Like El Niño and solar flares, the impulse to ban books seems to be a cyclical force of nature. In ordinary times, book bannings surge and then, like clockwork, recede away like floodwaters. But these are not normal times. Over the past nine months, we’ve entered a book banning era like none other in our country’s history. Between July 2021 and the end of March 2022, an astounding 1,586 book bannings took place in 86 school districts in 26 states, according to a comprehensive PEN America study. Texas, natch, led the pack, with Pennsylvania and Florida taking second and third. And that’s only the bannings PEN America is aware of. Likely more exist.
But book bannings account for only one element of the upwelling. Since the beginning of the year, 175 educational gag order bills have been introduced or prefiled in 40 states to censor teachers. Of these, 15 have become law in 13 states, PEN America reports, and the primary targets of the bills are high schools and higher ed, with 139 of the bills written to throttle those institutions.
There are several reasons behind the book banning boom. LGBTQ literature, graphic novels and sexually explicit books, which have become more popular in recent years, garner the most challenges from parents and activists who want them removed from libraries and school systems. For many parents, newish books like Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas are fresh affronts to their already challenged sensibilities, and they believe the titles both damage their children and obstruct their roles as protectors of their children.
But behind the noise and the headlines, both the banners and the defenders are delighted by the war over books. The culture war to outlaw certain books from curriculums and libraries provides conservatives with a handy emotional wedge to excite their base. It helps them find candidates for lower offices and fundraise for the movement. The clash does much the same for the left. In many districts, liberals have fought this war before, and they come to it with an arsenal fully stocked with time-tested arguments. Knowledge isn’t dangerous, they tell conservatives, censoring knowledge is what’s dangerous.
The face-offs always leave both constituencies feeling smugly self-satisfied. Conservatives warn that a slippery slope starts with the idea that exposure to “obscene” literature will tarnish their children’s souls and that LGBTQ materials will steer them into becoming gay, lesbian, trans, or non-binary, or even be seduced by a teacher. Liberals — who worry about state overreach only when conservatives are in charge — counter that book bans violate the First Amendment rights to free thought and expression. Banning books limits discourse, they say, and stunts mental growth. And besides, what’s so bad about being gay? These stands, of course, incense conservatives and give them the opening to decry libs as being amoral smartypants interventionists who want to pervert and blight their children. Liberals respond by treating conservatives as illiterate fools who believe Moby Dick was a porn novel written by Henry Miller in an orgy of phallus celebration. And the cycle of extrapolations and recriminations and denunciations whirls on like a carousel.
For all the performative energy poured into the conflict, neither side ever succeeds in moving the issue very far from the reference point of the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Island Trees School District v. Pico. The court ruled that the students have a First Amendment right to read and be informed. Banning a book from the school library for what it says violates that right. “[L]ocal school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion,” the court said. Only if the book is judged “pervasively vulgar” can it be permanently unshelved. However, schools have more discretion when it comes to yanking books from required reading or placing it in campus libraries, to begin with. The game is always afoot for ejecting books from reading, so the struggle over which titles to assign won’t end until the Supreme Court issues a new decision.
The status quo leaves everybody happy. Or should that be it leaves everybody unhappy but totally engaged, hence unhappy but fulfilled? Depending on their priors, one set of parents gets to blow off steam about their children’s schools being dens of depravity and brainwashing. The other set gets to imagine themselves as freethinkers and guardians of the light against the forces of darkness. The furor leaves both sides certain that they are preventing an information catastrophe that will despoil our children.
The battle over book banning would be more alarming if parents, especially the banners, paid more attention to media other than books at school. Broadcast television dramas, freely consumed by millions of students, do more to make sexual options publicly known to them than even the most “progressive” curriculums. Every banned book can be bought from Barnes and Noble, ordered from Amazon or borrowed from a friend if not available at the local library. Any child over the age of 12 with access to a computer and a browser can consume more soft-, medium- and hard-grade erotica than the proprietor of a 1970s porn shop, and these same tykes can probably tell you more about the varieties of sexual expression than your average Kinsey Institute scholar. That no organized protest of TV or the Web (or defenses of the material found on them) exists tells you everything you need to know about the seriousness of school book banners.
Send nothing explicit to [email protected]. My email alerts still have no vacancies, so don’t bother registering. My Twitter feed fully expects to be fitted with a gag order after Musk takes over. My RSS feed reads only banned books.