1984: Ahead of It Time

I used to love Orwell’s novel, foolishly believing we would heed his warnings, like those of Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451. Surely we would never turn into book burners,  and – while we don’t always acknowledge the full truth of our history – surely we would not seek to revise it completely.

I was wrong. We have failed to heed those warnings too often. We must turn the tide.

Book banning and revisionist history are both on the rise. You need only to look at Valdimir Putin’s efforts to develop new history books. “Dictators are not content with controlling the present; they want to control the past as well. ‘Correctly’ crafted historical narratives can give them an appearance of legitimacy and provide justification for their actions” (washingtonpost.com). Despite being in the midst of a tragic war with Ukraine, Putin took the time to create a task force to produce a new history textbook for 10th and 11th graders. Completed in less than four months, the new texts offer new versions of Russian history. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian dissident jailed for his opposition to the war against Ukraine, writes:

Russian students will be taught that both the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan were conducted at the behest of these countries’ own governments; that “human rights violations” (written exactly like this, in quotation marks) in the Soviet Union were just a pretext for Western interference in its internal affairs; and that Mikhail Gorbachev was an incompetent and ignorant leader whose policies led to the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” as the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. is described in the textbook, using Putin’s well-known expression. The history of the Soviet dissident movement is illustrated with a “primary source” — not a declaration or pamphlet by dissidents or human rights groups, of course, but a 1972 report from KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov about “organized subversive activity … by anti-Soviet elements.” (Ibid.)

Even these fabrications pale compared to the way the texts present the war with Ukraine. It is unusual, to say the least, to include current and unfinished events in a so-called history textbook, but Putin wants to reshape history and squash opposition, so the books call Ukraine a “neo-Nazi” state that came to power in a “military coup” in 2014 and claim Ukraine started the war. The books even claim that Russian soldiers are now “fighting shoulder to shoulder for goodness and the truth… and the special military operation has consolidated our society” (Ibid.). Putin would replace history and truth with propaganda and slogans.

This matters, not only in Russia. We are seeing efforts within our own borders to revise history; just look at what the Governor of Florida’s history commission claims about slavery. Book banning runs rampant in some of our states, trying to limit access to ideas and issues disliked by the book banners. Even though they often claim they have the right to limit access as parents concerned about their children, they are content to limit the rights of other parents to decide for their own children.

At least in our country, the backlash is beginning to make an impact. When Florida’s Martin County, trying to interpret the bill DeSantis pushed through, released a lengthy list of books to be removed from school library, authors fought back. Most were selected because of the complaints of a single parent! This list included twenty books by Jodi Picoult, claiming they are “adult romance.” They are not, but they do address controversial issues. Picoult slammed the bans. She said, “We have actual proof that marginalized kids who read books about marginalized characters wind up feeling less alone… Books bridge divides between people. Book bans create them” (washingtonpost.com2).

The New York Public Library has a new program called “Books for All: Protect the Freedom to Read in Your Community.” They offer toolkits for activists, free digital access to banned books, discussion groups, teen writing contests, reading lists, and ways to take action (https://www.nypl.org/spotlight/books-for-all). The American Library Association partnered with the New York Public Library, and they, too, offer resources.

Rewriting history and limiting access to books that don’t agree with the objectors’ views are a proven path to repression and authoritarianism. We can’t let that happen here. Speak up! Follow your library and school board meetings. We need to turn the tide while we still can.

The Culture Wars: A Harmful Distraction

Politicians and other public figures continue to push the culture wars as a distraction instead of focusing on solving the very real problems facing our schools and communities. Their actions cause harm while preventing the kind of collaborative problem-solving we so urgently need. All of us must speak up.

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) reported 695 attempts to censor library materials and services and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles in just the first eight months of 2023. The number of unique titles challenged has increased by 20% from the same reporting period in 2022, a year that had already shattered censorship records. Challenges to books in public libraries accounted for 49% of documented challenges, compared to 16% during the same reporting period in 2022. Challenges by a single person or group demanding the removal or restriction of multiple titles dominate, with over 90% of the overall number of books challenged included as part of an attempt to censor multiple titles.

“These attacks on our freedom to read should trouble every person who values liberty and our constitutional rights, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “To allow a group of people or any individual, no matter how powerful or loud, to become the decision-maker about what books we can read or whether libraries exist, is to place all of our rights and liberties in jeopardy” (uniteagainstbookbans.org).

Libraires themselves are under attack. “Some libraries have received bomb threats; others are at risk of having their funding slashed, or even face closure, over disputes about book removals. In some instances, librarians have been harassed, threatened and called groomers and pedophiles” (nytimes.com).

According to PEN America, the movement to ban books is driven by a vocal minority demanding censorship despite a 2022 poll showing that over 70% of parents oppose book banning. PEN counted book removals in school and classroom libraries during the 2022-2023 school year and found 3,362 cases of books being removed, a 33 percent increase over the previous school year. More than 1,550 individual titles were targeted. Many of the same books are challenged around the country, including classics by Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, and contemporary young adult fiction by popular authors like John Green. “The most dramatic spike in book bans took place in Florida, which removed more than 1,400 books and surpassed Texas as the state with the highest number of removals, according to PEN. Florida emerged as a hot spot for book challenges after the state passed several laws aimed in part at restricting educational and reading material on certain subjects. As school districts scrambled to comply with the new regulations earlier this year, some teachers and librarians removed entire shelves of books” (pen.org).

