Who Decides?

The Bill of Rights–as I repeatedly note– addresses areas of citizens’ lives that the Founders marked “off limits” to government authority, answering the question “who decides this?” in favor of individual citizens.

That framing is one way to look at today’s vicious culture war.

Those of us who want to maintain the constitutional line between matters government is authorized to decide and matters remitted to our individual consciences are under attack by the autocrats and theocrats who want to use the power of the state to impose their favored choices on everyone else. Nowhere is that clearer than in the persistent efforts to control what books we can read and what information we can access.

A recent article from Axios focused on that battle.

Attempts to ban books at public libraries have reached record levels, pitting right-wing parents and legislators against those who oppose censorship.

Driving the news: The culture war over books has become a legislative battle as well.

  • Last year, more than 150 bills in 35 states aimed to restrict access to library materials, and to punish library workers who do not comply,” per the New York Times.
  • As a counterpunch, legislators in blue and purple states are coming to the aid of librarians to help them fight efforts to remove books with certain racial, sexual or gender-related themes.
  • Last June, Illinois became the first state to pass a law penalizing libraries that ban books.

What they’re saying: “We have broadened the framing to refer to ‘intellectual freedom challenges'” rather than just book bans, AnnaLee Dragon, executive director of the New York Library Association, tells Axios.

The hypocrisy is obvious. As one librarian reportedly told Axios, “It’s the same people who are out touting the freedom to own a gun. But you don’t think I have the right to pick a book for my kid?”

The American Library Association has mounted a campaign, Unite Against Book Bans, to encourage people to take action locally, and it’s also selling a workbook for librarians about “navigating intellectual freedom challenges together.”

Libraries have long been seen as cradles of democracy; in the words of former U.S. Senator Wendell Ford, “If information is the currency of democracy, then libraries are its banks.”

The current attacks are coming from what the article calls “a small but vocal minority” that opposes libraries precisely because they are democratic– inclusive, affirming, and intentional. That minority sees access to information as a threat.

The current onslaught has come at a time when libraries are serving an expanding variety of community needs. Librarians have gotten used to tackling whatever tasks society demands of them, and those demands continue to broaden. As Time Magazine recently reported, 

Libraries are among the most visited public service institutions, totaling more than 1 billion visits annually with users turning to libraries for critical educational services in addition to books. In recent years, as many as 118 million participants have taken part in nearly 6 million programs focused on early and family literacy, digital literacy instruction, after-school homework support and summer reading programs for youth, adult literacy and basic education, career readiness, small business development, arts and humanities programming, English for Speakers of Other Languages instruction, and special programs for adults navigating memory loss and reentry after incarceration.

The effort to restrict what information other citizens can access has accelerated.

Last year there were 1,269 attempts to censor library books, the highest number of attempted book bans in the two decades that ALA has been compiling data about censorship in libraries. During this same period, 2,571 unique book titles were targeted for censorship, an astonishing 32% increase over 2021, with 40% of book challenges occurring in public libraries, while the remaining nearly 60% occurred in school libraries. As these threats to the right to read continue, in all too many cases, parents are being roped into banning books they haven’t even heard of before, let alone read, by extremist groups using book banning as a political tactic. At a school board meeting in Pennsylvania this year at which book censorship was being recommended, one parent supporting the banning of a title proclaimed, “I have not read the book myself, I don’t intend to read the book, but I have had portions distributed to me of this book.”

If we have come to a time in this country when parents can be successfully swayed into restricting access to books they haven’t read, what does that mean for our future as a nation? What other personal and constitutional rights might next be compromised?

Some constitutional questions are open to interpretation. This one isn’t.

The First Amendment protects our right to decide for ourselves what we and our children read.


It’s About More Than Banning Books And Distorting History

Anyone who hasn’t been marooned on a desert island or hiding in a cave for the past few years (options that sound increasingly appealing, actually…) has been inundated with reports of the unrelenting attacks on public school boards, curriculum, gay and transgender students, and the teachers and administrators who dare to stand up for any of them.

We shouldn’t get distracted by the purported targets of these attacks. The specific charges are monumentally phony–the actual aim is to dismantle American public education.

It’s tempting to respond to the absolute idiocy, for example, of claims that the schools are teaching “Critical race theory”–to point out that those leveling that charge couldn’t define CRT if their lives depended on it, and that it is explored (not “taught”) by legal researchers.

It’s equally tempting to point out that the parents “testifying” at school board meetings (actually, threatening school board members) are overwhelmingly the same parents who fail to attend parent-teacher conferences or otherwise involve themselves in the details of their kids’ educations (and those are the parents who actually have children in the system.)

And the effort to ban books, or remove them from the curriculum or the school libraries is ludicrous at a time when virtually all young people carry with them a device that connects them to a vast and dangerous world their parents cannot control.

The real goal of these efforts is to undermine support for the nation’s public schools, in order to make it easier to privatize them. As an article from Common Dreams began

When champions of market-based reform in the United States look at public education, they see two separate activities—government funding education and government running schools. The first is okay with them; the second is not. Reformers want to replace their bête noire—what they call the “monopoly of government-run schools”—with freedom of choice in a competitive market dominated by privately run schools that get government subsidies.

Today, that privatization movement is alive and pushing ahead, with Republican legislators in 16 states actively pushing bills to create or expand school vouchers and/or charter schools that are part of that movement.

The author then interviewed a lobbyist who had worked for the privatization movement; it’s worth clicking through and reading what a former “insider” has to say.

A more recent column in the New York Times, written by a resident of Tennessee, explains why the effort to remove “Maus” from the curriculum is the “least of our worries.” She reviewed the persistent and ongoing efforts of conservatives “trying desperately to insulate their children from the modern world without quite understanding how the modern world works”–and she argued that the new bans–often aimed at books that had been used without incident for decades– are really “a response to contemporary political forces whose true motivation has nothing to do with books. What they really want is to destroy public education.”

She writes that she is willing to give many censorious parents the benefit of the doubt, in the sense that they are deeply conservative and believe they are “protecting” their children. But as she points out,

these parents are being manipulated by toxic and dangerous political forces operating at the state and national levels. Here in Tennessee, book bans are just a small but highly visible part of a much larger effort to privatize public schools and turn them into conservative propaganda centers. This crusade is playing out in ways that transcend local school board decisions, and in fact are designed to wrest control away from them altogether.

I don’t mean simply the law, passed last year, that limits how racism is taught in public schools across the state. I’m talking about an array of bills being debated in the Tennessee General Assembly right now. One would purge books considered “obscene or harmful to minors” from school libraries across the state. Another would ban teaching materials that “promote, normalize, support or address lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.” Yet another would prevent school districts from receiving state funding for undocumented students.

Most of all I’m talking about Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement, in his State of the State address last week, that he has approached Hillsdale College, a Christian institution in Michigan, to open 50 charter schools in Tennessee — Mr. Lee reportedly requested 100— that would follow a curriculum designed to make kids “informed patriots.” Not informed citizens; informed patriots, as conservative Christians define that polarizing term.

What the author calls–correctly–an “existential threat to public education”  is part and parcel of the GOP’s effort to destroy democracy.

As the late political scientist Benjamin Barber explained, public education is constitutive of a public; without it,  democracy is simply not feasible.

To today’s GOP, that’s a feature, not a bug.