December 6, 2022

Reading as a Subversive Act

Guest Opinion
By Isiah Smith, Jr. | May 7, 2022

In Reading Dangerously, Azar Nafisi writes that books “represent the unruly world, filled with contradictions and complications, a world that threatens the totalitarian mindset by being beyond its control.” Perhaps that is why numerous governors and school boards in America are trying to ban books they deem objectionable.

The Supreme Court has faced this issue before. Forty years ago, the Court held that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves, nor seek to remove them to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” (Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 1982)

In Pico, parents in the district sent a list of books they deemed inappropriate to the Island Trees Board of Education. The board temporarily removed those books from school libraries and formed a committee to review the list. The committee found that five of the nine books should be returned, but the board overruled the decision and returned only two of the books.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Justice Brennan wrote the court’s plurality opinion, reaffirmed that though “local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs,” that discretion “must be exercised in a manner that comports with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment.” Justice Brennen’s narrowly worded decision left the door open for school boards to continue their efforts to ban books.

It is a door that several school districts walked boldly through in the last year alone. According to a U.S. House Oversight Committee panel report, 86 school districts in 26 states banned 1,500 books from July 2021 to the end of March this year. Predominantly, books written by marginalized authors have been banned from some public schools.

Of the 1,500 banned books, 467 (41 percent) contained main or secondary characters of color, 247 (22 percent) addressed issues of racism, and 379 (33 percent) contained LGBTQ+ issues.

The efforts to ban books are increasing, often under the pretense of attacking nonexistent critical race theory (CRT). That’s the lie under which Florida’s Gov. DeSantis banned 54 math books slated to be used by Florida schools! Math books? It just doesn’t add up. Denouncing CRT propelled Glenn Youngkin to the Virginia Governorship.

Last year, parents stormed Texas school board meetings demanding the removal of books they found offensive to the “American way of life.” They threatened administrators and labeled the district a “sex cult.” The books in question were not even required reading—they were only available for borrowing!

The book banning impulse crosses ideological lines and it is not limited only to conservatives. Left-leaning, liberal parents are challenging classic American literature. For example, some liberal parents challenged To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn (both of which I read more than once) because of liberal use of “the N word.” By that criterion, much of today’s rap music may face similar challenges.

A Tennessee school board recently banned Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the experiences of Holocaust survivors. In my view, this excellent book, and the two classics mentioned above, provide parents with opportunities to teach their children valuable lessons about history and evolving ideas about man’s inhumanity to man. Those children can then become better informed, sensitive, and responsible citizens.

But that isn’t what the book banners want. I suspect that the book banning movement is intended to facilitate what Allan Bloom called “The Closing of the American Mind.” A closed mind is a gift to demagogues and would-be authoritarians who thrive by limiting the flow of information and by manipulating their followers’ minds.

As David Hume wrote, “it is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.” It is a gradual process, preceded by small “stress tests” designed to see just how far an authoritarian gesture can safely extend. Once acceptable limits have been established, the would-be authoritarians push harder. Almost imperceptivity, our democratic liberties began to erode and, ultimately, disappear. The books that provoke the greatest thought and the most vigorous discourse also raise the toughest questions. They are precisely the ones that a well-functioning democracy needs.

When books are banned, can book burning be far behind? One of Germany’s greatest poets, Heinrich Heine, wrote, “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” Heine was writing in the 1800s, at a time when nationalistic students displayed their “patriotism” by tossing “un-German” books into huge bonfires.

Few believed this could happen in the 20th century until May 6, 1933. That day, the German Student Association announced a nationwide burning of books that were “against the German Spirit.”

You think it couldn’t happen here? In February of this year, a pro-Trump, anti-vax pastor organized a literal book burning in a suburb of Nashville.

It’s a slippery slope, folks.

​​Isiah Smith, Jr. is a retired government attorney.


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