Just WOW…

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.


Rokita Again…

A week or so ago, a reader sent me a private message about a “thin blue line” flag he’d seen displayed in a window of the Indiana Statehouse. It concerned him, because he was aware that the flag was associated with the White Supremacy movement.

I was totally unaware of the flag’s message or existence, so I consulted Google.

According to Wikipedia, “The thin blue line US flag has appeared regularly at Trump rallies. The flag, which ostensibly stands for solidarity with the police, appeared as well at the January 6 United States Capitol attack, during which police officers were beaten and attacked by the mob of Trump supporters and far right extremists.”

Police departments in Madison, Wisconsin and Los Angeles, California have banned police display of the flag because of its associations with views described as “undemocratic, racist, and bigoted.”

According to the Los Angeles Times,

For some, the “thin blue line” flag is an expression of solidarity with police officers who have lost their lives on the job.

To others, the black-and-white American flag with a single blue stripe is a potent symbol of the ties between right-wing extremism and American law enforcement.

The tension between those irreconcilable interpretations spilled over in the Los Angeles Police Department this month, when Chief Michel Moore ordered the flag, which was widely displayed in station lobbies around the city, to be removed from public view….

In a department-wide email, Moore said the flag’s original meaning of support for police had been overshadowed when it began appearing at rallies for the Proud Boys and other far-right extremist groups.

“It’s unfortunate that extremist groups have hijacked the use of the ‘Thin Blue Line Flag’ to symbolize their undemocratic, racist, and bigoted views. Flags serve as powerful symbols with specific meanings,” he wrote, adding that officers would still be allowed to display the flag in their personal work spaces, lockers and personal vehicles

My correspondent’s knowledge of the contested meaning of the flag led him to do some further digging; after attending a downtown meeting, he visited the Statehouse in an effort to determine just whose office was responsible for the display. He learned that–as you have probably guessed from the title of this post– the office was that of Indiana’s Attorney General, Todd Rokita.

That would be the same Todd Rokita who has consistently pandered to the GOP’s extreme Right, the Todd Rokita who has enthusiastically repeated his endorsement of indicted former President Trump, and thrown the weight of his office behind anti-abortion extremists– the same Todd Rokita who has now been charged by an Indiana judicial watchdog with violating professional conduct rules while conducting his unhinged vendetta against the Indiana University doctor who performed an abortion on a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio.

The complaint against Rokita was filed by the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission–not by a partisan political body. (Rokita is currently paying the  outside lawyers defending him against those charges with our tax dollars.)

Is it possible that Rokita was unaware that the “blue lives matter” flag had been hijacked by White Supremacists? Sure. (Rokita isn’t known for doing meticulous research.) But even giving him the benefit of that doubt, display of the flag is problematic. It originated in response to the multiple demonstrations organized by Black Lives Matter following the murder of George Floyd, and even at the beginning was widely seen as a criticism of Black activism and support for “active” policing tactics.

Purposeful display of that flag thus sends a message to Black Hoosiers about the loyalties of their state’s Attorney General, who is supposed to serve the interests of all of the citizens of Indiana without favoritism or bias.

The office is supposed to represent the state in cases involving the state’s interest, provide legal defense to state officials or agencies in court, and provide formal advisory opinions on constitutional or legal questions to state officials. 

Rokita has used it to wage culture war.

He regularly joins with other Republican AGs in national, highly partisan cases that do not involve Indiana, and he is currently fighting to keep an ethics opinion involving his own “side” employment secret. His persistent, unwarranted attacks against the doctor who aborted a ten-year-old who’d been viciously raped–a doctor who’d followed all applicable laws–is beyond disgusting.

Given what we know of Rokita and his ambitions, I’d be willing to bet that he knew about the White Nationalist associations of that flag, but even if he didn’t, its display is a highly inappropriate signal of where his partialities lie.

I don’t know who the Democrats will run against him, but that person already has my vote–and deserves yours. Rokita needs to go.


Leadership Versus Pandering

Let me begin with a disclosure: Michael Leppert–whose recent blog post I will be echoing/quoting–is a personal friend. I have friends with whom I disagree from time to time, but thus far, I’ve found myself in agreement with Mike about pretty much everything–at least, everything political. (The joys of golf, not so much…)

If you don’t subscribe to his blog, you probably should.

Mike’s recent essay, reprinted in the Capital Chronicle, made a point pundits all too often fail to emphasize: the positions candidates take during their campaigns for public office tell us a lot about how they are likely to perform if they are successful.

I’ve made this poiint, albeit not as explicitly, by noting that candidates’ stances on reproductive liberty tell us a great deal about their willingness to use the power of government to impose their preferred beliefs on individuals who don’t share those beliefs. (Or, in the alternative, their willingness to impose the beliefs of the base to which they are pandering.) That’s why I take such positions into account even when the office for which the person is running is unlikely to have any say in the issue–it’s an important insight into the world-view of that candidate.

