Tuesday, October 3, 2023

The Banned Books Week Counterattack

North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenberg district put its foot in it last week when Shayla Cannady, the district's chief communications officer, e-mailed principals to let them know that if they were planning any events for Banned Book Week to just knock that stuff off and that it might be a violation of the state's parental rights teacher gag law. 

This turned out to be a communications oopsie when national press picked up the story, so the office "clarified" that hey, it was just that some principals had asked and so this was just, you know, to help them figure out their totally building based decisions. “We are not taking a position on banned book week as it is a site-based decision. It is not a violation or in any way associated with Parents Bill of Rights."

Other folks in the reading restrictions camp have been less shy this week, and are not content to let the annual American Library Association observance pass by quietly. The ALA had its first Banned Book Week in 1982, and many books have made the list because of left-leaning complaints (looking at you, Huck Finn), but this year some folks intend to push back hard on the whole business. Happy Banned Book Week.

At The Federalist (and being tweeted out by Real Clear Education) we find an article with the headline 
Promoting Porn In School Libraries Is The Real Problem, Not ‘Banned Books’ which really captures the message of both "nobody is banning books, you snowflakes" and "look at these awful books that deserve to be banned." It's not just that the ALA is complaining about banned books, but that they are pushing awful stuff. As one subhead in the article puts it, "ALA Celebrates Pornographic Books and Socialism with ‘Banned Books Week’" 

That article is by Stephanie Lundquist-Arora of the Independent Women's Forum. There's a lot to know about the Independent Women's Forum, but the quickest way to get where they're coming from is to note that they grew out of a group called "Women for Clarence Thomas." They are a right wing, Koch funded, advocacy for hire group that has opposed the Violence Against Women Act, defended Rush Limbaugh, and fought teaching about global warming in schools. Lundquist-Arora is the woman whose campaign for a Fairfax, Virginia school board seat ended when she laughed at an autistic boy singing the National Anthem at a board meeting.

Meanwhile, my latest press pitch from Cavalry Strategies, the PR firm that handles Moms for Liberty, announces that M4L is declaring this week Teach Kids To Read Week, complete with the usual misread stats about reading "proficiency." They've teamed up with Oklahoma's Chief Education Dudebro Ryan Walters, and as Paul Thomas reminds us, they are either confused or lying. "Proficient" on NAEP tests is like an A. As Thomas points out, if we use NAEP scores as our data, then about 2/3 of students are reading at or above grade level. (Plus, of course, Science of Reading in play, making it some kind of Anti-Banned Book Week turducken)

Nevertheless, M4L chiefs Descovich and Justice are ready to argue that "Pen America, and those pushing for so-called ‘Banned Book Week’ continue to try to keep porn in schools." 

None of this is a serious argument. Putting porn in school libraries is already illegal in every state. Nor are PEN America, ALA, or librarians in this country intent on making sure they get porn into the hands of small children. And accounts like Lundquist-Arora's are so filled with logic-chopping and bad faith arguments--librarians want to keep works of literature available, therefor they want to give porn to 11 year olds, or librarians want to minimize the actual attacks on their workplace, therefor they hate free speech. That last one is a nice twist, in keeping with the general approach of arguing that if you don't let me attack you and scream at you and try to intimidate you or direct my followers to harass and threaten you, you are infringing on my First Amendment rights. 

Once again, we're dealing with a topic that involves nuance and specifics to be discussed seriously. Are all books appropriate for all readers? Of course not. Should parents have a say in what books their children read? Absolutely (but good luck with that). Is the freedom to read a fundamental part of our national heritage? Of course. Is it sometimes tricky to figure out exactly where to draw the line? Yes.

Add to that complexity the wide variety of works that are getting lumped together in these discussions. Pornography is not a work with legitimate literary value that includes some sexual content. Graphic depiction of LGBTQ sex is not the same as a work that simply acknowledges that LFBTQ persons exist. Appropriate for a 10 year old is generally not the same as appropriate for an 18 year old. And while parents have rights, so do children, and that line will shift steadily and be renegotiated every year of your child's life. 

It's a complicated and complex conversation, and people who want to join it by shouting "porn" and "groomer" or "socialism" or "kids can't read" are not making a serious effort to join it. 


  1. I'm as liberal as they get, but when my second grade kid brought home a school library book that featured father-daughter incest, the father murdering the daughter and then mummifying her body and making a shrine out of it, I started to see the point of parental discomfort with claiming that anything librarians choose must be OK for kids. The right wing is exploiting that discomfort to the max, and it wouldn't have the opportunity to do that if schools and libraries were not so defensive about their choices.

    1. What in the world is this book's title?

    2. It's not all in one story, but all those things happen in a book called, "The Holy Bible." And lots fathers killing sons, the main character (SPOILER ALERT) actually brings his son back from the dead. But I thought they banned that book a long time ago.

    3. It's called "Melusine: A Mystery." It's by a well-known children's author, which is probably why the librarian thought it would be OK without reading it. And it would be OK for high school-aged kids, just not second graders.