It appears that our fearless (okay, feckless) lawmakers have identified a dire threat to America and its children–librarians. The Washington Post recently reported on one of the current allegations–this one by Senator Mike Lee of Utah–
“The goal is to sexualize children — to provide minors with sexually explicit material … and then hide this content from the parents.”
The American Library Association is facing a partisan firefight unlike anything in its almost 150-year history. The once-uncontroversial organization, which says it is the world’s largest and oldest library association and which provides funding, training and tools to most of the country’s 123,000 libraries, has become entangled in the education culture wars — the raging debates over what and how to teach about race, sex and gender — culminating in Tuesday’s Senatorial name-check.
Lee isn’t alone. The increasingly insane Right is intent upon painting the ALA as a defender of pornographic literature for children. MAGA warriors insist that the nation’s libraries, including school libraries, are filled with sexually explicit, inappropriate texts.
Attacks on libraries are part and parcel of what Isaac Asimov called the “cult of ignorance,” a phenomenon that we see in contemporary dismissals of expertise as “elitism”and the cyclical eruptions of anti-intellectualism in the United States. Asimov’s famous quote probably says it best:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
America’s libraries are our intellectual gatekeepers, safeguarding our ability to access practical information as well as hard-won wisdom that has been built up over centuries. Attacking them is an attack on human intellectual progress–a declaration that, as Asimov aptly framed it, ignorance is just as good as knowledge.
We’ve been here before. In a speech in 2014, I argued that libraries as we know them are important protectors of what I call “the American Idea.” I spent six years as Executive Director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, and of all the lessons I learned during that time, the most profound was this: the future of western liberal democracy rests on the preservation of intellectual freedom.
That preservation, of course, is the library’s mission.
America’s Constitution is grounded in the Enlightenment concept of the individual as a rights-bearing, autonomous being. That concept is integral to our legal system; it is the foundation upon which our forbears erected the Bill of Rights. The Founders envisioned the good society as one composed of morally independent citizens whose rights in certain important circumstances “trumped” both the dictates of the state and the desires of the majority.….The First Amendment is really an integrated whole, protecting our individual right to receive and disseminate information and ideas, to consider arguments and theories, to form our own beliefs and craft our own consciences. It answers the fundamental social question– who shall decide? — by vesting that authority in each individual, subject to and consistent with the equal rights of others.
Implicit in the First Amendment is the legal system’s concept of personal responsibility, the University’s commitment to academic freedom, the moral authority of the clergy, the independence of the media, and the legitimacy of the political process.
That exercise of personal responsibility requires untrammeled access to information. For that matter, protection of civil liberties of every kind depends upon and requires intellectual freedom.
As I noted on this site back in April, the culture warriors out to terrorize Marian the Librarian are seeing considerable success. In an Urban Library Trauma study conducted in 2022, more than two-thirds of respondents reported encountering violent or aggressive behavior from patrons at their library.
Groups such as Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education and Parents Defending Education aren’t the only ones fighting to remove books by Black and LGBTQ+ authors. Proud Boys have taken to storming into Drag Queen Story Hour events, for instance, causing serious fear for patrons and librarians.
Lest we give these censors the benefit of the doubt, thinking they are identifying mostly trashy books, it’s instructive to consult the AIA’s annual list of the most frequently challenged books. They include Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Challenges are overwhelmingly aimed at books by or about LGBTQ+ people, and books critical of racism. (The most censored books of all times are 1984, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, The Color Purple, The Great Gatsby, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Lord of the Flies.)
The culture war isn’t “just” about democracy versus Christian Nationalism. It’s also about ignorance versus knowledge.