Dangerous race to censorship in the USA: the number of books banned in schools increases

In six months, books banned in American public schools increased by 28 percent. The risk of losing freedom in pieces, book after book

  • by Jacopo Rossi Lucattini4 May 2023, 5:55
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Credits: Pen America

In the United States there is a real race to censorship, with Democrats and Republicans engaged in a confrontation that threatens to erode the freedom of all, and to have repercussions on this side of the Atlantic.

Those who know the story know well how to go the arms races of all kinds: once started, all the parties involved have no other viable way than to raise more and more the shot, with the situation that becomes simultaneously more dangerous. In this case it is not a question of weapons, but of books and culture, and of the increasingly marked tendency to want to limit their dissemination, with results on the free circulation of ideas perhaps even more dangerous.

The books banned by schools

But let’s see some numbers, so as not to give the impression of mounting a small case on nothing. Well, the numbers are impressive: books banned in US public schools have increased by 28% in the last six months alone. This is certified by the report "Banned in the USA: State Laws Supercharge Book Suppression in Schools", made by Pen America, the trade association that brings together many American writers.

In fact, it is a real witch hunt, with 1,477 books that were banned in the first half of the school year 2022-23.

But what does a school ban mean in practice? In practice, that these books can no longer be placed on the shelves of school libraries, which cannot be assigned as reading by teachers, nor used within lectures and study projects. In practice, they are completely eliminated from places where a good percentage of young Americans have the only chance of coming into contact with literary texts.

Censorship woke

We have been talking about censorship of this kind for some years now, but the phenomenon has escalated and it is worrying. And as with all arms races, trying to identify who started the domino effect is a less important element than finding a way to stop it.

Here on the pages of Atlantico Quotidiano we have often dealt with the phenomenon of woke culture, which has in fact brought to the United States first and throughout the West then a new wave of censorship and liberticide instincts, driven by a supposed desire to achieve social justice at various levels.

In fact, the first great wave of censorship and restrictions on the dissemination of books in schools was desired by institutions, educational and political, characterized by liberal positions, for reasons attributable to the commonly referred to as politically correct mindset: even today, of the 1,477 books banned in this school year, 30% were found guilty of conveying stereotypes or other negative characterisations concerning race, to contain racist language expressions or to include characters of color dashed in a disrespectful way.

The conservative reaction

As if that were not enough, in recent years there has been a reaction of the other side on the same tone. An important part of the conservative world has in fact passed to what it interprets as a counter-attack, and as a result has joined this crusade censory conservative educational and government institutions.

To continue to reason on the concrete level, books banned in this school year, 26 percent presents characters or themes related to the LGBTQ world, and/or includes situations that describe emotional or sexual relationships in a way that is considered inappropriate for the school population or contrary to common traditional moral values.

In fact, every month book bans become more common even in Republican-led states, so much so that according to Pen’s report, alone "Seven districts of Texas were responsible for 438 prohibition cases [...] and 13 districts of Florida were responsible for 357".

Just the governor of Florida, Ron Desantis, considers the fight against the spread of what is usually very hastily and quite arguably labeled as "porn in schools" a cornerstone of his political action and a key theme in his race, Although unofficial, he was nominated for the Gop’s presidential nomination - of which he is now de facto the only contender for Donald Trump.

Logic of escalation

The reasoning that underlies this continuous back and forth is the dear old "a little for one does not hurt anyone". If the opposing party takes advantage of every possibility provided by covering an authority to attack ideas that it does not appreciate, in this case limiting the possibility that books are read deemed somehow "wrong"Why should we not do the same when we are in a position to do so?

The answer is complex, or rather it is really difficult to break away from this mentality of the arms race, the witch hunt used as a weapon and retaliation. But at the end of the article we will try to give it.

The most censored

First, however, I would like to give you two concrete examples of books that are increasingly banned, attacked the first from right and the second from left with such acrimony, to stand out in the ranking of the most censored books in America.

Si tratta di classifica in cui sono in triste compagnia di un capolavoro come “Uomini e topi” di John Steinbeck e del classico moderno per ragazzi “Un ponte per Terabithia” di Katherine Paterson, ma anche “Huckleberry Finn” di Mark Twain e “Harry Potter” di Joanne K. Rowling, to give an idea of the variety - these books are shown in the billboard created by Pen America to protest against the growing censorship and reported in the photo here present.

Banned books

Credits: Pen America

"The tale of the handmaid"

One is "The Handmaid’s Tale" (The Handmaid’s Tale) written by Margaret Atwood in 1985. It is a novel set in a dystopian future, in which society, faced with a birth crisis and the nightmare of the demographic recession has entrusted itself to a sect of vaguely Old Testament inspiration, which imposed a theocratic regime in the United States.

In this new state called Gilead, women have a value only because they are capable of generating children: there is an elite of men, the only ones who have the ability to read and work, who control the system, and assign each of the "commanders" a harem of "handmaidens"That is, fertile women, whose only occupation in life is to perform a monthly mating with the commander - who is often nothing more than a rape -, get pregnant and give birth. Those who fail, because they are too old or not fertile, are physically eliminated or exiled.

The protagonist does not have a proper name, because all the handmaids are designated with that of the commander to whom they belong. And so it is "Difred" to tell how the sinking into this nightmare happened gradually, almost always with the favor of the population, and how life in this world is dominated by hypocrisy and the total lack of any freedom, for anyone, and that any attempt to regain those freedoms that a few years before were taken for granted is violently repressed.

"The darkness beyond the hedge"

If Atwood talks about a possible future, another book in the first five places of the proscription list takes us into the past: it’s "The Darkness Beyond the Hedge" (To Kill a Mockingbird), a 1960 masterpiece by Harper Lee. It tells the social reality and everyday life of segregated Alabama of the 1930s using a wonderful fusion of Southern Gothic and realism, probably representing the most important American novel of the second half of the 20th century.

