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The Truth About the Book "Ban" Controversies
Not all books should be kept in school libraries and curricula.
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Last week, Barack Obama released a rare public letter denouncing the “profoundly misguided” attempts to ban books in libraries across the country.
“Today, some of the books that shaped my life — and the lives of so many others — are being challenged by people who disagree with certain ideas or perspectives. It’s no coincidence that these ‘banned books’ are often written by or feature people of color, indigenous people, and members of the LGBTQ+ community,” the former president wrote.
The thing is, though, when you dig into the controversies that inspired Obama’s missive, you find that it’s not so much “ideas” and “perspectives” that are being suppressed in America as that age-inappropriate material is being removed from schools and the children’s section of public libraries.
In recent years, thanks in large part to grassroots resistance to school districts teaching through the lens of critical race theory, parental scrutiny of curricular materials has increased, as has opposition to progressive pedagogy. The latest lightning rod in the education wars is the Left’s perverse desire to push gender ideology and sexual content. Opposition was supercharged after remote learning during the pandemic gave parents a firsthand look at their kids’ learning materials.
And believe me, this isn’t an overreaction by solicitous, overbearing parents, or what one journalist described as “neo-puritan furies . . . stirred up in an age of intense reaction against LGBTQ gains.”1
The book that’s most commonly described as “banned” — by which disingenuous critics don’t actually mean banned, but simply moved to a different section within, or removed completely, from libraries — is Gender Queer by cartoonist Maia Kobabe, a biological woman who identifies as “nonbinary and asexual” and uses the gender-neutral “Spivak” pronouns “e/eim/eir.” Kobabe told NBC News: “It’s very hard to hear people say ‘This book is not appropriate to young people’ . . . There are people for whom this is vital and for whom this could maybe even be lifesaving.”
The graphic novel, which was one of the recipients of the 2020 American Library Association’s Alex Awards,2 now sits on the shelves of school libraries across the country, creating what might be conservatively termed a climate of concern amongst parents who haven’t been destabilized by gross quantities of MSNBC. At issue are passages of texts and illustrations that can only be described as pornographic. Those passages include scenes of two men having sex, multiple explicit illustrations of minors performing oral sex on one another, and even one drawing depicting a full-grown man masturbating a young boy.3
Others on the “banned” list are Let’s Talk About It, which features graphic illustrations of minors masturbating; Flamer, a book about young boys engaging in sexual acts at a summer camp; and This Book Is Gay, a book that demonstrates “the ins and outs of gay sex” and includes a handy glossary to teach kids about kinks and fetishes like peeing on someone, eating poop, glory holes, and orgies.4 Totally normal stuff for little Suzy to be learning about.
So explicit are some of these books that in March, when Governor Ron DeSantis held up the relevant pages for the cameras, every news station in attendance was forced to cut its broadcasts in a panic because federal law would sanction them for airing obscene content. Nikki Fried, the chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, shared a tweet from DeSantis of the banned materials and wrote, “Ron posting butt plug porn to own the libs,” in effect proving his point.
There’s a reason that progressive ideologues in the public-school bureaucracy regularly defend such books by dressing up their arguments in the language of social justice and relying on euphemisms about LGBT inclusion, “sex positivity,” and combatting “stigma”: On their own terms, these texts shock. Indeed, in the context of school libraries, it is exceedingly difficult to defend the content of these books on the merits. Even your most basic thinking man can see that they’re wildly inappropriate for kids.
And the line of reasoning progressive school authorities often fall back to — that “we need these books for gay kids” — is, as one parent pointed out, really humiliating and dehumanizing: “Because as far as I can see, it’s only gay pornography in libraries — I don’t see heterosexual pornography being shown to kids. Why do gay kids have to be dehumanized in pornographic images?”
The mainstream media bleats non-stop about how efforts to “ban” books are yet another harbinger of the right-wing authoritarian threat to American democracy, but when those efforts come from the Left we get radio silence.
Recall when hundreds of Penguin Random House staffers and other literary professionals demanded that the publishing company cut ties with Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and cancel her upcoming book. They called for “a better balance of freedom of speech and duty of care,” as The Wrap put it, and took particular issue with Barrett’s vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. In an open letter titled “WE DISSENT,” the dissenters led off with, “As members of the writing, publishing, and broader literary community of the United States, we care deeply about freedom of speech.” They then proceeded to detail why that deep belief in freedom of speech was really only limited to “freedom of speech for people who say things we like.” Amazingly, the letter concludes with, “We the undersigned have made the decision to stand by our duty of care while upholding freedom of speech.”
When a school board in Washington State removed To Kill a Mockingbird from its required curriculum for the ninth grade, nobody — not CNN, not The View, not USA Today or the Washington Post or the New York Times — referred to this as a “ban.” And that’s because it was driven by left-wing concerns about the book’s use of the N-word and its being “written by a white author who lacks the cultural lens to accurately present the lived experience of racism by the marginalized.”
