Marc C. Johnson: The greatest threat to America is not a book
Marc Johnson was press secretary and chief of staff for former Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus. In this op-ed for the Lewiston Tribune, he explains why book banning is bad news and bad policy.
We have reached the book-banning stage of democratic collapse. The end can’t possibly be far away.
In states from Tennessee to Idaho, ultra-right wing lawmakers are enjoying spring by roughing up librarians, cutting their budgets, banning books and intimidating teachers. It’s a coordinated effort that echoes through the alt-right determination to wage endless culture war. After all, how better to demonstrate your commitment to “freedom” than by banning a book?
“It’s definitely getting worse,” Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of the free-speech organization PEN America, told The Guardian recently. “We used to hear about a book challenge or ban a few times a year. Now it’s every week or every day. We also see proposed legislative bans, as opposed to just school districts taking action. It is part of a concerted effort to try to hold back the consequences of demographic and social change by controlling the narratives available to young people.”
As National Public Radio reported earlier this month: “More than 330 unique books were challenged from September through November last year, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. That’s twice as many as the entire year before.”
Not surprisingly, most if not all the book banning has featured works that consider already marginalized individuals or groups, while dealing with what are apparently frightening concepts such as sexuality, gender identity or race. It’s apparently not enough for some Americans to be openly antagonistic to the LGBTQ community or to people of color; they demand that no one read about their stories.
If book bans were merely a manifestation of old-fashioned, small-bore bigotry, that would be in keeping with American history. In the 1830s, after all, the U.S. House of Representatives forbade its members from even discussing slavery, let alone legislating about the peculiar American institution. Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852 in the run up to the Civil War, was banned in the South for fear its anti-slavery message would stir dangerous ideas. Lots of books over a long period have been banned for being too sexy or too graphic, however you define those terms.
But the current battlefield in the alt-right’s culture war is more calculating and more strategic than simply old-style American bigotry, and therefore more dangerous to the ideas of free expression and anti-censorship. Moreover, the book ban mania has not grown organically, but rather has emerged in harness with intense new attacks on public schools and educators, animated by misinformation and fear about how American history is taught.