Archived Opinion

When they come for the librarians …

When they come for the librarians …

As Americans, we’re banning a lot of books these days, perhaps 1,650 in the past year, censoring others, and coming after librarians and teachers. In North Carolina, too, at least six attempts have occurred statewide and here in the mountains, one in Waynesville and another in Macon County.

Frankly, the arguments for banning books are as old as the printing press and as flimsy as electronic tweets. Yet whether in Macon County, or McMinn County, Tennessee, most are not only unsuccessful but counterproductive. It’s called the “Streisand effect” after the singer/actress Barbara Streisand, and, in the case of McMinn County, the novel “Maus,” about a Holocaust family, shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list after attempts by the local school board to suppress it.  

It’s far too convenient to blame banning books on right-wing extremists when, historically, the left has also attempted to censor the likes of “Huckleberry Finn” for “racist content.” At the root of all these arguments is the dystopian belief that books should represent some sort of ideal world, either a radically inclusive, impossibly egalitarian progressive one or a pre-civil rights “Father Knows Best” era where we all lived in a professionally happy Mayberry-like world layered over by sacred texts like the Bible and Constitution, one that never existed except on TV. Both ignore conflicting, controversial points of view and exclude many Americans, mostly minorities.  

Implicit in both worlds is the belief that there is an All-American attitude children should embrace even as adults don’t, an understood if seldom-followed Winnie-the-Pooh list of things you shouldn’t oughta do along with a set of societal or moral commandments you should, things like pledging allegiance to symbols of American patriotism, going to church, not making fun or bullying others, cursing, eating junk food, ingesting drugs, watching pornography, or thinking of but certainly not discussing or having recreational sex, all standards parents inconsistently follow but forever proclaim.  

 So do books really influence behaviors, especially in the young? Especially if you read about “the others,” those of a different religion like Islam, of a race that isn’t yours, or sexual preferences you find abhorrent? Can reading about gays or Muslims “groom” you to become one? What if it makes you more understanding and tolerant of “the others?” Wouldn’t that be the ultimate “grooming?”

Research strongly and empirically suggests that, while behaviors such as teen drinking, smoking and sexual activity are influenced by many factors, books are not on the list. What is? Parental behavior, the home environment, social media platforms, mass media advertising and, not surprisingly, peer influence. Yet those who attack teachers, school boards and librarians are right to fear the power of reading a book. Why? Whether fictional or otherwise, reading itself ultimately makes us more open and accepting. Thus, the ideology, the “agenda” behind libricide — the killing of or censoring books — is that of killing reading itself.  

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We live in a time when we wring our hands, fuss and fret about the declining state of America when it isn’t, about what our children read and are being taught outside the home but not inside, about the dissolution of the family and morality in general, the languishing state of Christianity, and about what kind of future awaits us all. It’s as if we’ve all become the character Btfsplk from the comic strip, “Li’l Abner,” seriously well-intentioned but our own worst enemy, going about our lives with a dark, even nuclear cloud perpetually hovering over us. Our lives become a growing list of grievances.  

Who to blame for our misery? Anybody but ourselves. In our perpetual, acrimonious culture wars that never improve our material worlds, why not librarians? Recently the heroes of the COVID lockdown for distributing books and curriculum materials to homebound students at their own risk, they now have become society’s villains, accused of embracing a mysterious American Library Association “agenda” of reading works with “bad words” and “inappropriate behavior” like Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Henry IV.”

That same lockdown convinced parents that, with all their “rights,” they really didn’t want much to do with the often tedious familial work of passing on their knowledge, values, behaviors or spiritual or moral assets to their children. Or monitor and limit their access to social media. Perhaps Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” had the answer all along, namely “We have met the enemy and it is us!”   

Yet the Proud Boys and Moms for Liberty know how to deal with pesky librarians. Like Virginia State Rep. Tom Andrews of Virginia Beach, “out” them by publishing their identities, addresses, family members and phone numbers, then harass and intimidate them publicly and privately. You can also check out offensive books and burn them, bring criminal charges against librarians for distributing “pornographic materials,” sue them in court for obscenity and lock them up, the default solution for those whom we find disagreeable. Yet when they come for the librarians, we’re finished.  

At some point, our librarians, teachers and school boards deserve not our anger and harassment but our respect and gratitude. We should give them the freedom to obtain and use materials they deem important to the free play of ideas and the fundamental liberty to read. If we can’t trust our teachers and librarians, our system fundamentally is broken. Moreover, attempts to cancel the culture of “the others,” to manufacture and invent a new, sanitized history and to write new books and ban others often speaks to the bankruptcy of our own.

(Milton Ready lives in Western North Carolina and is the author of “The Tar Heel State: A New History of North Carolina” (2020). This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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