It wasn’t until nearly a week later that the Times even acknowledged the Washington school-board action, and it was only a cursory mention, without using the word “ban,” in the 21st paragraph of a piece that mostly denounced right-wing book “bans.” The Post, meanwhile, only mentioned the To Kill a Mockingbird decision in a passing reference in the tenth paragraph of a column accusing right-wingers of being “snowflakes” for “banning” books. (To Kill a Mockingbird had merely been “removed.”)
And nobody batted an eye when an English professor at UC–Berkeley urged her Twitter followers to “steal Abigail Shrier’s book” (Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, which provoked outrage for its criticisms of transgender ideology) and “burn it on a pyre”; or when an attorney for the ACLU (!) said that “stopping the circulation of [Shrier’s] book and [her] ideas is 100% a hill I will die on”; or when the book When Harry Became Sally (critical of transgenderism) was delisted from Amazon;5 or when Target stopped stocking books skeptical of prevailing LGBTQ orthodoxy.
The reality is that countering the left-wing radicalization of K-12 by removing sexually explicit books from school libraries and curricula does not constitute a “ban” of any sort.
Around 90% of kids attend public schools. The cultural conditioning that takes place in these districts, which are overwhelmingly progressive in their policies, and which are overwhelmingly staffed by liberal teachers, is relentless. Unless their parents are wealthy or make great sacrifices, kids are held captive. Progressive orthodoxy is shoved down their throats. The frequency of news stories focused on book controversies attests to the fact that this public-education system is increasingly at odds with its constituents, pitting parents against school boards, teachers’ unions, and a hostile mainstream media that goes out of its way to frame curricular objections as evidence of deep-seated bigotry.
Because public schools are public, they must remain responsive to the school boards and parents who run them. But progressive ideologues in the public-school bureaucracy are positively aghast that parents, tired of seeing the Left dismantle traditional values and racialize and sexualize society, are lobbying for school boards to remove inappropriate books and putting teachers on notice about overly politicized instruction. These ideologues are even encouraging teachers’ unions to block the release of public records regarding gender and racial ideology in the school system.
As early as Plato’s Republic, we see Socrates and his interlocutors discussing which stories should be included in the education of children. Socrates warned that young people are malleable and absorb much of what they’re exposed to. “A young thing can’t judge what is hidden sense and what is not; but what he takes into his opinions at that age has a tendency to become hard to eradicate and unchangeable.” As middle-school English teacher Daniel Buck points out, “A school that teaches Shakespeare and Homer will foster a very different education than one that places Diary of a Wimpy Kid or smut on its curriculum. In both cases, children will learn lessons and develop values, but they may not be the lessons and values we want to instill.”
That’s why the content you expose kids to is no flippant matter. Socrates understood well the influence that literature has on impressionable minds. Beyond the individual level, the books that a school includes in its library and curriculum can either strengthen or weaken the fabric of the nation. When nearly every citizen is at least familiar with the Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, for example, it contributes to collective civic agreement on certain values and gives birth to sound moral and political intuitions among the public.
If gender ideology and other woke bullshit is pushed and prioritized at the expense of more fruitful areas of thought, like universal truths and virtues, it does students a great disservice and, over time, degrades America’s moral fabric. There’s a massive difference between a little kid picking up Gender Queer or Harry Potter. Luckily, because communities fund schools, it’s up to them to designate moral standards by selecting which books to make available to adolescents. The Left is just upset by the idea that the public square necessitates public morals.
This isn’t a First Amendment issue. The aforementioned pornographic and smutty books are all available for purchase. The debate is simply which books will make it into school libraries and curricula, and who gets to make that decision, parents or administrators. There’s no tenet of free expression that requires state schools to push sexually explicit content, or books that feature transgender characters or problematize whiteness. Excluding such books doesn’t constitute “censorship” or a “ban,” it’s called prudence and curation.
Neo-puritan. If anyone can be accurately described as the new puritans it’s progressives. Entire books have been written arguing as much.
The newest president of the American Library Association is Emily Drabinski, a self-described “Marxist-lesbian” who has proposed using “queer theory” to guide the way books are cataloged in libraries.
According to UNICEF, “Exposure to pornography at a young age may lead to poor mental health, sexism and objectification, sexual violence, and other negative outcomes.”
Other books that have been met with ire by parents include When Aidan Became A Brother, which explores a young girl’s decision to transition to a boy — a decision that the author says “fixed” all her problems — and Lawn Boy, which features highly graphic descriptions of sex among and between fourth-grade boys. In a Washington Post article about parental objections to Lawn Boy, the author was quoted admitting that his work was profane and expressing surprise it had made its way into public-school libraries.
And yet Amazon sells Mein Kampf and Marx’s Communist Manifesto, as well as The Turner Diaries, the white-supremacist manifesto that inspired Timothy McVeigh to carry out the Oklahoma City bombing, and The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, one of the most infamous anti-Semitic books.