The many(!) attempts in recent years to remove or limit access to books in schools and libraries is a serious problem. Such efforts fail far more often than they succeed, but few censors seem ever to learn that. They mount campaign after campaign, dividing communities, wasting the time of public officials, and exhausting activists on both sides, mostly in efforts that accomplish nothing. It is difficult to comprehend such relentless futility without taking note of the deep distrust that political and religious conservatives have of an informed public, their fear of knowledge itself.
A brief overview of anti-knowledge trends includes:
- Further reducing already limited public spending on education at all levels.
- Vouchers and other methods for shifting tax dollars out of public education and into private hands.
- Sanitizing great literature into mind-numbing pap, as is too often done in the classroom with the writings of Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare, and other masters.
- Attempts to remove education about basic human sexuality from public school curricula, including removing information about abortion, birth control methods, and prevention of disease, or replacing medically sound curricula with abstinence-only "education."
- Attempts to remove education about human evolution from public school curricula by watering down information on evolutionary theory, injecting unscientific doubt, or adding materials on the pseudoscience sometimes called Creationism or Intelligent Design.
- Lawsuits and other pressure by private schools that teach Creationism to force accrediting agencies or universities to accept the notion that their students are adequately educated.
- Pressuring school and public libraries to reduce or eliminate books that portray homosexuality in a positive, or even neutral, light, or that give factual information about variation in human sexual expression.
- Pressuring school and public libraries to carry more books on pseudo-scientific "ex-gay" therapies.
- Demanding that schools and libraries impose internet filters that go far beyond protecting children from sexually explicit material, blocking access to information that both adults and minors have a constitutional right to access.
- Pressure to keep worldview-challenging curricula out of the public schools, including courses on comparative religion, comparative political systems, and many aspects of history.
- Attempting to remove or restrict access to books in school curricula.
- Attempting to remove or restrict access to books in school libraries.
- Attempting to remove or restrict access to books in public libraries.
It is often in these mundane book challenges that the true political and religious motivations are most honestly revealed. Some book challengers are genuinely concerned with protecting children from obscene materials, but these are few. Too often, a book challenger makes claims about a book he or she has never read, and relies on the ignorance of others not to get caught. If they have read the book, they grossly exaggerate the objectionable aspects of it, either taking quotes out of context or outright lying about the contents (like calling The Bluest Eye the "bestiality book" or calling Heather Has Two Mommies "sexually explicit"). From time to time the challengers are more honest, clearly stating that they object to a book because they see it as un-American, anti-religious, challenging to authority, glorifying criminality, promoting homosexuality, or any of a long litany of complaints that are excruciatingly documented in endless letters to library directors, school boards, and city councils (and all of which mark a work as constitutionally protected speech).
Underlying it all is the inability or unwillingness of the censorious to live in a modern, pluralistic democracy. They are unwilling to acknowledge that one society can include multiple values and opinions. They are unable to understand that democracy implies that others have a right to make choices different from their own. They fail to grasp that the mechanisms of the state do not exist for the purpose of promoting a single worldview, and assume that the single worldview that should be promoted is their won. They want to force everyone else to live within the same narrow range of knowledge to which they restrict themselves.
It is only in this light that any sense at all can be made of the claims asserted by People Against Bad Books In Schools, Family Friendly Libraries, Know Your Library, SafeLibraries, PFOX, West Bend Citizens For Safe Libraries, and others. Their claims that what they're trying to do is anything other than censorship is rational only within a worldview that does not comprehend a difference between private choices and public policy. Their claim that opposing them undermines democracy itself can only be counted as sensible in the absence of a commitment to pluralism. And to promote those views in a pluralistic democracy that limits what is controlled by public policy in favor of private choices they must drag everyone else down to their level. To make their logic work we must all become unlettered, become ignorant of history and doomed to repeat it, to know nothing that might undermine a cherished political position or article of religious faith.