johnny Football Star queer. 

The right is bullying teachers into avoiding anything that might make kids question the world around them.

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No one has been more aggressive than Texas state representative Matt Krause, who is running to become the district attorney of Tarrant County. Last October, he sent a letter to the Texas Education Agency asking if any schools in the state had any of the 850 books he included in an attached spreadsheet. As you might imagine, plenty of LGBTQ stuff made his book-burning list. But so did books about gender equality, the legal rights of teenagers, books about sexually transmitted infections (and books, even novels, that mention teen pregnancy), a 30-year-old book on the abortion debate, books addressing racism, the graphic novel version of The Lottery; Life, Death, and Sacrifice: Women and Family in the Holocaust; Underneath: A History of Women’s Underwear; W Is for Welcome: A Celebration of America’s Diversity (seriously!); Inventors and Inventions (?), a 1968 medical thriller from Michael Crichton and, most ironically, Nancy Garden’s 1999 novel The Year They Banned the Books.  

One book on Krause’s gargantuan list caught my eye, both because I’ve been reading it and because, since Krause wants to become Fort Worth’s top prosecutor, he probably should too: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander’s 2010 book, a seminal work in the field of criminal justice reform, doesn’t employ language that would send Granny to the fainting couch. It makes a nuanced, provocative case that by targeting Black men through the drug war and “tough-on-crime” legislation, the justice system created a caste system to replace Jim Crow segregation under the guise of race-neutrality. You don’t have to agree with Alexander. But if you’re afraid of kids engaging with her argument, that says more about your beliefs than hers.   

Such “populist” movements need to perpetually one-up themselves, so they can’t confine their actions to inserting themselves between teenagers and “dangerous” literature. 

Thus, in Oklahoma, a forthcoming Senate bill aims to prohibit K-12 schools from employing any teacher who “promotes positions in the classroom or at any function of the public school that is in opposition to closely held religious beliefs of students.” Parents are allowed to sue individual teachers and administrators, and damages are set at a minimum of $10,000. Because that’s not sufficiently mean-spirited: “All persons found liable for damages shall make payment from personal resources and shall not receive any assistance from individuals or groups.”

And then there’s Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is pushing legislation that prohibits public schools and private workplaces from making white people feel “discomfort.” Practically speaking, it gives racists license to sue schools because their kid’s class read I Am Ruby Bridges and employers because they had to sit through diversity training. 

DeSantis has also whipped up a throwback to the ’90s: a bill to ban any mention of sexual orientation or gender identity in schools. Which is to say, to cancel gay people. 

It follows the mold of Texas’ abortion law, giving parents — not the state — the right to enforce it by suing if a teacher mentions the 2016 Pulse massacre in Orlando or, perhaps, asks who America’s only “confirmed bachelor” president was. (Answer: James Buchanan, who was in a relationship with Alabama senator, ambassador to France, and vice president William Rufus King.) 

As if Florida — like Oklahoma and Texas — hasn’t made life miserable enough for public school teachers.  But that’s the point, isn’t it? The right is bullying teachers into avoiding anything that might make kids question the world around them. 

Donald Trump loves the poorly educated. His acolytes want schools to pump them out like factories. 

It won’t work, not how they imagine. And if you want to keep them from hearing about racism, or birth control, or why they’re getting hair down there, or why some boys like boys, you’re going to have to find some way to undo the internet. (Don’t think they haven’t broken your parental controls.) 

Besides, banning books will only make teenagers seek out the forbidden. And the more we talk about banning books, the more likely they are to read about the history of book banning — and realize that history never views the people who do it as the good guys. 

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