Wir brauchen Ihre Unterstützung — Jetzt Mitglied werden! Weitere Infos
Spellbound by the book ban:  literature caught in the  crosshairs of US culture warriors

Spellbound by the book ban:
literature caught in the
crosshairs of US culture warriors

In the course of the culture war in the United States, both conservatives and progressives are increasingly trying to ban undesirable books. That’s a worrying sign of intolerance.

Lesen Sie die deutsche Version hier.

No matter what becomes of Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida is already guaranteed one legacy: The laws known as «Don’t Say Gay» and «Stop W.O.K.E.», which remove sexual content from pre-kindergarden level education to grade 12 in the state’s public schools, have immortalized him as a banner of books. According to PEN America, an organization dedicated to protecting free speech in literature and the humanities, 1406 books were banned in Florida in the last school year as a result of this law. Measured against the 5894 book bans that PEN counted from 2021 to 2023 in 41 states and 247 public school districts, this makes DeSantis› state the leader in book prohibitions. In the Escambia County School District in West Florida, 1600 more books were indexed in January for depicting sexual acts, including dictionaries and encyclopedias such as Merriam Webster’s «Dictionary for Students.»

Even if legal action is already being taken against Escambia County’s decree, the matter should not be taken lightly. Lists of banned books are harbingers of an intolerance that culminated in book burnings under National Socialism in 1933, not to mention the 12 anni horribiles that followed. The history of book bans in the USA fits perfectly with Orwellian narratives of political and literary thought control in the current culture war. Conservatives like DeSantis are allowing the US to drift more and more into religious and dictatorial repression.

Book burning in Brugg

Attempts to index or ban books are not a novelty, but rather a worldwide phenomenon across human history. You don’t even have to go back to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which from 1556 to 1966 listed works from Giordano Bruno to Simone de Beauvoir that ran counter to Catholic doctrine. Even in Brugg in the canton of Aargau, a teacher consigned a pile of «trashy and dirty literature» to a firery fate in 1965 on the grounds that these texts – including Wild West magazines, German illustrated magazines and comics – were responsible for the moral brutalization of the local youth.

Even today, books are not only endangered by legal clauses, such as Article 86 of the German Criminal Code, which criminalizes the dissemination of National Socialist propaganda and only allows suspect writings to be sold in exceptional academic, artistic or journalistic cases (Since 2022, «Mein Kampf» may only be sold again in the form of a critical, annotated edition).

Books are also banned in the name of protecting the youth. The German Federal Agency for the protection of children and young persons from harmful media, for example, maintains a quarterly index of works whose distribution and advertising to young people is restricted due to pornographic or politically extremist content. Even in Switzerland, where there is no federal law on the protection of minors, cantons define age and licensing restrictions for adult content.

In the US, too, the protection of minors is the main argument for banning books – predominantly those in school libraries. The numbers of «banned» textbooks appear inflated due to PEN America’s lax definition. Banning books includes any kind of restriction on content – from the complete removal of offensive books from reference libraries for pre-kindergarten to middle school students, to mandatory parental permission to borrow a book, to the editing of words that could trigger or traumatize young children.

«In the US, the protection of minors is the main argument

for banning books.»

Nevertheless, a restriction committed to the protection of minors is not the same as a literary dictatorship. According to an analysis by the «Washington Post», books for juveniles are predominantly affected; 61 percent of them because they tell (porn)graphic stories about sexual experiences, for example of young LGTBQ people. You can’t blame parents for objecting to (pre-)pubescent kids learning about masturbation in school as an aid to dildo-induced anal sex (as seen in «This Book is Gay» by Juno Dawson or «Gender Queer» by Maia Kobabe, two of the book banners› favorite targets).

A new level of escalation

However, the censorious rage invoking the protection of minors does not stop at classics if they use the N-word (e.g. Harper Lee’s «To Kill a Mockingbird») or otherwise sensitive topics such as the Holocaust (in Art Spiegelman’s comic «Maus»). This is nothing new either: Mark Twain’s «Tom Sawyer» and «Huckleberry Finn» have been in the censors› crosshairs for over a century. The polarization in the culture war is reflected in the fact that progressives are up in arms against restrictions on «woke» material or on the Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, but are less bothered when a classic disappears from the shelves because of antiquated racist words. The opposite is true for conservatives and religious people. But the situation is currently escalating as censorious practices are obviously getting out of hand.

This is made possible (as is so often the case) by a dispute over the interpretation of the much-vaunted First Amendment that protects freedom of speech in the US. Ever since the Supreme Court addressed the issue of the constitutionality of book bans in schools in the 1982 case Island Trees School District v. Pico, confusion has reigned. While the court found that banning books based on criticism of content and ideas was contrary to the First Amendment and therefore unconstitutional, it did so with one caveat: If the books are not educationally appropriate, they can still be banned from the library.

Because four judges dissented and the Chief Justice ultimately dismissed the precedent, the situation remained in limbo. Since then, the lazy compromise has allowed concerned parents to apply to the school board or education authority to have a title deemed unsuitable for education and removed from school libraries. Whether this challenge is granted is ultimately decided by the local school and municipal authorities.

Counterproductive results

In an ideal scenario, this proceeds fundamentally democratically. What is less ideal is that activist groups are now acting in a systematic fashion. As the Washington Post reported, almost two thirds of all ban requests were made by a small but well-organized group of militant parents: the Florida-based, Trump-friendly grassroots organization «Moms for Liberty.» Their moral and religious outrage against indecent and obscene content is now known nationwide. Recently, Moms for Liberty even opened their own smut-free, taxpayer-funded charter school in South Carolina. The book ban remains a popular vehicle for a moral message to achieve a political goal.

This does not change the fact that the ban sometimes backfires as a result of the outrage and attention economy. After the controversy surrounding the banning of Art Spiegelman’s «Maus», for example, the comic shot to the top of the bestseller lists. And so, the book ban becomes a marketing tool – nothing better could happen to some authors.

Even such counterproductive results have still not completely rendered the book ban absurd. This was recently achieved by particularly resourceful advocates of literature suitable for the young. They quickly inverted the conservative scale of values and insisted that the Bible be banished. According to a group of complaining, albeit satirically gifted parents from Utah, the Bible is pornographic and unsuitable for minors due to its diverse depictions of violence, incest, bestiality and onanism, including infanticide.

Criticism is better than censorship

Realistically speaking, a book ban often achieves the opposite of the desired effect in terms of awareness and acceptance of the literary content. This is accepted as long as the debate about it only leads to the dissemination of fundamental political positions in the public arena. The latter may actually be less about religious or other intolerance towards literary content than about missionary zeal in favor of a political ideology. This is confirmed by conservatives such as Ron DeSantis and the «Moms for Liberty» on the one hand and PEN America and its progressive interest groups on the other. What remains is a hopeless, polemical mess.

Of course, this does not make the suppression of book content negligible, harmless or even legitimate. But perhaps this puts the phenomenon of book-banning in a more realistic light: Everything is political, and books in particular. It is therefore all the more important to describe literary nonsense and garbage as just that, as long as one has read it. Sharp reviews and harsh criticism are still more tolerant than repression and censorship.

Marc Neumann, zvg.

«Everything is political, and books in particular. It is therefore all the more

important to describe literary nonsense and garbage as just that, as long as one has read it.»

Abonnieren Sie unsere
kostenlosen Newsletter!