Book banning is on the rise in America. According to PEN America, from July 2021 to June 2022, there were 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, involving 1,648 titles by 1,261 different authors. PEN America is a free expression advocacy group headquartered in New York. In the period from July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022, Texas had the most bans at 801, followed by Florida with 566, Pennsylvania with 457 and Tennessee at 349.
The Targets of Censorship
In the spring of 2020, officials in Madison County, Miss., placed more than 20 books under what they call “restricted circulation.” Among the titles: Queer, There, and Everywhere by Sarah Prager, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The censors don’t want the LGBTQ “lifestyle” to be celebrated or normalized. Although most of them grudgingly accept that “traditional” gender identity formulations are no longer fully “operative,” they see no reason to promote the new formulations, particularly among children and young adults. It amounts to a kind of don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t assign, don’t shelve approach to the breathtaking social changes of our era.
Although the majority of banning initiatives now involve gender identity, a troubling number target books with protagonists or important characters who are dark skinned. Non-graphic sexual content is now less targeted than it once was. Books that celebrate certain religious groups (chiefly Islam) are sometimes banned.
While we usually think complaints about dangerous books originate with angry or alarmed parents, or groups of parents, the truth is that the book banning movement is driven by well-funded interest groups. The selection of books to ban tends to originate in these watchdog groups located far away from the local ZIP codes where the individual protests are registered. Chances are the local parents who demand that they be removed from the shelves in most cases would not have known even of the existence of the book(s) in question had it not been for interest groups.
The End of the American Enlightenment
The attack on access to books is a subset of the larger attack on the principles of the Enlightenment: skepticism, commitment to reason and science, secularism, the rule of law, human rights, and the essentially unlimited freedom of exchange in ideas, even dangerous ideas. The United States was born during that extraordinary period in European history and the U.S. Constitution of 1787, with its Bill of Rights, may be regarded as one of the supreme achievements of the Enlightenment. But now, in the third decade of the 21st century, Enlightenment principles are being assailed both from the right and from the left, from religious and moral fundamentalists on the one hand, and from leftist intellectuals, particularly on the campuses of elite universities, on the other.
The Enlightenment promoted the free exchange of ideas. The more recent encapsulation of the ideal speaks of “a free marketplace of ideas,” where, in the long run, truth triumphs over error, science over superstition, good sense over nonsense, true news over fake news. Or, as Voltaire is said to have put it, “Madam, I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” In his groundbreaking Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786), Thomas Jefferson wrote, “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”
The Paradox of Book Banning
The rise of book banning in the digital age involves interesting paradoxes.
Reason 1. Banning a book usually has the effect of increasing its demand. Individuals, including young people, who might never have heard of The Catcher in the Rye (1951) or Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) were more likely to seek it out when it was officially forbidden. The attempt to suppress Portnoy’s Complaint turned its author Philip Roth into a major American literary celebrity. One of the best ways to promote a book is to stir up controversy about its contents. The impulse to break cultural taboos is nearly universal, especially among young people.
Reason 2. Book banning was counterproductive enough during the age of the printed book, but now that most of the books in question are also available online, sometimes in pirated editions, it is virtually impossible to keep them out of the hands of those who are resourceful enough to seek them out. It’s no longer possible to build a gate between your child and the wide world of discourse. Any kid with a computing device and a modicum of privacy can get instant access to materials far more explicit and potentially corrosive than the books in question. We delude ourselves if we think pulling “objectionable” books from the library shelves will ensure that the people we are trying to protect won’t find them in some other way.
In Soviet Russia, banned or incendiary books often circulated underground in a few painstakingly generated typescripts. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s pivotal A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich circulated widely in battered and clandestine typescripts before it was finally published in November 1962. The hunger for these forbidden “books” was much greater because they were banned than if they had simply been permitted by Soviet authorities to be published.
Reason 3. Many banned books wind up being regarded later as American classics. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Portnoy’s Complaint 52nd on its list of the hundred best English-language novels of the 20th century. Among the best-known banned books-turned-classics are John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Countless towns, schools, and local libraries endured attempts to ban the Harry Potter books (paganism and witchcraft!) in the 1990s and early 2000s. From today’s vantage point this just seems silly, even pathetic. Millions of young people attribute their love of reading to J.K. Rowling’s books, and yet few have subsequently given their lives to the “satanic arts.” The banning community particularly discredits itself when it goes after Harry Potter or the Lord of the Flies.
