November 28, 2022

A Tradition of Ignorance and Intolerance

Spectator
By Stephen Tuttle | Sept. 24, 2022

In 1637, Thomas Morton wrote a book called New English Canaan, a satirical put-down of Puritans and their customs. Among other things, Morton compared them to crustaceans, and the Puritans, a cranky lot to begin with, promptly banned the book.

They followed that by banning John Eliot’s The Christian Commonwealth in the late 1640s, and works by Thomas Pynchon a decade later.

Book banning has been an ugly tradition of ignorance and intolerance in this country long before it even was a country. It has only gotten worse lately. This comes to mind as we just “celebrated” the 40th year of Banned Book Week, created and sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA).

Demands to remove books from the shelves of public or school libraries eased into what was a comfortable routine for decades. School libraries especially, under pressure from elected boards of education under pressure from voters, often had no choice but to acquiesce to the demands. Public libraries could be more resolute in keeping books on their shelves.

Some books were targeted year after year, decade after decade, to the point librarians could accurately predict which would be in the bullseye. Sometimes allegedly offensive language was the culprit or suggestive or overtly sexual prose or graphic violence. Even the amorphous notion a book didn't convey “the right message” could be sufficient to demand a book’s removal.

The result was a veritable who’s who of most banned books. George Orwell’s 1984, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby have all been at the top of the banned books list for a long time.

Twain must be banned because he uses the “n word” to name a character. (Never mind that it’s perhaps the first time in American literature a Black character and a white character enjoyed a positive friendship with each other.) Orwell was too negative, Angelou too graphic, Golding too subversive, and so on.

Public libraries mostly ignored the complaints, but school librarians found themselves in a bit of a quandary, caught between the proverbial rock of their duty to protect the First Amendment and the hard place of often loud groups of book-banning parents who had the ears of board of education members.

Then, in 1975, Island Trees School District in New York removed some books from their library under pressure from a conservative parents group. Five students, led by Steven Pico, sued the district, claiming the First Amendment protected not just the right to publish books but also the right to read such books. In 1982, the Supreme Court of the United States finally heard the case. (Yes, it sometimes takes that long for cases to wend their way up to SCOTUS.) In a split and narrow decision, the court sided with the students and declared school boards do not have the power to unilaterally ban books from junior high and high school libraries.

But that was then, and we’ve entered a new and different reality these days. No longer are just the old reliable books being targeted, nor is it the same subject matter that seems to now so offend.

According to the ALA, in 2021 a staggering 1,597 complaints were lodged, including demands to ban more than 800 books. Those complaints have now grown from some disgruntled individuals to highly-organized and fully-politicized groups with cutesy names like Parents for Liberty.

Their targets include books that discuss or reference the LGBTQ+ community, and they accuse those authors, and by association librarians in whose buildings the books reside, of “grooming,” “recruiting,” or “conditioning” readers…as if sexual identity is like joining a club.

Also on the list of book banning demands are any discussing race, racism, slavery, or the treatment of Indigenous people. Even the vaguest references to those topics results in loud howls from protesting parents accompanied by accusations schools are trying to indoctrinate students with critical race theory (CRT). In fact, Florida has essentially banned teaching of any of those subjects because it might make white children feel bad about their race or guilty about themselves.

Along with teaching the bright promise and remarkable progress we’ve made, American history cannot be accurately taught without a long and detailed look at racism, slavery, and precisely how it was we ended up with this country and from whom we took it. If that makes kids feel bad, then maybe they will become the first generation that fully avoids the bigotry and ugliness that has come before.

In the end, the books groups try to ban are far less dangerous than the rhetoric spewed by those who wish them banned. We should remember that every week.

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