But behind the noise and the headlines, banners and advocates rejoice in the book war. The culture war to ban certain books from curricula and libraries provides conservatives with a handy emotional corner to excite their base. This helps them find candidates for lower positions and raise funds for the movement. The shock does much the same for the left. In many districts, the Liberals have already waged this war, and they are coming to it with a well-stocked arsenal of proven arguments. Knowledge is not dangerous, they tell conservatives, censoring knowledge is what is dangerous.
Matchups always leave both constituencies feeling smug. Conservatives warn that a slippery slope begins with the idea that exposure to ‘lewd’ literature will tarnish their children’s souls and that LGBTQ content will inspire them to become gay, lesbian, trans or non-binary, or even to be seduced by a teacher. Liberals – who worry about state overreach only when conservatives are in charge – counter that book bans violate First Amendment rights to free thought and speech. Banning books limits speech, they say, and stunts mental growth. And besides, what’s wrong with being gay? These booths, of course, praise conservatives and give them an opportunity to decry the libs as amoral interventionists who want to pervert and destroy their children. The Liberals react by treating the Conservatives like illiterate fools who believe Moby-Dick was a porn novel written by Henry Miller in a celebratory orgy of the phallus. And the cycle of extrapolations, recriminations and denunciations turns like a carousel.
For all the performative energy invested in the conflict, neither side ever managed to move the issue very far from the benchmark of the Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Island Trees School District vs. Pico. The court ruled that students had a First Amendment right to read and be informed. Banning a book from the school library for what it says violates this right. “[L]Local school boards cannot remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas in those books and seek, by their removal, to prescribe what should be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion,” the court said. Only if the book is deemed “pervasively vulgar” can it be permanently removed from the shelves. However, schools have more leeway when it comes to removing books from required reading or placing them in campus libraries, to begin with. The game is still on to eject books from reading, so the fight over which titles to award won’t end until the Supreme Court issues a new ruling.
The status quo leaves everyone happy. Or should that leave everyone unhappy but totally engaged, so unhappy but fulfilled? Depending on their background, a group of parents may vent that their children’s schools are dens of depravity and brainwashing. The other group comes to imagine themselves as freethinkers and guardians of light against the forces of darkness. The fury leaves both sides certain that they are preventing an information catastrophe that will despoil our children.
The battle over the banning of books would be more alarming if parents, especially streamers, paid more attention to media other than books in school. Broadcast television series, freely consumed by millions of college students, do more to educate them publicly about sexual options than even the most “progressive” programs. Each banned book can be purchased from Barnes and Noble, ordered from Amazon, or borrowed from a friend if it is not available at the local library. Any kid over the age of 12 with access to a computer and browser can consume more soft, medium, and hard erotica than the owner of a 1970s porn shop, and those same kids can probably tell you more about the varieties of sexual expression than your average Kinsey Institute scholar. That no organized protests of television or the web (or defenses of the material therein) exist tells you everything you need to know about the seriousness of schoolbook banners.
Do not send anything explicit to [email protected]. My email alerts still have no vacancies, so don’t bother signing up. My Twitter feed fully expects to be fitted with a gag after Musk takes office. My RSS the stream only reads banned books.