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The zealots are out in force these days, feverishly banning pernicious texts like Sneezy the Snowman, Grandmama’s Pride, A Storm Called Katrina and Dim Sun For Everyone because they’re “putting children at risk” while they quietly sit through their live-shooter drills. Happily, some are calling out concerns “their kids’ minds may be opened by a book.” Among them is Grace Linn, 100, whose husband died long ago fighting her era’s brownshirts. “Fear is not freedom,” she says. “Fear is control.”
The nationwide rush to “protect the innocence of children” from the perils of thinking for themselves accelerated last week when the GOP-led House passed a so-called Parents Bill of Rights Act requiring public schools to provide parents with a list of books in school libraries, including those about icky subjects like racial equality, gender identity or sexy-time stuff. At the same time, GOP lawmakers declined to make children safer from lead-tainted water or AR-15 assault rifles – even though in the last 20 years over 344,000 students have experienced gun violence and last year alone saw a record 51 school shootings even as the GOP passed 20 laws in 13 states to weaken gun laws – because they rejected all the Democratic amendments aimed at doing so. The bill’s passage came a day after the American Library Association (ALA) released a report citing 2022’s record-breaking 2,571 book titles challenged or removed – up 38% from the year before, and the highest level of censorship since tracking began 20 years ago. Oddly, most of the targeted books are by or about Black, Brown, LGBTQ and other marginalized people, thus suggesting, argues Cori Bush, a political party “trying to write us out of the curriculum.”
In the dubious race to a Fahrenheit 451 dystopia, Texas leads in bans – 801 – but Florida, with 566 bans and 8 million fewer people, is the belly of the totalitarian beast thanks to Ron ‘Don’t-Say-Gay-Or-Slavery’ DeSantis. Under his draconian legislation, teachers/librarians mustremove or cover any books “harmful to minors” that are not “vetted” by a trained “media specialist,” under surreal threat of “30 days imprisonment” for “a felony of the third degree”; there’s a 21-point list of procedures they must follow to ensure compliance. Among 176 books removed from Duval County: Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog, The Garden of My Imaan, Cow on the Town: Practicing the Ow Sound, Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa, The Berenstein Bears and the Big Question, Grandfather Tang’s Story, Running the Road to ABC, My Name Is Sally Little Song, 14 Cows For America, Hush: A Thai Lullaby, Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey, Never Say A Mean Word Again, A Storm Called Katrina, Sally and The Magical Sneeze, Malala: A Hero for All, Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story, Pink! A teacher who posted a video of empty library shelves – which DeSantis has denied – was firedfor “misrepresentation of books available to students (and) the disruption this misrepresentation has caused,” or Fascism 101.
Likewise in Florida’s Manattee County, teachers had to remove The Life of Rosa Parks, Dragons Love Tacos, Sneezy the Snowman, Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, Who Is the Dalai Lama?, Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army, along with the perennially banned Gender Queer: A Memoir, Toni Morrison’sThe Bluest Eye and Beloved, and All Boys Aren’t Blue. Not coincidentally, restoring access to books is a long, slow, laborious process wherein each book in each classroom of 64 schools with 3,000 teachers must be cross-checked with a district-wide catalogue; the task of reviewing thousands of books falls to one “media specialist” in each school, notes one teacher, “and they are human.” Adding insult to free speech injury, the policy of “fear-based decisions that prioritize staying in good favor with the Governor over doing the right thing for our students” was enacted in January, just in time for “Literacy Week.” The resulting “travesty” of empty shelves – or those covered in construction paper and students’ signs pleading “Free the Books!” – have led some distraught teachers to speak up. “My heart is broken for Florida students today as I am forced to pack up my classroom library,” wrote one. “Farewell, classroom library. We’ll see you soon, I promise.”
