Book banning is a mark of societies losing their minds

At a school board meeting last month in what I choose to call Bumf–k, Virginia, elected officials dropped all pretence of rational debate by outright calling for the immolation of books they deemed offensive because of sexual explicitness.

“I think we should throw those books in a fire,” declared one councilman. A marginally less combustible colleague chimed in about wanting to “see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”

The books under the gun were “Call Me by Your Name,” which focuses on a gay relationship, and “33 Snowfish,” about three homeless teenagers. Both have been critically acclaimed by people who actually, you know, read books for a living.

This week, the town’s sheriff’s and fire departments were in attendance to maintain order at another meeting after parents had threatened to burn the objectionable books there and then. The community came to its senses with a majority of parents decrying the burn order. It was rescinded.

Virginia, by the way, is the state where a few weeks ago, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the election for governor in no small part by banging on about critical race theory being taught in schools.

But there’s been no shortage of districts and school boards punting books across the U.S. Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” was among two dozen books recently expelled by a library in Kansas.

And Canada can hardly claim superior good sense in what has become an escalating bonfire of books determined to be offensive. In 2019, the Conseil scolaire catholique, which operates as the French language school board for southern Ontario, literally burned library books for content deemed outdated, carrying negative stereotypes about First Nations. (They’ve since expressed “regret” for that action.)

While book burning is most notoriously associated with Nazi Germany — torching the work of Jews and anything determined to be subversive — there’s a long history of societies losing their minds. Some titles in particular have drawn recurring wrath. To wit: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Three years ago, the Peel District School Board issued a fiat declaring the literary classic by Harper Lee could only be taught “if instruction occurs through a critical, anti-oppression lens.” That followed a recommendation from a pedagogue, Poleen Grewal, associate director of instructional and equity support services.

Intriguingly, Grewal has since been the subject of an external investigation that found she was in a conflict of interest, using her position to help her son secure credits at a Peel high school. So there’s alleged white privilege — blindness to material that might be hurtful to people of colour and other minorities — and there’s privilege of adjacent authority.

In August, it was leaked that Grewal — who filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal, accusing the board of racism, harassment and diminishing her equity work by failing to provide support when her recommendation drew ridiculing attention — has taken a voluntary leave for the next two years.

Such overreaching over-correction is hardly the stuff of pedantic tempest in a teapot.

The Toronto school board got its knickers in a knot last month, rejecting an autobiography by renowned criminal defence lawyer Marie Henein for a book club event, essentially because she (successfully) defended Jian Ghomeshi in his sexual assault trial.

Hamilton’s public school board announced in November that it would be launching a review of all the books in its libraries — and those entering its collection — as part of an equity and learning strategy, blah-blah-blah. Because that’s all the rage now, part and parcel of a societal reckoning with our collective racist history, to hear tell. The upshot could be not just removing contentious books from the curriculum but from libraries, denying students access to books in which they might have an interest. Which surely is counterintuitive to promoting reading and independent critical inquiry.

Just down the road from Hamilton, a similar process is underway, vowing to cull books that don’t meet modern standards — “harmful to either staff or students” — by the Waterloo Region District School Board.

“As our consciousness around equity, on oppression work and anti-racist work has grown, we recognize some of the texts and collections that we have are not appropriate at this point,” Graham Shantz, the board’s co-ordinating superintendent of human resources and equity services, told trustees, as reported by the Waterloo Region Record.

Shantz did not return the Star’s calls, though a spokesperson said the board is merely trying to apply guidance directives from the Education Ministry.

Where is all this equity lens forensic auditing of books leading? Answer: to an unholy alliance between the left and the right.

There’s nothing more intrinsically virtuous about censorship, whether it’s coming from reactionaries in a lather about sexual content — gender panic and trans rights the cri du jour — or activists on the progressive end of the ideology spectrum sifting for any hint of historical oppression and white or straight privilege.

Here’s the thing: every victory by one faction is a boomeranging victory for the other. Righteousness isn’t exclusive. The right wing constituency is boosted when mirror banning arguments are advanced on the left. And wavering by free speech advocates becomes far too common.

When the Target chain briefly stopped selling Abigail Shrier’s “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters” in response to a couple of Twitter complaints, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted support on his personal account for “stopping the circulation of this book and these ideas.”

The ACLU, for goodness sake. While the American Booksellers Association, a longtime sponsor of Banned Books Week — their theme this year is “Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us” — apologized for sending copies of Shrier’s book to 750 bookstores. Which still wasn’t good enough for some, including a member of the ABA’s diversity and inclusion committee, who told Publishers Weekly: “We’re dealing with a historically white, cis organization in a white supremacist society.”

They all devolve from the same didactic bossy-boots place.

The only disagreement is over what to ban.

A pox on all of you.