Of course, there are situations that do call for the exercise of state authority over private behavior. An obvious one is public health, and Leppert’s essay focuses on recent pronouncements by our odious U.S. Senator, Mike Braun, who is vacating that office because he now wants to be Indiana’s governor.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Mike Braun announced that he has co-authored the “Freedom to Breathe Act.” The federal legislation will ban the federal government’s ability to implement mask mandates for domestic air travel, public transit systems and schools.

Casey Smith reported for he Indiana Capital Chronicle last week on the bill Braun authored with three other Senate Republican colleagues. He first said in his Wednesday statement, “We’re not going to go back to the top-down government overreach we saw during COVID.”

Now, here’s the difference between Mike Leppert and Sheila Kennedy. When I read something as asinine as this, I just want to beat my head against the nearest wall and scream about logic and respect for science. Mike, to his credit, unpacks it:

This gubernatorial candidate has some kind of issue with “top-down” leadership? Even when he adds “overreach” to his canned statement, he is signaling how he would have led in 2020, or more aptly, how he would have chosen not to lead. Senator, in a crisis, “top-down” leadership is the name of the game. It’s the job for which you are running. And it is unlike filing dead-on-arrival legislation with three other members of congress looking only to “own the libs.”

After explaining what the purposefully mischaracterized studies actually say–that masks have demonstrably worked, but failure to comply with mask mandates caused thousands of unnecessary deaths–Mike writes that

There’s more to Braun’s statement. He added, “Congress needs to say forcefully that these ineffective, unscientific mask mandates are not coming back in any way, shape, or form.” Again, it’s not the masking, it’s the mandates that failed. Newsflash: Americans routinely resist governmental mandates. If there is a negative sociological companion to our culture’s independence, it often is our collective selfishness. Again, it’s not the masking, it’s our refusal to see how the selfless act of wearing one could help someone else.

But the pronouncement that Braun will not support mask mandates “coming back in any way, shape, or form,” telegraphs that if he faces a public health crisis as governor, he simply won’t lead through it.

It’s hard to disagree with the post’s conclusion:

The world learned plenty from COVID-19. The biggest lesson is to expect the unexpected. The next pandemic could be worse. It will likely be different. And Indiana has a contender for the office of governor who doesn’t want government to lead if or when it comes.

Indiana’s governor is already constitutionally weak by comparison to most states. We certainly don’t need a new one who wants to make it weaker.

Of course, let’s be honest. Braun doesn’t want to be a weaker governor–he wants to appeal to the ignorance and anti-science prejudices of the GOP base, in order to win the right to use the power of government selectively–to advance his own agenda.

That said, I have no idea what Braun’s agenda is, since we’ve seen nothing even approaching thoughtfulness or rational policy prescriptions from him during his single Senate term.

Apparently, like so many of today’s politicians, he just wants to be someone important, rather than wanting to do something constructive or useful.


Ex Post Facto Rokita

The Indiana Citizen is among a variety of sources trying to fill the void left by Indianapolis’ “ghost newspaper,” the Indianapolis Star. Unlike several other such efforts, the Citizen doesn’t purport to be a digital newspaper-it’s a nonpartisan, non-profit platform “dedicated to increasing the number of informed, engaged Hoosier citizens.” Its creator, Bill Moreau, was focused on increasing informed voter turnout.

Of course, any effort to educate/motivate Hoosier voters requires coverage of the public servants (talk about a quaint phrase!) who are likely to be asking for those votes, and the Citizen is accordingly a valuable and non-biased source of such information. (If you live in Indiana and don’t already visit the site, you should.)

All this is by way of highlighting a recent report by the Citizen on our sleazy Attorney General, Todd Rokita, about whom I have previously posted numerous times. (If you type “Rokita” in the search bar, a number of posts will emerge–too many to link to.)

The Indianapolis woman trying to see the ethics opinion about Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita’s previous moonlighting gig claims a last-minute legislative maneuver “engineered by Rokita and his confederates” intrudes on judicial authority in violation of the Indiana Constitution.

Barbara Tully made her arguments in a response to the attorney general’s attempt to keep private an informal advisory opinion from the Indiana Inspector General. Rokita requested the opinion shortly after he became attorney general, apparently to see if he could ethically perform his duties for the state while continuing to hold his job in the private sector with Apex Benefits.

His office claimed the inspector general found no ethical conflicts but refused to release the advisory opinion. After the Marion County Superior Court ordered in January that a copy of the opinion be given to Tully, Rokita was able to amend the inspector general statute making such opinions confidential, including those issued before the amended statute took effect.

He has since turned to the Court of Appeals of Indiana, filing Theodore Edward Rokita v. Barbara Tully, 323A-PL-705, and argued, in part, that Tully’s lawsuit is now moot under the new law. Tully counters Rokita is usurping the separation of powers clause in Article 3, Section 1 of the Indiana Constitution.

“This type of gamesmanship by a member of the executive branch to involve the legislative branch in judicial branch affairs violates the constitutionally-mandated separation of powers,” Tully asserts in her brief filed Wednesday. “This Court should decide this appeal based on the facts and law as they existed when the trial court entered its final judgment in favor of Tully.”

