The race to the unschooled, fearful, fascist bottom lurches on in the right’s war on learning, with bigots fighting to keep out of innocent hands pernicious books like The Hobbit, Madame Bovary, Arthur’s Birthday (don’t ask) and, now, the story of two guys who raised a lion in London and returned him to the wild—a lovely bonding-of-animals-and-humans story that cranks have banned because the men sit with the lion on their paisley couch so they must be (gasp) gay. You must be (holy fuck) kidding.
The awful “new chapter to an old book” that is morality gatekeepers’ terror of anything about the human condition they might not have known—or even (horrors) disagree with—has moved from Holden Caulfield’s profanity or John Steinbeck’s “class hatred” to today’s boogeymen—race, sex, gender, panic over an imaginary “Marxism.” Some things haven’t changed: Carnality remains suspect, with Puritans queasily howling about “porn” and “trash” while librarians, libertarians and other defenders of freedom of thought insist it’s all good if nobody gets hurt. But its enemies are far more organized, with right-wing groups like Focus On the Family and Moms For Liberty part of a new wave of book despots—so far this year, in a record surge—who are “loud and legion, with deep pocketed backers.”
Thanks to them, and the rise of bullies, theocrats and mountebanks like Messrs. Abbott and DeSantis, states are passing ever more regressive laws giving ever more power to cranks and lone wolves fulminating about “indoctrination” and “vulgar material.” One analysis of book challenges across the U.S. finds most were filed by just 11 people; in one Florida county, a single crackpot filed 94% of complaints.
Earlier this year, the nonprofit PEN America published a list of books banned or restricted across the country; states, media and other advocacy groups have also compiled lists. They all raise the vital question: How small, mean, dumb or scared do you have to be to view these books, many of them award-winning, as a threat? To wit: Adventures of A Kid Magician, Paradise Lost, Eleanor Roosevelt: Fighter for Justice, A Room With a View, Home For the Holidays, Anne of Avonlea, Secrets of Isaac Newton, Americanah, Brave New World, The Hobbit, The Battle Against Polio,The Handmaid’s Tale, Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb, What on Earth is a Pangolin?The analyses for the challenges, often chicken-scrawled, are surreal. Little Rock Nine: “Profanity.” The Kite Runner: “Inappropriate content.” Michelangelo: “Obscenity.” Cuban Kids: “Indoctrination.” A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, about a lonely bunny who lives with Mike Pence: “Gender identity content.” Countries in the News: Cuba: “Cuba is a communist country.” How To Be an Anti-Racist: “Have hate messages.” Or, overall, “This is not normal literature.” Like that’s a thing.
For most thinkers, readers, and fans of the First Amendment, libraries are what one Arkansas librarian calls “the last great bastion of democracy.” “Censorship, far more than books about systemic racism, threatens the health of the nation,” she argues. “A democracy without dissent is not a democracy.” Parents evidently agree; polls show them largely opposed to book bans, following the maxim of another librarian who concedes of his home turf, “There’s something for everybody to get pissed about.”
The simple solution: “Parents can monitor what their children check out. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. Nobody’s putting a gun to your head and making you read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’” But that’s far too sensible for today’s Arkansas, 48th in education, under Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She’s quickly moved to subjugate the masses with a Don’t Say Gay law, an executive order banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” like racism, and a demand schools turn over material for AP African-American Studies—with dangerous themes of “intersection” and “resilience”—that “may not comply with Arkansas law, which does not permit teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies.”
Arkansas has yet to reach the censorship big time, but they’re trying. Safe Library Books for Kids is busy pushing the narrative that books about racism lead to pedophilia and revolution—bad book alerts!—and right-wingers have embraced it. On And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins who raise a family: “Phrases like ‘they woke up together’ is propaganda to normalize sexually deviant behavior.” On What’s Happening to Me?, a puberty guide: “WE MUST STAND AGAINST THE EVIL FORCES THAT TRY TO DESTROY OUR YOUTH!”
