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.


Fewer Teachers, Fewer People Running For School Board..

Can you stand one more lament about the Right-wing assaults harming public education?

In a recent column for the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin reported on an alarming academic study. Researchers found

that the “virulent stream of hyperpartisan political conflict” has had “a chilling effect on high school education.” Teachers are seeking to avoid controversy by “pulling back on teaching lessons in civics, politics, and the history and experiences of America’s minority communities;” incidents of verbal harassment of LGBTQ students are on the rise; and many teachers and administrator are planning to leave their jobs.

The authors of the report surveyed 682 public high school principals, who confirmed that organized campaigns have attempted to intimidate public schools and force changes to align with right-wing ideology. The researchers write, “Our survey data make clear that political conflict over a set of hot button issues occurred at more than two-thirds (69%) of public schools across the nation during the 2021-2022 school year.” Moreover, “Half of all principals report that parents or other community members sought to limit or challenge teaching and learning about issues of race and racism. Nearly half report challenges to school policies and practices related to LGBTQ student rights.” And a third of principals said “parents or community members raised challenges to school library books they deemed inappropriate.”

Researchers have found that “a relatively small group of hostile parents and community members are leading the charge,” despite the preferences of a clear majority of parents  who want kids to have an accurate education.( One recent national survey found that over 95% of Americans want high school students to learn about slavery, and 85% want them to learn about racial inequality.)

Perhaps the most troubling finding was the effect of this assault on students’ ability to identify misinformation. Apparently, students in classrooms with educators intimidated by these tactics show a diminished capacity to distinguish between credible and falsified information. At a time when misinformation, disinformation and propaganda are a huge problem, an ability to evaluate the likely accuracy of information is incredibly important, and the best way to help students make those judgements is by arming them with verifiable facts.

Interestingly, these assaults have been most numerous in so-called “purple” communities–areas that were previously reliably Republican but are changing– becoming more Democratic in the wake of Trump and the demise of Roe.

Many principals noted the “mass hysteria” over critical race theory, fueled by disinformation about schools’ curricula. This has impacted schools in purple communities the most, with almost a quarter of principals in such areas reporting that their school board or district leaders limited teaching on race or racism. Only 17 percent of schools in red communities, by comparison, and 8 percent of blue communities did the same.

Purple communities were also more likely to experience MAGA partisans’ attempts to ostracize or stigmatize LGBTQ individuals, Thirty-two percent of principals in purple districts report incidents of “hostile or demeaning remarks toward LGBTQ classmates,” compared with 22 percent in red or blue communities. Across all schools, the percentage of principals reporting multiple attacks on LGBTQ students increased from 15 percent in 2018 to 24 percent this year.

These political assaults aren’t limited to attacks on teachers and principals. Culture warriors trying to protect their political turf are making life miserable for school board members, too.

Here in Indiana, Hamilton County–adjacent to Marion County/indianapolis– is one of those areas that has been turning purple, and Moms for Liberty, a  national crackpot organization, ran “anti-woke” slates in several Hamilton County school districts .

As Chalkbeat reports,

The winning candidates in Hamilton Southeastern, Tiffany Pascoe (District 1), Juanita Albright (District 2), Dawn Lang (District 3), and Ben Orr (District 4), were supported by the Hamilton County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a powerful and controversial conservative group that rose to prominence by opposing mask mandates, critical race theory and social emotional learning. The group aims to install like-minded people in school board seats across the country.

Amber Huff Willis (At Large), William Anderson (District 2) and Rebecca Ogle (District 4) won seats on the Westfield Washington school board; they were also supported by Moms for Liberty Hamilton County.

The Carmel Clay  school board governs one of the larger districts in Hamilton County, and the effort to take over that board was less successful. Incumbents supporting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts were re-elected; however, one candidate who claimed that “radical liberal teachers” were “indoctrinating” Carmel students won in a very close race.

Our daughter served on the Indianapolis school board for 20 years, and I watched her spend countless hours for very little pay working with colleagues, parents and teachers to improve local public schools.

Given today’s dishonest, ugly assaults, how many citizens will willingly run for school board? Teachers aren’t the only ones deciding it just isn’t worth it.