Free speech advocates worry that some school districts will further limit book access by suspending new book purchases or avoid stocking books on topics that might be viewed as controversial. “The way it’s going to begin to manifest may look different,” said Kasey Meehan, the lead author of PEN’s report. “We’ll begin to see this chilled atmosphere play out in different ways, either through quietly removing books, or not bringing books in, in the first place” (nytimes.com).

The novelist Nora Roberts responded to the decision of a Martin County, Florida school to purge eight of her novels based on the complaints of a single member of the conservative group Moms for Liberty: “All of it is shocking…If you don’t want your teenager reading this book, that’s your right as a mom — and good luck with that. But you don’t have the right to say nobody’s kid can read this book.” The very same parents who want their parental rights protected too often would do so by denying those rights to other parents (washingtonpost.com).

Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois Secretary of State and State Librarian, recently testified to a Senate Judiciary Committee, “Our democracy depends on a marketplace of ideas [that] will not function if we ban books, because we will be banning ideas and preventing our children from thinking for themselves and having the ability to debate and learn and understand different perspectives” (chicagotribune.com). But even in Illinois books are being removed. The Yorkville school board removed the book Just Mercy from the curriculum, deeming it inappropriate and upsetting for teens. This book explores issues in the American justice system and should promote meaningful discussion.  I’m proud of Yorkville High School senior Alexis Barkman. She said, “By allowing the opinions of a select few to influence what is taught in our classrooms, you’re sending the message that their beliefs are more important that the quality of our education. You’re depriving us of our freedom to read and form our own opinions about the subjects you deem too controversial” (shawlocal.com).

Such behavior for political purposes is offensive to me. Look at a Missouri candidate for governor, State Senator Bill Eigel.  A long-shot at best, he very publicly used a flamethrower to set cardboard boxes on fire. Eigel said he would burn books he found objectionable, and that he’d do it on the lawn outside the governor’s mansion. Later he claimed this was all a metaphor for how he would attack “the woke liberal agenda” (chicagotribune.com). Is this dangerous stunt more important than the key issues defined by Missouri University Extension: economic opportunity, educational access and workforce preparedness, and health and wellbeing (muextensionway.missouri.edu)? Of course not.

And books aren’t the only front line. The United States Senate is arguing over a dress code even as the nation faces a likely government shutdown and its consequential impact. A black student in Texas just filed a federal civil rights lawsuit because his high school disapproves of his dreadlocks even though he ties them up on his head to meet school requirements (chicagotribune.com). When we continue to face an achievement gap for students of color and a school-to-prison pipeline, is this really our priority?

Heidi Stevens, my favorite Chicago Tribune columnist, said it best: “Stop pretending book bans are about sex… Stop pretending we can solve the most pressing, dire issues of our time – the climate crisis, the opioid overdose epidemic, gun violence, the recent doubling of childhood poverty – the mental health crisis among young people – without including all sorts of voices, stories, perspectives, ideas, experiences, and wisdom in public discourse and policy making” (www.chicagotribune.com).  Please heed her call to action and reach out to your elected officials.

“Let the Children Lead the Way”

Whitney Houston was right when she sang, “I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way.”

At a time when political polarization continues to fracture families and communities, we hear voices of reason among our youth. An opinion piece in The Washington Post this week proves that once again.

Eli Tillemann, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, described a divisive issue in his school that led to further polarization among adults (washingtonpost.com). This top-rated magnet school saw its selective admissions process overhauled by the Fairfax County School Board in an effort to improve diversity. No longer would applicants have to pay a $100 application fee or undergo standardized testing. Sadly, the infighting that followed nearly ended the Parent Teacher Association and a lawsuit was filed with the Supreme Court.

Tillemann shows more maturity than most of us when he writes, “Over the past two years, many of my classmates and I have learned a valuable lesson from this factional squabbling: It doesn’t work. When a society separates into warring camps, no one is left to have a meaningful conversation about fixing the underlying issues.” Instead of taking sides, he and many classmates decided to write their own curriculum, to learn to debate constructively and “to build a program that prepares students to navigate our increasingly tribal cognitive ecosystem.” With help from Niels Rosenquist, a psychiatrist and an interdisciplinary researcher at Harvard Medical School, and digital media executive Stuart Schulzke, they created “Dialectic,” a program now being looked at in states like California, Utah, and Massachusetts.

As president of both the Democrats and Republicans at his school, Tillemann has brought them together to host lectures on “the science around communication in the digital age, the neurobiology of tribalism and, perhaps most important, how to disagree.” He writes that more than 70 students attended the kickoff lecture, and that he and his classmates really want to learn how to disagree better, how to avoid the tribalism so apparent in the adults around them.

These students seek to tackle controversial problems, working together to generate better solutions. He writes, “This is not just civility for civility’s sake. The best outcomes in policy, business and life usually emerge from a competition of ideas and a compromise on solutions.”

These young people recognize that their solutions may not be adopted, but they hope to change the acrid environment surrounding the debate about the issue. They recognize that the well-intended changes to the admissions process are still flawed, and they are suggesting options to avoid some of the problems. I am impressed!

But Tillemann is right that we need more work like this around the nation. He says it far more effectively than I could: “Americans must level up the caliber of our discourse by relearning the benefits of practical debate. Constructive, respectful disagreement is vital to a functioning democracy. It is time for both sides to embrace a new strategy for resolving our differences.”

Out of the mouths of babes…