Reason 4. In an astonishingly large percentage of cases, the book banners have not even bothered to read the books they seek to suppress. This was the case with Salman Rushdie’s notorious The Satanic Verses (1988), which brought on an Islamic fatwa in which he was condemned to death by Iran’s then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who admitted he had not read the book. The same was true of Rushdie’s Aug. 12, 2022, 24-year-old assailant Hadi Matar, who admitted in a jailhouse interview that he could not be sure he had read The Satanic Verses at all, and surely no more than one or two pages. Matar had not even been alive in 1989 when the Iranian leader condemned a man to death over a book that contained a few potentially offensive passages. The fact that most book banners cannot be bothered to read the books they fear — and therefore what little they know about the offensive material almost always comes entirely out of literary context — makes it easy to shrug off their actions, except that those actions are so dangerous to the principles of an open civilization.
Reason 5. The assault on freedom of expression is no longer the exclusive work of the right. There is also a kind of “soft banning” that has become epidemic at some of America’s elite universities. Professors who would squawk loudly if the right attempted to ban books assigned by them in their university classes nevertheless have created an informal but intensive list of toxic books, from Huckleberry Finn, with its 219 repetitions of the n-word, to Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Boccaccio’s Decameron, with their racy and often sexually predatory tales of human (and divine) waywardness. At one of America’s greatest universities, some students recently refused to read Homer’s Iliad because “it involves sex trafficking,” in its depiction of the war prize Briseis, the captured daughter of a local priest.
It’s Never as Simple as It Seems
The issue is not as simple or black and white as it may appear. The stigma of book banning is so great that it is almost impossible to have a rational debate about even the most potentially disturbing books.
Just as some of the book banners represent a concerted campaign by conservative interest groups to turn back the clock, some groups with an intensely progressive agenda have attempted to force social change (or social justice) by inserting advocacy literature into the curriculum and school library. Plenty of Americans are uncomfortable with some elements of the left’s agenda, but to register their legitimate concerns brands them as bigots, censors, fanatics and book banners.
While the liberal establishment may strongly disagree with conservative positions on these questions, that doesn’t make them illegitimate. And in a pluralistic democracy in which a solid majority of the country is more conservative than the professoriate at Brown and Berkeley, no one group gets to decide for the rest of us what’s orthodox or “enlightened.” This is particularly the case where public (i.e., taxpayer) money is involved.
Nearly the most sacred responsibility of life is raising our children. While we should respect professional educators and trust them to do the right thing, parents surely have the right to monitor the curriculum and express their honest concerns in the public arena. We all know that children represent a special population that we try to protect from some forms of discourse. The debate over when it is useful and responsible to expose children to LGBTQ identities is ongoing, and it is not as clear-cut as its advocates insist.
Whatever the perceived orthodoxy of the “woke” and the academic left, millions of Americans are only modestly aware of the dizzying new gender formulations of our time. Many, perhaps most, Americans continue to see gender in conventional terms. The idea that gender is a social construction that may not be tied to physiology perplexes millions of decent and reasonable people — and offends a significant minority. At the very least it will take years, perhaps decades, for some of these progressive views to achieve widespread acceptance. Culture conservatives are sure to challenge any dictates coming from outside the communities and groups in which they take their comfort and identity.
In other words, the national debate over age appropriateness should not be automatically confused with censorship and book banning. It may well be that there are some books that are best not shelved where intellectually immature young people will encounter them.
The problem, as always, is who gets to decide. Who decides what to ban? What criteria are used to evaluate potentially “dangerous” books? How much autonomy should individual teachers have in selecting the books they want to teach? I don’t trust evangelicals to make these determinations alone, but they should be at the table. Nor should these decisions be the exclusive domain of the progressive movement. Or even teachers or librarians. If we could identify ideal censors, straight out of Plato’s Republic, who had a very generous view of freedom of expression and who would always be reluctant to restrict access to any book, but who nevertheless could be trusted (by a broad consensus of the community) to make careful discriminations in the name of good sense and social responsibility, we might be able to calm down. But such platonic guardians don’t exist — that’s the unanswerable problem with censorship — and even if they did, absolutists on both sides of the cultural spectrum would refuse to accept their determinations.
Given the almost infinite permissiveness of our times, particularly in the United States, and the incapacity of anyone or any entity to stem the tide of information exchange, it seems extremely unlikely that the forces of censorship can win today’s battle of the books.
When Jefferson spoke of the “illimitable freedom of the human mind,” he was articulating an ideal that was not yet in place anywhere in the world, not even in America. Today the floodgates are wide open. Whether we have the capacity to educate the people to make sensible and discriminating decisions about what they ingest is another issue altogether.
The case for maximum freedom is thoughtfully articulated by American Library Association President Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada: “Librarians develop collections and resources that make knowledge and ideas widely available, so people and families are free to choose what to read. Though it’s natural that we want to protect young people from some of life’s more difficult realities, the truth is that banning books does nothing to protect them from dealing with tough issues. Instead, it denies young people resources that can help them deal with the challenges that confront them.”
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