As the Republican party begins to enter its painful death throes thanks to a gradual but implacable generational shift in younger voters towards Democratic candidates, Republicans from federal and state legislatures on down to their rabid base voters are lashing out as they desperately channel the decades of pent-up hate they’ve accumulated while their electorate slowly and gradually begins to whither and vanish.
When their efforts aren’t manifesting themselves in misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic legislation, fetishistic gun worship or simply trying to assure that no one inherits a livable planet after they’re finally extinct, they’ve resorted again and again to a method they’ve always favored: censorship and book banning. Because Republicans are bullies by nature, the targets of their book bans are fairly predictable. As reported by the Los Angeles Times:
Forbidden books are largely by and about people of color and LGBTQ individuals, the group found. Of the books removed in the first half of this school year, 30% are about race, racism or include characters of color, and 26% have LGBTQ characters or themes — all at a time when library shelves are becoming more inclusive and representative of society.
But like most Republican efforts, this one isn’t going to work.
Not to detract from the sheer ugliness of the practice (or its nasty historical antecedents), banning books in the internet age is about as futile an attempt at social control as you can imagine. About the only lasting thing it achieves is instilling a brief and fleeting sense of power among the banners themselves, who doubtlessly pat themselves on the back every time they succeed in browbeating some hapless school board or librarian into removing a certain book they disapprove of.
As Len Niehoff of the Detroit Free Press explains, there are many reasons why book banning is futile as a practical matter:
...[I]t doesn’t work. If a school board or municipality finds some ideas worrisome and believes that keeping books off shelves will prevent students and adults from accessing them then they may wish to acquaint themselves with a phenomenon called the Internet.
Every idea imaginable waits there, available to anyone with a smartphone or a laptop, at no or little cost... Given the realities of cyberspace, the removal of physical books from shelves seems like a stale joke.
Banning books therefore has nothing to do with protecting anyone. Instead, it has everything to do with the egos of those doing the banning. It’s an exercise of raw power, a tantrum intended to show that the censor’s ideas win and the censored ideas lose.
As Niehoff points out, the practice of book banning commonly rests on misinformation and ignorance, typically amounting to a hypocritical gesture performed by people who have never read the books in question (and often reside in zip codes hundreds if not thousands of miles away from the targeted school or library). But aside from trying to defy the panopticon ubiquity of the internet, another consequence of book banning is to make the banned books themselves more popular. Prohibit something? Young people will find a way (NB: I always did, and most reading this did as well). Nowhere was this more obvious than in the ham-handed effort of a Tennessee school board to ban the graphic novel, Maus.
As reported in The Nation:
After the McMinn County School Board voted in January to remove Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its curriculum, the issues of book banning and the right’s nationwide campaign to reshape what students are reading in public schools gained renewed national attention.
An immediate result of the board’s decision were soaring sales of Maus, which occupied the top spot on Amazon for weeks.
The internet age has also enabled a backlash whereby children of all ages can access banned book titles simply by Googling “Banned Books.” One such website is Reader’s Digest, probably the stodgiest source imaginable. Here is their official compilation of the “most banned books” for all ages’ perusal:
- Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
- Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
- All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
- Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
- Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
- This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson
- Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin
OK, just to emphasize, this is Reader’s Digest we’re talking about. You know, the magazine that Grandma kept next to her toilet in the bathroom.
This morning while furiously pedaling the exercise bike at the gym I watched Ali Velshi on MSNBC who has devoted an entire year to airing segments about banned books, effectively advertising them to millions who otherwise would have remained blissfully unaware of their contents. He interviewed George M. Johnson, the author of All Boys Aren’t Blue. Just take my word for it, Mr. Johnson had a big grin across his face the entire interview.
None of this is to suggest that book banning isn’t evil, often by marginalizing children’s real lives, families or cultures: It is. Nor is it to suggest that it shouldn’t be vigorously opposed: It should. But for reasons beyond the merely obvious. As Niehoff explains, there is one very good reason we should fight all efforts to ban books.
[T]he greatest evil of book banning is that it has the potential to stunt the empathic development of young people. That’s a serious problem because, given the collective challenges our society currently faces, we need now more than ever the helpers, the people who rush in, the brave souls who will put themselves in between the freedom of the human conscience and the evils that would dispense with it.
As Niehoff observes, reading different viewpoints, even those that conflict with our own experience, even those that may fundamentally offend or repel our sensibilities, develops something within us: a unique capacity to see the world outside of our own experience, through the eyes of others:
... Reading takes [young people] into other minds, other experiences, other perspectives, other ways of looking at the world. It destabilizes their natural human tendency to believe that everyone sees things like they do.
And that, more than anything, explains why Republicans are such fans of banning books. They don’t want a society of critical thinkers, because their policies are anathema to anyone with a shred of empathy. They’d far prefer to breed a homogenous nation of pitiless, incurious automatons, and book banning is their last-ditch, desperate effort to achieve that end in our nation’s youth. Their goal is to create a nation of young people as morally bankrupt, self-centered and empty as they are, one which will uphold their “legacy,” such that it is.
They’ll succeed in a few places, and those kids will grow up to be just like them, ugly, bigoted and narrow-minded. That’s a tragedy.
But for the vast majority of young people, they’ll fail.