Teachers have been charged with hanging the Pride flag and other “divisive materials” in classrooms, which are “indoctrination violations.” And commenters thank Sanders for “standing up” for them: They cheer “Bravo, Sarah!,” note “There is an awful lot of Marxist hate in schools” and “CRT stands for Create Racial Tension,” warn Merrick Garland is buying the porn and CRT was devised by 1923 German communists, urge classroom cams to monitor the filth, make conspiring to teach it a crime, get officials to do searches and “Shut down the communist training camps known as public schools.” Go. Hate. Fear.
Still, Texas and Florida are way ahead of them, fighting it out in a repulsive, moronic “culture-war pissing contest.” For now, Greg Abbott’s Texas leads the totalitarian pack with 438 book bans, a mere fraction of the nearly 2,350 titles they tried to restrict; Florida follows with 386 bans. Texas sages have banned Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (“obscene”), MLK: Journey Of A King (anti-white), The Fellowship of the Ring (blasphemous), Texas State Poet Laureate Guadalupe Mendez’ Why I Am Like Tequila (alcohol in title), Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen (nude kid), etc.
They’ve even cracked down on “symbols of personal ideologies”—aka a poster of multi-colored children holding hands—after a child was “traumatized” by it to avoid further “situations like that.” This week, an 8th-grade teacher was fired for teaching a graphic novel of Anne Frank’s Diary, deemed inappropriate for its “sexual content”; the district wrote parents the reading “will cease and your student’s teacher will communicate her apologies to you and your students soon.” You’d think Anne wondering about her body would be less germane than the genocidal fact of her being shipped to Auschwitz to be slaughtered, but maybe that’s just us.
Florida’s numbers are lower, but their despotism and denial is so vast they reject the word “banned”: “Florida does not ban books.” Still, hundreds of titles have vanished from shelves so fast “it would make Goebbels blush,” and many kids will be reading “excerpts” of Romeo and Juliet, minus the racy stuff. In July, Clay County banned Arthur’s Birthday, in which the bespectacled 3rd-grade aardvark plans a party the same day as monkey classmate Muffy; Arthur resolves the issue by planning a joint gathering, Francine the monkey suggests they play spin-the-bottle, and his friends gift him a bottle reading “Francine’s Spin The Bottle Game.”
No one is seen playing the game, which didn’t stop crackpot head of No Left Turn in Education Bruce Friedman—who’s compared public schools to “Pol Pot’s Cambodia” and in 2022 compiled a list of over 3,600 maybe-nasty titles off the Internet—from railing “SPIN THE BOTTLE NOT OKAY FOR K-5 KIDS” and “PROTECT CHILDREN.” The result, if no ban: “Damaged souls.” He also warned, if they don’t adhere to “what a clean library looks like,” he’d “run over them like a dead body.” Foolishly, we thought Arthur’s Birthday set the demented bar as low as it could go.
Then Manatee County banned Christian, the Hugging Lion, the “joyful tale of a different kind of family” wherein Australians John Rendall and Ace Bourke raise and love a lion cub in 1970s London, set him free in Kenya, and savor a rapturous, improbable, viral reunion when they visit. There’s videos, two documentaries, two Animal Planet shows, praise from conservationists, TV appearances, the memoir A Lion Called Christian—buying him at Harrod’s, seeking a flat with garden “for our dog,” setting up “his own kingdom” in their shop basement, seeing him grow from 35 to 185 pounds, releasing him, the tearful moment they return and Christian leaps into their arms.
Now there’s a “seriously adorable” kids’ book by psychiatrist Justin Richardson and playwright Peter Parnell; they wrote “And Tango Makes Three” and are suing, among others, over its ban. Christian happily curls on their sofa, chases his toys, gives “clumsy” hugs: “Christian became a very well-behaved little cub. Most of the time. After all, he was still a lion.” Then freedom—”Something must be done”—and reunion: “Their old friend took a long look…he remembered them!” The men are deemed “friends”; Rendall became a twice-married, lifelong conservationist with two kids, Bourke is one of Australia’s leading art curators. But zealots fretted—they “seem” gay—and banished them. Now DeSantis is campaigning to “Make America Florida.” Not on your fascist life.
“Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak because a baby can’t chew it.”—often misattributed to Mark Twain, in fact Robert A. Heinlein
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