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Book Banning Ain’t What It Used To Be
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Book Banning Ain’t What It Used To Be

Content curation isn’t the same as fascism.

Poet Amanda Gorman delivers a poem during the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on January 20, 2021. (Photo by Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (even those of you who thought it a good idea to invite Bill Clinton to an HR conference), 

Earlier in the week there was one of those stories that helps feed the ravenous maw of perpetual outrage. Ron DeSantis banned a poem by Amanda Gorman. Banned it!

It turned out the poem wasn’t banned. It was removed from a shelf in a library “media center” for grade-schoolers and put on a shelf for middle-schoolers. 

That’s it. One school. One library. Moved a book to a different shelf. 

Now, it was dumb for the school to remove it based on a single complaint—or any complaint. But that’s one of the downsides of our ridiculous moment—normal people are so desperate to avoid getting in the crosshairs of controversy, they overreact to controversy that creates even more controversy. It’s the ballad of DeSantis versus Disney in miniature. 

Still, the poem wasn’t banned. It changed shelves. 

I have no doubt that if a precocious fourth grader asked the librarian to see the poem, it would have been made available. But hypothetically, let’s say that’s not the case. Let’s say the school actually pulled it. So what? I mean, I’m 100 percent with you if you think that would be a wrong decision by one librarian in one school in one neighborhood in one county in one state. But beyond “that would be the wrong decision,” what’s the big frickin’ deal? The kid could probably still find the poem. It just might take a little time or money. But that’s it.

 I have no statistics handy, but I am absolutely confident that on any given day, at least 50 kids ask librarians for books that the library doesn’t have, or has loaned-out, or declines to give to kids for a bunch of reasons. “Timmy, I need a note from your mother saying it’s okay for you to read Tropic of Cancer.”

People lost their minds in part because this happened in Florida where American Orbánism is supposedly flourishing. But Americans have been wildly irrational about book-bans-that-aren’t-bans for decades. Whenever you look into it, it turns out that something like 98 percent of the cases are about libraries or schools being pressured by parents or school boards that object to some controversial book that’s not age appropriate. 

Since the 1960s, the stories are literally never about bans on the sale of books, never mind the possession of them. That matters. That’s what countries that actually ban books do. See what happens if customs finds The Satanic Verses in your luggage at the Tehran airport.

Now, America used to ban books. Actually, states and cities used to ban books. The federal government, to my knowledge, has never actually banned books, though under the Comstock laws it did prohibit a bunch of “obscene” books from being mailed. (Another reason why UPS and FedEx are limitations on federal power! Down with government control of the means of communication!) The Confederacy did ban Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is bad. But not anywhere near the top of any known “Things the Confederacy Did That Were Bad” list. 

Boston, before its Puritanism evaporated, banned—I mean really banned—books for a very long time. 

The real problem with all of this “banned” talk is that a bunch of institutions and the journalists who uncritically defer to them, are using the word “ban” wrong. Dictionary.com defines “ban” as “to prohibit, forbid, or bar; interdict.”

Here’s how PEN America—one of the worst culprits—defines a book ban: “where students’ access to books in school libraries and classrooms in the United States was restricted or diminished, for either limited or indefinite periods of time.” So if your school has a library book sale to clear out old titles and make room for new ones, you’re all mass book-banners. 

Now, I’m not going to defend every decision made in every county or school library in Florida in response to the “Individual Freedom Act,” aka the “Stop Woke Act.” Pulling biographies of Hank Aaron strikes me as stupid. 

But here’s the thing. If the restriction or diminishment of access to books in school libraries or classrooms is defined as “banning” you know who the worst book banners in America are? Librarians and school teachers. Every single day, teachers and librarians decide what books should be available to kids. 

By this definition, the teacher who opts to include Uncle Tom’s Cabin but not To Kill a Mockingbird has banned To Kill a Mockingbird. The school librarian who refuses to keep The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on their shelves has banned that book. Heck, from what I can tell, all three of my books are banned in schools and libraries. 

 And that’s fine! 