There is no suggestion that Tully is raising the issue of “ex post facto” laws; the posture of the case probably precludes that argument. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking that Rokita’s efforts to hide that ethics document are inappropriate for much the same reason that the Founders made “ex post facto” laws unconstitutional.

If I can simply disadvantage a litigation opponent by using the power of my office to change the rules mid-stream, I make a mockery of the rule of law. As Tully argues in her brief,

This type of manipulation of the legislative process at the very least should diminish the normal presumption of constitutionality,” Tully asserts. “The apparent purpose of this amendment was to invalidate Tully’s judgment under (the Access to Public Records Act) without bothering to comply with normal legislative formalities and should warrant heightened judicial scrutiny ….

The article in the Citizen explains several of the legal arguments raised in the suit, but for non-lawyers, Rokita’s frenzied effort to keep the ethics opinion secret raises a more obvious question: what’s he so desperate to hide?

Back in 2021, I posted about the discovery that Rokita was still employed by the health benefits firm he’d worked for prior to assuming office, notwithstanding the fact that  being an AG is a 24-hour-a-day job–and the fact that as AG, he had investigative jurisdiction over his “other” employer…

Aside from that obvious conflict of interest, there was another small problem: Rokita’s dual employment violated even Indiana’s weak ethics law. (You’d think a lawyer–especially the state’s lawyer–might have noticed that.)

Indiana’s Ghost Employment Rule —found at 42 IAC 1-5-13–is summarized by the office of the Inspector General as follows: “Don’t work on anything outside your official job duties.”

So what could have been in that Ethics opinion Rokita has consistently and adamantly refused to make public?

Interestingly, after telling reporters that he’d obtained a letter from the then-Inspector General opining that his conduct somehow didn’t violate Indiana’s ethics law, Rokita hired that same Inspector General into a senior (and presumably well-compensated) position with the Attorney General’s office.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Or read the Indiana Citizen.


Hamilton County And An Age-Old Story…

Back in 1995, when I was still at Indiana’s ACLU, I wrote a column about a “recurring fantasy” of mine, which I described as follows: a caveman discovers that he can produce drawings of the animals he hunts on the walls of his cave. Excited by the possibilities of his art, energized by the creative act, he produces a drawing–only to have it rubbed angrily off the cave wall by someone in his tribe who declares that the depiction of animal genitalia is indecent.

The first artist encounters the first censor, and a dynamic is born that is with us still!

Here in Indiana, there has been a takeover of the Hamilton County library board by some current descendants of my imagined angry tribesman. (Hamilton County is one of the “doughnut counties” surrounding Indianapolis, which occupies all of Marion County.)The new board immediately moved to “protect” children by requiring the library staff to review all of the books available to teenagers in the Young Adult section (at an estimated cost to the taxpayers of $300,000 ). Reports are that, out of the 1,859 physical books examined thus far, 1,385 have been moved from the Young Adult section to the Adult or General section.

One of the book moved was John Green’s best-selling “The Fault in Our Stars,” and Green sent–and publicized– an appropriately outraged message to the Board, triggering a national outcry, and a local petition to “Stop Censorship at Hamilton East Public Library.” (When I last looked, that petition had garnered some 3500 signatures.) As I write this, the turmoil has resulted in the (welcome) replacement of the library board’s president, a strong supporter of “protecting” children from reading  about things they can easily access on the internet and elsewhere.

The insistence that this exercise has been in furtherance of “parental rights” is equally ridiculous; a genuine concern for parental rights would respect the rights of all parents to determine what materials their children can access–not the right of some parents to determine what everyone else’s children can read.

No one said these people are smart. Just rabid.

I confess that I have never been able to understand the frantic need of so many of our fellow-citizens to control the habits and behaviors of the rest of us–habits and behaviors that do not affect them.

Nat Hentoff once wrote that the human animal’s urge to censor is stronger than its sex drive. In my days with the ACLU, I dealt regularly with folks who were absolutely convinced that they knew better than you and me what books we should read, what art we should see, and what musical lyrics the government should allow us to hear.

For those of us who believe that ideas matter, that literature and art are intensely important activities through which humans explore ideas, censorship poses a threat to our most important values. The government that can determine which ideas are worthy of consideration– and/or the age at which we should be allowed to consider them– is a government with power over the most important of all human functions–the power of the intellect.

In my long-ago fantasy, the caveman and his critic take their respective arguments to the leader of the cave clan. The censor insists that he and his friends find the drawing indecent, and argues that allowing smut in the cave will debauch the children and undermine the clan’s community standards. Another member argues the case for the artist: a society unwilling to consider all ideas will never leave the caves, will never reach the stars. A society willing to be ruled by the fears of the many will be deprived of the genius of the few.

In my dream, the leader considers the arguments and rules in favor of freedom of artistic expression. Civil liberties are born.

That, of course, was my fantasy. It remains to be seen whether civil liberties–not to mention common sense– will prevail in Hamilton County….Or, for that matter,  elsewhere in Indiana.