Alarmingly but unsurprisingly, book bans are increasingly orchestrated by fundamentalist groups like Moms for Liberty with “a white Christian Nationalist spin,” notes George Takei, whose own graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy, about his childhood spent in World War ll-era Japanese American internment camps, was banned in 2021. Since then, those groups and their MAGA-decibel rants have soared. Today, they lean so far right even the principal of a conservative Christian school in Tallahassee just ran afoul of the righteous strictures when she brought a sixth-grade class studying Renaissance art to see Michaelangelo’s statue of David, complete with a penis deemed “pornographic” by some appalled parents – because time flies, a scenario preposterously predicted by The Simpsons 30 years ago. The principal resigned in disgrace, the Board passed a new parental notification rule, and the school board chair gushingly praised DeSantis’ “cutting edge” edicts: “We agree with everything (he’s) doing.” Still – hope springs eternal – not everyone in Florida does. Earlier this month, after the Martin County school district purged over 80 books, pissed parents packed a school board meeting after learning all the challenges came from one mom for “liberty,” who filed her complaints even though she “did not actually read any of the books in question.”
Julie Marshall, the aforementioned Mom for Holy Sanctity, stressed that while she did challenge all the unread books, she works with a yuge number of parents and even “consulted with African-Americans and people of the Jewish faith.” She celebrated having removed “the most obscene” books, including a Holocaust novel and 20 other books by author Jodi Picoult, who noted many don’t even contain a kiss. “If you guys want to continue making me out to be the sole parent in all of this…so be it,” retorted Marshall, who wore a t-shirt emblazoned with Wonder Woman, evidently unaware the character is a queer icon. “Persecute me for standing on morality, I really don’t care.” But many speakers objected to the “borderline absurd” challenges, arguing the offending authors “helped me through adolescence,” “helped me understand I have privileges my Black peers do not enjoy,” “educated me on social issues,” taught them “we must understand one another.” One wise high school student, reminding them “I am the reason you are here,” called it “ridiculous” for one outlier to wield such power. “If we don’t learn about history, the good, the bad, the ugly, we are bound to repeat it,” he argued. “I encourage you to parent your children, but you cannot parent other people’s children.”
Like August Landmesser, the sole German shipyard worker famously documented in 1936 refusing to salute the Führer, many others are stepping up to halt the madness reminiscent of that era. They range from a slew of grassroots groups – the national Red, Wine & Blue, Florida’s Freedom To Read Project, New-York-founded Defense of Democracy, the Run For Something advocacy group – to a parent protesting Utah’s new law banning “pornographic or indecent” material by seeking to ban “one of the most sex-ridden books around,” the Bible. “Incest, onanism, bestiality, prostitution, genital mutilation, fellatio, dildos, rape, and even infanticide,” he recited of a book that “should be a slam dunk” for the “white supremacist hate group” that wants to “protect the innocence of children.” “Get this PORN out of our schools!” Finally, there is Grace Linn, who came to Martin County’s meeting bearing a quilt she made of censored titles: Maus, Fahrenheit 451, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Color Purple. “My husband Robert Nichol was killed in action in World War II, at a very young age, only 26, defending our democracy, Constitution, and freedoms,” she said, adding that “one of the freedoms the Nazis crushed was the freedom to read.” They acted out of “fear of knowledge,” she noted, but “fear is not liberty.” “My husband died as a father of freedom. I am a mother of liberty,” she declared. “Banned books need to be proudly displayed and protected from school boards like this.”
First published in Common Dreams. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Abby Zimet has written CD’s Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women’s, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues.
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Not least for baseball fans, Duval Country also banned Roberto Clemente, Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates — (which seems to have had the unintended effect of causing a sellout for Pittsburgh author Jonah Winter).
My husband lived under the Nazi occupation of Norway. And for the rest of his life he could not speak about it without tears. I’m grateful that he did not live to see this.
Yes, I feel we as a nation have betrayed what our forebears fought for, died for.
excellent, encompassing overview of one of the scariest developments in this country. Only someone of my generation, who remembers the Nazi book-burning and cancel-culture of jewish artists, can fully appreciate the danger of what’s going on here and now
I agree. How strange that our forefathers and mothers stamped out the Nazis, only to find them springing up again.
Hopefully we have not already dumbed-down the citizenry to the point that empty bookshelves are becoming the norm and kids with crap-detectors are considered dangerous.
I agree, Jane. The fact that a third of the voters believe Trump’s lies does not bode well for the future of America.