That’s what librarians and teachers are supposed to do! They are what we call in the digital age, “content moderators.” But because libraries are physical spaces, the content moderation is more tangible because there’s this thing called “limited shelf space.” You can’t carry all the books, so you pick and choose which you’ll keep and which you won’t. Librarians also get to decide which books they make more visible and which ones you need to ask for help to find. That’s not banning, that’s editing or curating or whatever. Museums do the same thing every damn day. The Met isn’t banning George W. Bush’s paintings, it’s just not interested in displaying them. Who gives a furry rat’s behind? 

What PEN and the American Library Association really mean by “banning” is overruling their decisions—or the decisions of their members and allies. If a bunch of parents or school board officials complain about the inappropriateness of a book, the parents might be right or wrong, but that’s not “banning,” it’s democracy in action. Heck the politicians, starting with DeSantis, behind this push have one thing on their side the librarians and teachers don’t: the voters. At least for now. If they go too far, voters will elect different politicians and different decisions will be made. That’s democracy for you. 

What the people screaming about book bans want you to believe is that any effort to second-guess or overrule the “expert” opinions of librarians, teachers, and educrats is fascism. Now, it could be fascism. There were a lot of book bans in fascist regimes, and fascism is fueled by a kind of populism that can look like democratic action you support for a while. But, come on. Moreover, the rush to remove “problematic” books is hardly just a right-wing thing. School boards have removed Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from reading lists and syllabi because they find the language offensive or because To Kill a Mockingbird is a “white savior story.”

Now, I think getting rid of such books is a terrible idea. I also think it’s a big country and there’s nothing inherently wrong—and much that is inherently good—about parents and politicians taking an interest in what local schools and libraries do. I have zero problem saying the parents are sometimes wrong. The woman who complained about Amanda Gorman’s book apparently peddled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on her Facebook page, so I’m extra comfortable questioning her judgment. But I also have zero problem saying the librarians are sometimes wrong too.  

But what I can’t stand is the idea that any second-guessing of unelected functionaries is an Orwellian assault on free thought. I loathe the saying “Government is just another word for the things we do together.” But you know what? At the local level, public schools—i.e. government schools—should operate according to something close to the spirit of that idea. Parents and citizens are stakeholders, particularly in the education of their own children. We always hear about the need for more civic engagement and parental involvement, but don’t you dare complain about what’s on your kid’s curriculum.

Everyone should have to defend their decisions. And shrieking, “You’re a book banner!” if you lose an argument is nothing more than bullying, an attempt to shut down debate, not engage in it. That’s as illiberal as any attempt to influence what’s on library shelves. 

Scary ideas not allowed.

Speaking of shutting down debate … 

I spend a lot of time lamenting the growing tide of illiberalism on the right. And I’ll continue. But I get a lot of attaboys from progressives who seem to think illiberalism is a uniquely right-wing thing. It’s not. If you think that schools and libraries should be allowed to teach whatever they want, to have exclusive arbitrary power to exclude the books they don’t like but then say, “Don’t you dare try to exclude the books they like,” you are on the illiberal side of the argument—because you don’t think there should be an argument. Liberalism, like democracy, is all about cultivating a high tolerance for disagreement and debate. 

Which brings me to this horrifying story by James Fishback published by our friends at The Free Press. 

Apparently, competitive high school debate is becoming, in meaningful respects, a debate-free zone. Judges promulgate “paradigms” which lay out what they’re looking for from the debaters. It’s supposed to be stuff like “provide evidence to support your position” or “emphasize clarity.” But here’s one such paradigm from Lila Lavender, the 2019 national debate champion:

Before anything else, including being a debate judge, I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. . . . I cannot check the revolutionary proletarian science at the door when I’m judging. . . . I will no longer evaluate and thus never vote for rightest capitalist-imperialist positions/arguments. . . . Examples of arguments of this nature are as follows: fascism good, capitalism good, imperialist war good, neoliberalism good, defenses of US or otherwise bourgeois nationalism, Zionism or normalizing Israel, colonialism good, US white fascist policing good, etc.

