Tag Archives: censorship

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.

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.


A Primal Scream

Notice: I was interviewed for a podcast (“What the Gerrymander”) that will drop at midnight tonight. You can find it here, if interested: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/what-the-gerrymander/id1668429440


Wanda Sykes has the ability to be both funny and a dead-on critic of social insanity. A recent quip making the rounds on social media will illustrate: “Until a drag queen walks into a school and beats eight kids to death with a copy of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ I think you’re focusing on the wrong shit.”

The quote perfectly encapsulates what frustrates and angers the vast majority of Americans– people posturing as “pro life” and insisting that their censorship and homophobia are intended to “protect children,” while adamantly opposing rational gun regulation.

The priorities of the Right don’t just seem incompatible to most of us, they increasingly seem incomprehensible. But a book I recently read, suggested by a commenter to this blog, gave me a better understanding of the context of today’s culture wars and those who fight them. It was Stephen Prothero’s Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).

Prothero filled in some details of U.S. history that I’d previously missed. For example, I knew that Thomas Jefferson was criticized for his departures from orthodox Christianity, but I had not previously understood how incredibly widespread and vicious that criticism was. As a member of a marginalized minority, I was aware that American Catholics had also been subjected to significant discrimination–but I had no idea of the extent and duration of America’s anti-Catholicism. A colleague who studied Mormon history had clued me in about anti-Mormonism, but–again–I had been unaware of the extent of the cultural animus focused on Mormons.

These and other revelations really did provide a context–and predicted outcome– for our current cultural battles.

As Prothero points out, it is almost fore-ordained that the “liberal” side (the forces militating for inclusion and acceptance–i.e., the “woke” side) will win such conflicts. That’s because these “wars” only begin when the people waging them realize they are already close to losing–that the social environment is already significantly changed from the certainties with which they are comfortable, and within which they are privileged.

For some number of Americans, that loss is terrifying and unsupportable.

In analyzing partisan jockeying for the upcoming election, Jennifer Rubin identified  positions being taken by the GOP–on abortion, guns, and LGBTQ+– issues that clearly repel a majority of Americans, and explained that “Voters enthralled with turning politics into primal scream therapy don’t much care about a viable agenda or electability.”


Together, Rubin and Prothero explained what I previously found incomprehensible. For those of us who expect rational behavior by partisans engaged in an electoral contest, the recent trajectory of the Republican party has been mystifying. After all, it isn’t that Republican strategists don’t know that abortion bans, for instance, are costing them elections; as a recent Roll Call article reported.

The generic ballot has shifted toward Democrats, with Republicans losing ground among independents on the abortion issue, according to a new polling memo from a GOP firm that fell into Democratic hands.

“There has been a 6 point swing in the last year on the Generic Senate ballot from R+3 to D+3. This movement is [led] overwhelmingly by Independent and NEW voters that identify abortion as one of their top issues,” according to a “National Issue Study” by co/efficient, which was in the news recently as one of the pollsters for Kentucky Republican gubernatorial nominee Daniel Cameron.

The poll, conducted April 20-24, had similar findings on the House side. “There has been a 10 point swing in the last year on the Generic House Ballot from R+6 to D+4. This movement is [led] overwhelmingly by Independent and NEW voters that identify abortion as one of their top issues,” it said on slide seven. “Reproductive Freedom is the #1 issue among those that DID NOT vote in 2020.”

Other polling has confirmed the negative response of voters to efforts to demonize drag queens, attack trans youth, censor books and turn librarians into felons. These are not rational policy positions for a political party aiming to win elections. Given sufficiently large turnout by opposition voters, not even extreme gerrymandering and the Electoral College can save GOP control.

Prothero’s book, Sykes’ quip, and Rubin’s observation all point to the same conclusion. As Prothero put it, America’s intermittent culture wars only begin when the warriors realize they are on the cusp of losing.

What we are experiencing right now is their “primal scream.”

“Woke” folks will win the culture. The danger, however, is the considerable harm that will be done in the meantime in places like Indiana where Republicans pandering to the screamers remain in power.

Absent massive turnout by Democrats, independents and new voters, rational Americans can still lose the vote.


Changing The World–For Better Or Worse

Most readers of this blog are probably familiar with that famous quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” If you are inclined to doubt that observation–inclined to dismiss as ineffective the efforts of small numbers of activists–I’ve got news for you. 

Very small groups of people can have a very large impact, for good or not-so-good. Case in point: those proliferating book bans.

The Washington Post recently did a “deep dive” into the growing number of parental challenges to books in the nation’s classrooms and school libraries, and they found something counter-intuitive and very interesting. It turns out that a large percentage of the complaints come from “a minuscule number of hyperactive adults.”

And when the Post says “small,” it means small.The majority of the 1,000-plus book challenges analyzed by The Post were filed by just 11 people.

The Post requested copies of all book challenges filed in the 2021-2022 school year with the 153 school districts that Tasslyn Magnusson, a researcher employed by free expression advocacy group PEN America, tracked as receiving formal requests to remove books last school year. In total, officials in more than 100 of those school systems, which are spread across 37 states, provided 1,065 complaints totaling 2,506 pages.

Other findings from the Post’s investigation are unsurprising–the great majority of challenges focused on books with LGBTQ content, followed by those dealing with race.

The Post analyzed the complaints to determine who was challenging the books, what kinds of books drew objections and why. Nearly half of filings — 43 percent — targeted titles with LGBTQ characters or themes, while 36 percent targeted titles featuring characters of color or dealing with issues of race and racism. The top reason people challenged books was “sexual” content; 61 percent of challenges referenced this concern.