Racial tensions, difficult relations between different communities, the complex functioning of justice in a land where lynchings have represented a constant and terrible phenomenon, everything is told through the eyes of a little girl, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, daughter of Atticus.

Atticus is a lawyer in the small (fictional) town of Maycomb, who one day decides to accept the ungrateful task of defending in court Tom Robinson, an African American accused of rape by a white woman.

During the trial, Atticus will be able to prove that the allegations were unfounded, and that the woman had invented them to hide her attempt at making advances, which she knew would be deemed unacceptable by the community, but the man is still condemned by the jury composed entirely of whites.

During the long months of the trial, the position of the Finch family within the community becomes difficult, an attempt to lynch Robinson is thwarted only by the providential intervention of the little Scout, but the man will still be killed during an attempt to escape from prison.

The father of the woman who had accused him will try to kill Scout and his brother, who will be saved only by the intervention of a neighbor suffering from mental problems, whose reality the child will finally understand rather than fear. In short, it is a fundamental novel to understand American history and society, not only with regard to the relationship between whites and blacks, but also between the sexes, the role of women and people in some way "different" in society.

The absence of freedom

They are two very distant books in style, language and setting, but they are united in a much deeper way than by the mere fate of having been placed on the index in a similar way. Both tell us about worlds characterized by a total absence of freedom.

In Atwood’s dystopian future as in Lee’s historical past, no one is free. In Gilead, men are the oppressors and women are the oppressed, and in segregated Alabama, whites are the oppressors and blacks are the oppressed, but no one is truly free, as shown by the story of Dolphus Raymond, a character in "The Darkness Beyond the Hedge".

Raymond is a white man who in order to live his relationship with a black woman is forced to pretend to be an alcoholic, since the only way to make his Lola tolerate by the community is to pass for a deviant, for a man clearly outside of decency and society.

In the worlds in which these two books lead us, no one is in short free to live his own life, to love who he wants and to be what he is. They are therefore two books that we can with good certainty say it is desirable to read, because they can represent an important mirror in which to observe what was dangerous or could be. And yet today it is almost impossible to find them in American high schools -because we talk about high schools, not just elementary.

Moods in the Gop

Of course, one could say that these worlds seem distant to us, but what really scares us about the wave of censorship that is sweeping America is that none of the lawmakers, of any political color, You seem to realize that every forbidden book brings us a little closer to that kind of reality.

For goodness sake, it is understandable that in an ideologically increasingly exasperated climate no one wants to be the first to lift his foot from the accelerator, but it remains vital to wonder how much is missing before a possible crash.

Many in America are wondering, even in the ranks of the Republican Party, which has always had an important libertarian component, and that today it seems instead started with conviction in this race to the rise of the ideological clash with the Democrats for their part increasingly tending to Wokism.

Yet for many people to stoop to play on the same ground of censorship can not be an acceptable path, as for Thomas Peterffy, founder of Interactive Brokers and historical great financier of the Gop. Peterfly recently told the Financial Times that he "put himself in a waiting position", because of Desantis' positions and what he called "the banning of books". "I and a group of friends have decided to close the taps at the moment": these are his words, which express a clear and clear discontent with the prospect of a party that historically defended personal freedoms and that today passes bans on reading.

Finite and infinite games

A key concept to understand how high the stakes are in a situation like this, and how we can possibly hope to stop the trigger mechanism, is offered by James Crane, historian and scholar of religions, who outlined the categories of "game over" and "infinite". A finished game is played to win: there are clear and obvious winners and losers. An endless game is played to continue playing: the goal is to maximize the victory of all participants.

A discussion is a finished game; a wedding is an endless game. Congressional elections are a finished game; democracy is an endless game. And much unnecessary suffering in the world results from the fact that we often lose sight of or do not know the difference. A bad fight can destroy a marriage; a contested election can destabilize a democracy.

The point is therefore to be able to understand that politics is not only a clash, as for Schmitt: winning elections is a game over, but governing is an endless game, and if you govern thinking of hitting ideological opponents rather than preserving freedom, you risk losing. And make everyone lose.

Because if today there are thousands of books that are banned from schools, in the end they lose all. In the short term, progressives may be pleased because that book where the terrible shibboleth of the word "nigger" is used regardless of the context has disappeared; the conservatives will be because they no longer see on the shelves the works of Simone De Beauvoir ready to attack the traditional family. But in the long run everyone will be poorer. In the long run we all lose if we play like this.

The stakes

I do not know about you, to conclude by referring to the books we have talked about, but I personally would hope not to be an oppressed person. At the same time, I don’t even like the idea of becoming an oppressor.

What I would aspire to is the possibility of living in a society that protects freedom as much as possible, where it is relatively possible to express what one is without fear of violent reprisals, where maybe the government doesn’t start deciding today which books can and cannot be read, no matter what color the government is.

Witnessing an escalation of censorship in the largest democracy in the world should at least cause concern to all those who consider freedom a value to be protected, regardless of "who started".

It does not matter if liberal groups have started censoring books in the name of political correctness: if the response of the conservative side is to censor themselves in a race to who forbids more, it is an answer that can only worsen the problem.

Freedom is never forever, this is what the books we talked about teach us, it should never be taken for granted, and you always have to be very careful if someone tries to take away a piece of it, even if it is a question of removing from libraries that book that we did not like or that seemed excessive or even wrong in its philosophy.

Because once we let go, that little bit of freedom may never come back, and it may not be the last we lose, even if today we seem to be even happy about it.


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