A Totalitarian Power Grab, and What You Can Do

There has been a fair amount of press recently about the rise in challenges and bans of books in libraries and public schools. A recent, high-profile example has been McMinn County, Tennessee, which is near where I live and work. At the end of January 2022, the McMinn County school board released a statement explaining its decision to “remove the graphic novel Maus from McMinn County Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.” 

Screenshot of comedian John Mulaney with the subtitled text "Now we don't have time to unpack all of that."

Now, community hysteria and moral panic and desperate pleas to  “PROTECT THE CHILDREN!” are nothing new. Several decades ago, it was the Harry Potter series, and before that, heavy metal. One of my favorite old books is Paths to Perdition, which was published in 1922. It includes a section about the evils of ‘modern dance.’ The modern dance to which the book referred was not the jitterbug or Charleston; it was the Viennese waltz. 

However, there are some significant differences in the current wave of challenges. According to the American Library Association, the number of attempts to ban school library books was two-thirds higher in September 2021 than in September 2020. And the focus has been on attempting to “push an ideologically slanted vision of what children should learn about American culture, society, and history,” according to an article on Vox. In Texas, state Rep. Matt Krause, who ever so coincidentally happens to be a Republican, gave school systems a letter with a list of 850 books that he thought “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” Of course, he was probably just trying to be helpful.

Current attacks on literature are focusing on texts by and about marginalized groups – most often based on issues of race and sexuality. Here’s the thing. These people and their experiences have existed longer than we’ve been alive. They have as much right as anyone else to have their stories SUPPORTED and SHARED by public institutions, because they are part of our public. Additionally, other people deserve to have access to these stories. More significantly, people who are members of dominant groups should be encouraged to explore them. Men who avoid stories by and about women are weaker for that. Their experience is – well – neutered, to use a particularly apt metaphor. The same challenge exists for any group that is a majority or has more political or social power than other groups; if its members do not actively seek out understanding and work toward justice, they are instead choosing the alternatives of ignorance and bigotry. 

It’s unfortunate that people in dominant groups need to be pushed to read books and watch television and movies by and about people in marginalized communities, but sadly, that’s how it often works. They whine about diversity like it’s a bad thing, and act like it weakens the stories they love. I got news for you, BRO, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is not a crappy movie because of “diversity.” 

A still from the movie The Justice League
Zack Snyder’s vision for the Justice League. Because nothing says “high art” like using a dark sepia filter on your Instagram photo.

But I’m going to resist the temptation to make an entire blog post devoted to rolling my eyes at dudebros and Karens (with apologies to all the non-Kareny actual Karens out there). Because the thing is, if you’re reading this, chances are pretty doggone good that you’re not one of those. (Although, if you are, PLEASE leave me a ranty screed in the comments. Those things are comedy gold.) 

Instead, I’m going to describe what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a challenge, and then give some ideas for what you can do that may actually be helpful.

The first time I went through a challenge, it was a short work that I’d used previously, and that students had read in class. I met with an administrator about the text, and about what we’d done during that class period. I was kind of frustrated, because as it happened, I did not assign that text; rather, there were several different short works set on groups of desks. Students were allowed to sort themselves into groups based on which text they chose to read.  I remember thinking, “But this student did not have to read this text. If it was such a problem, why didn’t they just … pick something ELSE?” 

In that particular case, the administrator I was working with asked me, “Do you need to use this particular text? Is it the best choice for our students? If it is, please help me understand why.” And I remember REALLY appreciating that. 

Given that I was already using a group of related texts, and students weren’t reading every single one, it didn’t seem like a big deal to simply pull that text from the group and read the others that I was already using. I go back and forth on that decision, though. Those “not a big deal” concessions can add up over time. So it’s important to look at the bigger picture, too. We need to know if ultimately, we’re gaining ground… or losing ground. 

If we yield in this one case, if we compromise, and doing so strengthens relationships, which allows us to make more progress in other situations, then it’s not just “not a big deal,” but actually a good move. On the other hand, if yielding this one case results in higher levels of pushback, in more calls for concession, then we know to dig in and get ready to push harder.

But teaching is REALLY difficult right now. Teachers are TIRED. And I suspect that’s one factor that’s influencing the big-money attack on public schools and libraries. People in power know that educators and librarians are tired, and are hoping that we don’t have the resources to withstand this barrage of accusations and challenges. 