The people filing these objections evidently consider the identification of gender to be “sexual.” And I suppose any mention of race is “woke” and evidence of the incursion of that dreaded Critical Race Theory (which none of its critics can define).

In nearly 20 percent of the challenges, petitioners wrote that they wanted texts pulled from shelves because the titles depict lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual, homosexual, transgender or nonbinary lives. Many challengers wrote that reading books about LGBTQ people could cause children to alter their sexuality or gender.
“The theme or purpose of this book is to confuse our children and get them to question whether they are a boy or a girl,” a North Carolina challenger wrote of “Call Me Max,” which centers on a transgender boy.

The objections are to “sexual” content, but the Post reports that in “37 percent of objections against LGBTQ titles, challengers wrote they believed the books should not remain in libraries specifically because they feature LGBTQ lives or stories.”

The article is lengthy and very informative, but I continue to be fixated on that finding that, essentially, eleven people have managed to terrify teachers and librarians, exclude books (many of which have been read by students for decades without appreciably increasing the population of gays and lesbians or triggering psychotic episodes of racial regret…), and producing an enormous national culture war debate centering on censorship.

This is our political problem in a nutshell. The MAGA Republicans who are making government difficult or impossible represent distinct minorities of Americans. A significant number of the gerrymandered Congressional districts that send whack-a-doodles to Washington wouldn’t be safe for the GOP if most of the Democrats in that district came out to vote. 

We bemoan the disproportionate influence of Fox “News” and its clones, but the  audience for Rightwing media is a small proportion of the overall number of American viewers. 

I keep insisting that if enough Democrats and sane Independents get sufficiently active, we can lance the MAGA boil–and I am increasingly convinced that “enough” just requires a relatively small activist base that focuses on a much bigger number: voter turnout.

Or look at it from another angle: If every Democrat and disaffected Republican could identify and register just one previously apathetic non-voter, and could get that non-voter to the polls, reasonable people could retake America, and we could return to the days of (relatively) boring arguments about policy.

Margaret Mead was right: the actions of small groups of thoughtful, committed Americans can send the MAGA warriors to wherever it was that former Americans sent the Whigs.




They’re Coming For Those Subversive Librarians…

I regularly read Juanita Jean, The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Shop, to keep up with the governmental insanities we’ve come to expect in the Lone Star State and elsewhere. A recent post reported that a Texas county has joined the battle against those dangerous librarians who are threating…something or other.

Poor Llano County. Some federal judge has just ordered the county to return twelve (yes, count ’em, 12) children’s books to their public library shelves. It seems that the books offended the sensibilities of some adults who object to the racial and LGBT+ issues that are raised in them.

So rather than complying with the judge’s order, Llano County Commissioners are considering an old and accepted recourse: the equivalent of filling in the swimming pool.

Rather than bend to the Feds, the Llano County Commission is studying on nose-thumbing (and nose-cutting/face-spiteing) by closing all of their county libraries.

It’s a really great solution, see. No one can blame them for depriving their children of learning about racism and gender issues if no one in the county can learn about anything at all.

The Commisioners later backed down in the face of ferocious public pushback.

Texas isn’t alone. Republicans all over the country are moving against these purveyors of books with language or ideas that the GOP finds unacceptable. In Missouri, House Republicans recently voted to defund all of the state’s public libraries.  The Republican chair of the budget committee was quoted as saying  that cutting the aid was retaliation for an ACLU lawsuit to overturn a new state law banning sexually explicit material in school libraries.

Apparently,  books and libraries are  “woke.”

Librarians are reeling from the onslaught.In one instance reported by the Guardian, library personnel who had planned to launch a bookmobile in a bus that would visit various sites across town, including three schools, abandoned that plan when a law criminalizing anybody “who makes visually explicit materials available at a school” went into effect. They decided to keep the bookmobile away from schools, noting that violators of the new, nebulously worded law would face up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. As one of the librarians explained, “We are unsure on what someone can interpret as sexually explicit.”

The quotation reminded me of a passage in Nadine Strossin’s 1996 book, Defending Pornography. Since “porn” is in the eye of the beholder,  Strossin wrote “If it turns you on, it’s pornography. If it turns me on, it’s erotica.”

Throwing around and misusing vague labels, of course, is what those who have appropriated and misused the label “conservatives” love to do.

Conservative parent groups that formed to oppose masks during the pandemic, only to pivot to the fight against “critical race theory”, have now begun to focus on scrutinizing books, often by and about queer and Black people, and lobbying for their removal from library shelves. Politicians have hopped on the bandwagon, drafting legislation to supposedly protect children against indoctrination and predation, calling out books by name and making it impossible for the people who run schools and libraries to do their jobs. Fringe activists and government officials are taking to social media, holding meet ups, and riling up their bases with reports of indoctrination, propaganda and the supposedly pornographic materials that lurk on the bookshelves of public institutions.

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.

Conservative parent groups such as Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education and Parents Defending Education aren’t the only ones invested in the fight against books by Black and LGBTQ+ authors. Rightwing extremist groups have also adopted the cause. 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. Among others, recent lists include Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

The list as a whole is revealing: challenges are overwhelmingly aimed at books by or about LGBTQ+ people, and books critical of racism. According to Google, 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.

Twentieth -century political philosopher Alexander Mieklejohn said it best: People afraid of an idea–any idea–are unfit for self-government.