Now, not all judges are self-declared Marxist-Leninist-Maoists (excuse me while I take a moment to keep my eyes from rolling out of their sockets), and not all of them are even this avowedly illiberal, according to Fishback. But a lot are. And you know what? One is too many. I’m not saying this just because Lavender’s paradigm is so incandescently absurd. 

Though I should dwell here to say that calling yourself a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist may not be as disqualifying as calling yourself German National Socialist, but it’s close enough. By body count alone, the ideologies are at best a wash, with the Marxist-Leninist-Maoists ahead on points. 

Remember that big debate I had with Sarah Isgur about Nazis marching in Skokie? Her position is basically that the law should be viewpoint neutral when it comes to speech. This debate story isn’t a question of constitutional rights, of course. The National Speech & Debate Association can have any rules it wants—because they’re content moderators!

 But when it comes to the spirit of liberalism in general and free speech in particular, declaring yourself a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist is substantively no different than declaring yourself a Nazi. It’s certainly an open declaration against liberalism properly understood. And illiberal debate societies aren’t really a thing. 

This is my problem with viewpoint neutrality. I think grown-ups, by which I mean citizens in a free society, can make judgments about what ideas are beyond the pale. It may get thorny as a matter of constitutional law, but a liberal institution—and a debating society is perhaps the ne plus ultra of liberal institutions—should be able to say, “Get that garbage out of here.” 

Anyway, other judges say that using the word “illegal” in connection with “immigrants” will immediately result in a loss. Another says, “If you are white, don’t run arguments with impacts that primarily affect POC [people of color]. These arguments should belong to the communities they affect.” 

I don’t care if you think the idea that marshaling arguments using logic and facts is inherently illegitimate if you’re the wrong skin color is racist. The fact is it’s illiberal

(Also, is it okay to apply this rule to, say, billionaires? I mean proposing laws to abolish billionaires—a trendy leftwing idea—don’t primarily affect the people arguing for the proposition.)

I’m not an absolutist about such things. I’m the guy who’s just explained—again—that I’m comfortable with libraries and even debating societies discriminating against certain viewpoints. 

My problem is two-fold. First, the discrimination is one-way. Open and flagrantly illiberal ideas and arguments of a leftwing bent are indulged and celebrated. Facts that are inconvenient to privileged narratives are scorned and demonized while arguments like “capitalism can reduce poverty”—an incontestable fact, by the way—are preemptively delegitimized. Not only is this illiberal, it’s cowardly. But it’s cowardice in the name of maintaining power.

 Second, because there is this one-way bias, the actual liberals—yes left-leaning, but still fundamentally liberal—are stuck in an environment where all of the incentives are to demonize the illiberalism of the other side while refusing to confront the ever increasing illiberalism in their own ranks. This not only fuels the demonization of anyone who doesn’t toe the party line, it invites an inevitable backlash and not just from alt right poltroons. 

You want to know why DeSantis and his crew are going full Gramsci about retaking institutions and using governmental power to take back the culture? It’s because liberal institutions—universities, libraries, debating societies—are too illiberal in one direction. How many college admissions people share the same attitude as these judges? 

It’s a rhetorical question. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: This has been a brutal week. I had surgery for a severely deviated septum and it messed me up. The dogs and cat took shifts monitoring my condition. This morning was also brutal. I had to get my daughter on a 6:15 plane which meant going to the airport before taking the dogs out. This was an outrageous breakdown in protocol. But we did get to the park in time for the girls to pee on everything first, which they love. Then Kirsten had to cancel the big dog walk so I took them out—and we ran into Kirsten finishing the small dog shift. This too was outrageous. I had to keep Zoë on leash because her tolerance for a cadre of small yappers is not measurable by most scientific instruments. But Kirsten locked up the fuzzballs and came and said hi to Z&P. In other developments, we ran into Bear yesterday who is shaping up to be a large and handsome fellow. My girls are jealous. The only break with routine they approved of was treats al fresco. That, and Zoë got to clear out a fox from the bunny patch. Zoe’s attitude toward foxes in the bunny patch is much like that of Delta house when it comes to harassing pledges. “Only we can do that.”

ICYMI

And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.