Second thoughts on banning books – by Deborah Levine

 (originally published as an opinion column for The  Chattanooga Times Free Press) 

The banning of books has been around for centuries and America is no exception. We have banned books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We banned 273 books in 2020 with more to come. But don’t the recent controversies over school library books seem a bit irrelevant to you? After all, we’re online 24/7 and the influence of books seems pitifully modest. Unless authors have a huge following on Tik Tok and Twitter, students are unlikely to storm classroom libraries. So why the brouhaha?

Critical race theory (CRT) is the driving force, upsetting status quo folks by saying that racism is inherent to the social structure, and to them. But banning any mention of structural racism goes beyond race. A Jewish educator noted that a ban would make it impossible   … to teach that Nazi Germany was inherently anti-Semitic, or that the Third Reich oppressed Jews simply because they were Jews, because that would identify Nazis as inherently biased and Jews as inherently and systemically oppressed.”

Recognizing that bans are extreme, some schools look for “balance”, but that’s just as messy. Teachers in one Texas School District were told that if there’s a book about the Holocaust in their classroom, they had to provide balance with an opposing” perspective. When teachers freaked out about possibly having to teach Holocaust Denial, the administrators backtracked saying that they only intended structural racism denial. 

Deciding whether to deny or balance is like floundering in quick-sand. A Florida school district principal told a parent that he couldn’t say the Holocaust was an actual, factual event” because not all parents shared that belief. The school board responded by firing the principal, twice. But they were at fault for not having anticipated the Holocaust Denial connection. If they had, their decision to enact a ban on Holocaust Denial as part of its ban on teaching critical race theory wouldn’t have been “on-second-thought”.

Fortunately, Americans have fought against censorship. And 40 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that books cannot be banned solely because of their content. As the American Library Association (ALA) said, “Censorship is a dead end. Find your freedom to read!”  Yet it’s very much a battle and the American Booksellers Association (ABA) introduced a Banned Books Week onto the battlefield. Their promotion of banned books was welcomed by almost 3 billion readers.

Contrast that with authoritarian societies like the German Third Reich where public bans were widely embraced. Known as the culture of “poets and thinkers” before World War I, the post-war chaos gave way to rage and prompted Nazis to free Germans from that “depraved” culture. Nazis planned, staged and broadcast book burning. First targeting Marxist writers, the ban spread to Jews and pacifists. Following what I call “Make Germany Great Again”, tens of thousands hailed the burnings, marching in the streets, shouting Nazi slogans and singing nationalist songs. History illustrates that it was the ordered mayhem, not freedom, that led to WW II.

As we watch increasingly raucous school board meetings, and let’s not forget the Jan. 6 insurrection, understand that banning books can be a symptom of rage following chaos, COVID in our case. Historically, that rage can spread like wild fire. So while insisting that freedoms be preserved, the growing mayhem actually threatens our freedoms, not preserve them. Banning and censoring books only deepens the decay of democracy. And those “on-second-thought” efforts are too little too late. We need to anticipate, not just react.

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