Several high profile lightweights are throwing their weight around these days. A podcaster, a primetime “influencer”, the son of a dead president’s dead brother, and a scraggly bearded QB who misled teammates and the NFL about his vaccine status. All have contributed to the spread of misinformation and the disgraceful manipulation of audiences hungry for the truth in these perilous times.
Yes, Joe Rogan, Tucker Carlson, RFK Jr. and Aaron Rogers are pedaling misinformation about the efficacy of the coronavirus vaccine. Never-mind them. Forget Spotify, Fox News, and other fringe podcasts. Something even more dangerous is happening at school board meetings across the country. It’s about books. It’s about teachers. It’s about parental and social responsibility.
Puritanical reactionaries determined to keep controversial information from their children have always worked the edges of our educational system. In the 1920s they focused on sex, reproduction, and language. The U.S. Post Office banned books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, and Henry Miller’s novels because they were determined to be “obscene.”
In 1960, Tulsa, Oklahoma school administrators fired an English teacher for assigning Catcher in the Rye to his 11th-grade class because it contained “vulgar language”. In Columbus, Ohio a teacher deemed the Salinger novel “anti-white” and school administrators banned it.
Last month, in King County where I live, a principal removed three YA (young adult) LGBTQ+ books purchased by her Middle School librarian because of “sex, profanity, and obscenity not appropriate.” Now, parents in the district are inventorying all the library shelves looking for other objectionable material. But…it gets worse.
While puritanical elements may still want to shield their children from the facts of life, the focus has recently turned from sex to history – particularly teaching them about America’s racial history. Gone are the days when textbooks got away with burnishing the reputation of the Founding Fathers by lauding the “all men are created equal” language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Today we know that most of the founders were slaveowners, that only white property owners were allowed to vote, and “the people” did not include women or people of color.
These are the facts, not alternative facts, but irrefutable facts. This is our history. Those who want to hide the truth are crusading against what they disdainfully call CRT, Critical Race Theory, as if it were a theory and not historical fact. Much of the attention is the result of a New York Times initiative called The 1619 Project, a series of 19 essays that explore the legacy of slavery in present-day America.
Slavery has always been near the center of our national narrative. It arrived on our shores 400 years ago. Can we ignore it? Should we not talk about it? Should we not teach our children about it? Apparently, many Americans think so. There is a growing movement at the local school and school board level to keep that part of American history out of the classroom.
When I lived in Berlin in the 70s and 80s, German schools conveniently ran out of time to teach the Nazi period near the end of every school year. That’s changed in Germany, but today CRT is front and center in American curriculum debates.
In the 1930s the Nazis burned books they thought objectionable. Four days ago, a Tennessee pastor live streamed the burning of the Harry Potter and Twilight series of books on Facebook, and last month another Tennessee school district banned the Holocaust-based graphic novel, Maus. This didn’t happen in Nazi Germany. It happened right here in the United States of America. Reverend Gary Locke promised “We have stuff coming in from all over that we will be burning. We’re not playing games. Witchcraft and accursed things must go.”
Is Tennessee an outlier in the book banning schemata? It isn’t. It’s part of a larger effort to control the narrative and teaching of American history. In recent years school districts from California to Mississippi have banned Harper Lee’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, because “of racist slurs and their negative effect on students” and for “featuring a ‘white’ savior character.” This would have been unimaginable 20 years ago.
Book banning and book burning have, like the phoenix, risen from the ashes as have white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and anti-Asian sentiment. I want to be clear; I don’t like the junk science that Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham are pedaling, but their misinformation is a petty threat compared to purging our libraries of quality fiction and well-researched historical scholarship. Education is the key to our survival. We need to hold the line and push back. We should never block access to established and evidentiary truth. We need to educate our children and grandchildren – not hide the truth from them. We need to stand up for the truth. It will set us free.