What a surprise.
The American Library Association reports that campaigns to ban books are at their highest level in the 20 years since the association began tracking such attempts. The ALA’s director of the office for intellectual freedom calls the efforts to remove books from schools, school libraries and even public libraries “unprecedented.”
If anything, the director is understating the problem.
Most of the books under threat of suppression deal with issues of race or sexual identity. These attempts occur at the school board level, at the community level and at the state level.
They almost all are instigated by people who call themselves “conservative.”
There are several things that need to be said about this epidemic of book banning and idea suppression.
The first is that rightwing complaints about a so-called “cancel culture” are just so much blather.
The things that conservatives call censorship—such as the decision by the estate of Dr. Seuss not to publish some of his books going forward—is nothing of the sort.
Censorship occurs when government prevents free people from saying, writing, reading or listening to what they want—which, by the way, is exactly what conservatives who are trying to remove books from libraries are doing.
It doesn’t occur when someone chooses no longer to stand behind a statement he or she has made. Nor is it censorship when people disagree with or say they don’t like a work or an idea.
That’s how the marketplace of ideas is supposed to work.
The second thing that needs to be said is that this is profoundly un-American.
Our national anthem proclaims us to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
At present, states—including Indiana—all over the country are doing everything they can to prevent people from seeing, hearing or thinking about certain ideas, concepts, stories or parts of human life and history.
We’re apparently so terrified of made-up “problems”—such as the spurious notion that critical race theory is being taught in public schools—that we’re pushing to suppress any discussion about race in the classroom. We’re so scared of the truth that American history isn’t unblemished we’re afraid to look in the mirror—and we’re willing to punish librarians and educators who have the temerity to acknowledge that mirrors even exist.
What’s free about that?
What’s brave about that?
For most of our history, it was an article of American faith that part of what made our country strong was our willingness, as a free people, to face the past so we could confront the future.
No longer, apparently.
What makes this so frustrating is that none of it makes sense.
Freedom’s primary justification is a kind of tautology, that liberty justifies itself. The ultimate argument for freedom is that it is free.
And people deserve to be free.
But there also is practical underpinning to our notions of liberty.
I spent nearly six years serving as the executive director of what is now the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. During that time, the ACLU again and again had to defend the rights of the Ku Klux Klan and other noxious organizations to march and demonstrate.
We did so because everyone—even those who have views many of us consider abhorrent—has First Amendment rights. There is no asterisk excluding some people from the Constitution’s protections.
But there also is a pragmatic argument to be made for the free exchange of ideas.
When I was with the ACLU, I told liberals who were angry about what we were doing that it was better to have the KKK and other such groups out in the open where their ugly arguments could be confronted than to have them lurking in the shadows where we couldn’t see them.
The solution to bad speech, I said, was always more speech. The best response to bad, reprehensible or even evil ideas was good, just and moral ideas.
It isn’t shutting down thought or discussion.
It certainly also isn’t banning books because we’re afraid to come face to face with ideas that might trouble us.
We’re supposed to be better than that.
We’re supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Or at least we used to think that.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].