Reading banned books: An important remedy for America’s backsliding democracy
We’ve been buried by a blizzard of news lately. So much has happened — special anti-mandate legislative session, the U.S. Supreme Court poised to reverse Roe v. Wade, omicron variant popping up across the United States — it’s difficult to choose just one target in the shooting gallery of opinion.
But let’s step back for a moment from the edge of the frothing torrent of current events and take a wider view. There is so much at stake. Everything that makes us.
A new report, which for the first time labels the United States as a “backsliding democracy,” provides context for the existential terror we’re now feeling. Released by International IDEA, a European think tank that supports democracy, the report describes the Jan. 6 insurrection as a turning point.
“Baseless allegations of electoral fraud and related disinformation undermined fundamental trust in the electoral process, which culminated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol building,” the report said.
Disputes about electoral elections are on the rise around the world, responsible for a bloody coup in Myanmar, a political crisis in Peru, and electoral chaos in Brazil and Belarus.
Globally, according to IDEA, the number of democracies has shrunk, and the pandemic has worsened government repression of dissidents and journalists. In Poland, the government “resorted to xenophobic, homophobic and antisemitic rhetoric,” LGBTQ activists have faced harassment and arrests, and “restrictive abortion legislation has been passed despite public outcry.”
Authoritarianism is ascendant. About 70% of the world’s population live in a country that is either non-democratic or a backsliding democracy, and only 9% live in high-functioning democracies, the report says. The U.S. is listed as a “mid-range” performing democracy.
IDEA uses five pillars to gauge the health of a democracy: representative government, fundamental rights, checks on government, impartial administration, and participatory engagement. Free expression is an important part of fundamental rights, and free speech and access to ideas is often on the authoritarian’s hit list. Censorship comes in as many forms as there are means of expression, but books are always a prime target.
You might think that means book burnings, either because of Nazi orgies of censorship, or Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel, “Fahrenheit 451.” But it doesn’t take burning a book to prevent the ideas and the viewpoints and the truth it contains from reaching minds. There are subtler and frankly more effective ways of doing so, in the form of laws that make it easier to challenge books in school and public libraries.
The American Library Association director recently noted an unprecedented number of challenges to books across the country, driven by panic about critical race theory and paranoia about other religions, lifestyles and gender orientations. Increasingly, books are being challenged simply because they might cause some students to feel “discomfort.”
One of the notable challenges came from Kansas, where last month the Goddard School District pulled 29 books from circulation after one parent complained. The titles included Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian story about an America overturned by a male-dominated theocracy that suppresses and sexually exploits women; Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” dealing in part with racism and incest; and Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” about a 16-year-old girl who witnesses the killing of a Black friend by the police.
At the time, a school district official said, “it was not in a position to know if the books contained on the list meet our education goals or not.” I find this difficult to believe. These are well-known, and in some cases, Pulitzer Prize-winning books. Hadn’t anyone at the school actually read them? But they were pulled from the shelves, even though district policy is to allow them to remain while under review. They have since been returned, following a public outcry.
Timothy Snyder, a historian specializing in the Holocaust and Eastern Europe, has called governmental attempts to limit public interpretation of the past “memory laws.” Russia — and increasingly, American states — have enacted policies that forbid discussion of historical facts or by providing vague guidelines that lead to self-censorship. While the laws vary, he writes in The New York Times, they often involve a “totalitarian pirouette” by affirming free speech and then banning divisive speech.
Last month, Kansas GOP lawmakers chided Kansas State Board of Education officials that they weren’t taking seriously enough concerns about how race and racism are taught. Even though education officials assured legislators that CRT wasn’t part of the curriculum, it seems only a matter of time before the Republican-controlled Legislature passes a law banning it. Such a law is bound to be so broadly interpreted as to shut down all discussion of race and racism in the state’s schools. Then “The Bluest Eye” will be in danger of being removed permanently from Goddard and all other school districts in Kansas. [Editor’s note: North Carolina lawmakers advanced a bill to restrict how race is taught in public schools this year, but it was successfully vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper.]
It will also mean that some school librarians will lose their jobs, because they will do the right thing and refuse.
I love books and libraries and the people who care for them. Libraries are anchors for the communities they serve, and we must protect them as we do our newspapers, our schools and our courts.
It was the librarians at the Johnston Public Library at Baxter Springs who helped me transcend the intellectual and cultural boundaries of my hometown by helping me find the cloth-covered frigates offering free passage. When I get the chance, I like to visit the State Library on the third floor of the Capitol in Topeka, where it’s been since 1900. It was the first part of the Capitol to have electric lights, and I’m always fascinated by the glass floor on its second deck, which allows light to pass below.
Books are the medium of ideas.
They still carry the biggest ideas in our cultures, abounding with revelations great and small, and allowing us glimpses into other lives and other times. Books are a constitutionally protected form of speech, and the best books often make readers uncomfortable with frank discussions of uncomfortable topics.
Take “Ulysses” by James Joyce, once banned in America because of its sometimes-coarse language and honest descriptions of masturbation and other sexual activity. It’s the story of one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, in Dublin, on June 16, 1904 (the day Joyce left Ireland). First published in Paris in 1922, it is a difficult book, or at least an unconventional one, that makes extensive use of stream-of-consciousness narratives. Its intended authorized publication in America was the subject of a case that reached a federal district court in 1933. The judge in the case, John M. Woolsey, ruled that “Ulysses” was not obscene and could be distributed in the United States. He reached his decision, in large part, by actually reading the novel for himself.
The precedent for books being protected speech, even though they may make some uncomfortable, was set. The story of the legal fight over “Ulysses” is recounted in Kevin Birmingham’s excellent 2014 history, “The Most Dangerous Book.” Joyce’s book also might be the best novel published in English during the 20th century.
So, now that we are faced with challenges to books — and really, civil liberties — that most Americans haven’t seen in their lifetimes, what do we do?
We can read banned books. Read Atwood and Morrison and Thomas and other books that are making folks uncomfortable in school libraries. Read the books on the Goddard list. Read Joyce. Stick with “Ulysses” even though you may want to quit, because Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end is worth it.
These books may make you uncomfortable. But they will also open your mind and your soul to a wider range of human experience. Books do not separate us culturally. They bring us together by allowing us to spend some time in somebody else’s skin, and that’s what scares those who would pull them from the shelves.
Read, as Judge Woolsey did. Decide for yourself the worth of each title.
Don’t let those who are trying to define free speech as being free of discomfort decide for you. They are prowling our school libraries now, have always been challenging material in our public libraries and would pull the books from the shelves in your home if they had the chance.
And keep reminding yourself of what is at stake in our present age of intolerance.
Award-winning author and journalist Max McCoy is a contributor to the Kansas Reflector, which first published this essay.
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