So here’s what we need.

If you are in any related profession, it is absolutely vital that you pull back as much as possible on your professional tasks. We have GOT to redirect our energy, our time – ALL of our resources, as much as we can possibly spare – to fighting this assault on our profession. Because make no mistake, this absolutely IS a war on public education, through attacks on libraries and schools. 

During your work day, review your materials. Remember that when we spend a class period studying this text, we are therefore not studying others. As a teacher, I should know why that is the best choice for my students. When we purchase this text for our classroom library or public library, that’s money that we can’t spend on something else. What does this text add to our collection? Why is it important for our community? Talk to your colleagues. What texts are they using, and why? What does “appropriate” look like for this age group? For this grade level? Those are conversations that we NEED to be having on a regular, ongoing basis, not just scrambling to cobble together when we face a challenge. 

And DO NOT work beyond your contract. This is aside from the issue of exhaustion or exploitation, both of which are totally valid issues that deserve their own blog posts. Rather, it is an issue of prioritizing your TIME.

Use your afternoons, evenings, and weekends to rest, and connect with your friends and family, and to organize. What’s going on in your state legislature? Who can you talk to? Who will help you? What policies has your school board put forth to support students’ access to relevant, meaningful literature? What are your public library’s greatest needs? How are they funded? When are their meetings? Who will go with you? Will you go to dinner before, or afterward? It’s important to celebrate the work we’re doing, and besides, people gotta eat! 

If you are not personally a teacher or librarian, look for those in your life who are. Talk to them. More importantly, LISTEN to them. How are their classes going? What are they working on? What are they struggling with?

Find out what bills are being proposed in your state legislature, and what your city and county policies are about funding libraries. Advocate for moving funds away from punitive measures, like police militarization, and into programs that reduce the need for punishment, like libraries and public transit and education and community activities. GO TO LOCAL MEETINGS. Get involved. Request additional “own voices” materials for your local public library. 

Go to athletic events, band and chorus concerts, spelling bees, art shows, and drama programs for your public schools. Volunteer to take tickets or work concessions. The teachers who organize those activities do RIDICULOUS amounts of work to put them together. They could REALLY use some help, but they are delighted just to have people in the community show up and support them. And, honestly, mostly we’re not even focused on your support for US; we’re delighted when we see people supporting OUR STUDENTS.  

Finally, I have one teensy-tiny request for creators:

Don’t cuss?

Here’s the thing: People who DO swear often say that it’s not a big deal. Okay; that’s fine. In that case, it shouldn’t be a big deal to leave it out. And especially in cases where there are other elements in a work that ARE a big deal, including profanity gives potential detractors a convenient excuse to challenge the work. “‘I’m not a bigot! I just don’t think a middle-school library should carry a book that uses the F word.” 

Because the fact is, discussions about whether or not a work is appropriate… are appropriate. The Godfather is commonly found at public libraries. Should it be included in a middle school library’s collection? Probably not. One review of the book says, “Denied dignity, denied justice — and, most importantly to the story, denied their masculinity — the characters of The Godfather do whatever it takes to build and demand the masculinity and dignity and social power they’re denied — often with bloody, ruthless results.” The novel’s language and structure are plain and even vulgar, but that is used to underscore the characterization and thematic development. It’s full of violence and sexism and toxic masculinity, and those elements are significant to the text. Even adults sometimes see this novel as sensationalizing these negative elements, and view the work as glorifying power and revenge rather than showing their tragic consequences. As a result, this is a work that is important, but not appropriate for adolescents, who are even less likely to be able to understand those nuances. 

So, creators: if your work is aimed at young people, be very judicious about including any explicit language that is not absolutely necessary. If people are offended by the fact that the farmers who are raising chickens are not just happy, but actually GAY, don’t allow them to complain about the word “cock.” Call it a rooster, please. MAKE THEM SAY THE QUIET PART OUT LOUD.

I want to close by – well, first of all, by thanking anybody who’s actually read all this – but then also by reminding you that I am talking about PUBLIC libraries and PUBLIC schools. That means that when I say that defending these institutions from the war that is being waged against them is up to US, I am not referring to myself and my colleagues. I am referring to the PUBLIC. That means ALL of us.

And that means you.

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