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Book bans are a symptom of our communal poverty

Each year more books, normally available, are challenged by one group or another. Books are removed, reviewed; some are replaced, others discarded. What’s going on? What are we to make of these strange battles over books?

Tracking the increased number of items challenged in recent years in libraries across America, the American Library Association calls what’s happening “unprecedented.” Here in Texas, in Keller ISD and in other school districts, a wide range of books have been removed from shelves and classrooms to be subjected to arcane review. In Llano County, legal battles have lingered over recent months about what books belong or don’t belong on the shelves of its public libraries. One Llano County librarian, Suzette Baker, even lost her job for refusing to remove certain books. “I told my boss that was censorship,” she said.

Unprecedented, perhaps. But why? These strange fights are obviously but skirmishes of our larger social conflicts. They belong to that particularly contemporary genre of incommensurate arguments, our seemingly irresolvable fights over things like racism, gender and sexuality. And because we have collectively lost our capacity to argue; and because the fora of our media seem designed by algorithm and profit to perpetuate rather than resolve arguments, our debates have largely become not only illiterate but also impersonal.

And silly. And foolish. In Keller, for instance, they took the Bible off the shelves. Not that I imagine it is a hot item in high school libraries these days. Nonetheless, its removal and review is absurd, obviously meant to make a point; that point being that although among the removed books to be reviewed, some are deemed inappropriate or indecent, others may deem other texts inappropriate or indecent too, even texts others may cherish. Two can play at that game; that’s the point. And that’s how quickly nonsense takes over.

It’s the decay of a literate and civic public that’s to blame. That’s why libraries have become ideological battlegrounds: because we no longer know how to talk to one another; because it’s become easier to ban books than read them, far easier than discussing them with others. It’s because our lived grasp of community is so screen-distracted and so ill that our libraries, our schools and other public institutions have become burdened by seemingly endless, increasingly foolish conflicts.

But it’s not just a problem of right-wing or radicalized agitators; though, that is indeed a problem. See the man, for instance, who recently stabbed Salmon Rushdie, not having read two pages of the book that supposedly so violently enraged him. Pointing to right-wing ideas and extremism is a conventional narrative for good reason, but it doesn’t explain all that’s going on.

It’s also a problem born of an anger that’s very real in many ordinary parents who feel unheard and who feel their moral prerogatives as parents are being disregarded or threatened.

For instance, parents today can’t trust that children’s movies or television shows or even commercials won’t smuggle in this, that or the other new, trendy moral or immoral innovation. Whether they agree with a particular innovation or not, many parents resent the ploy. And now the same distrust extends to classrooms and libraries. Parents, you see, at the very least, want to navigate today’s turbulent moral waters for and with their children. They don’t like feeling undercut by some anonymous Netflix producer, and especially not by a teacher or a librarian.

Now, of course, say what you will about this parental anger and distrust; whatever you think, it’s real. And this too is part of the decay of civic life, our collective loss of trust.

Which is why drawing upon old purist arguments revalorizing free speech or the First Amendment won’t do. It’s also why forcing some enlightened policy simply will not work. At best such rhetoric, such policies, merely disguise power.

No, the moral instincts of our earlier liberalism are insufficient. And that’s because insofar as our communities remain unhealthy and broken, so will our public institutions. Again, the issue is more nuanced, more complicated, than conventional binary narratives suggest. It’s not just that we’ve come under siege by radicalized right-wingers; it’s that we’ve lost our communities, we’ve lost the imaginary of the common.

But what does this mean for our libraries? Libraries have always been curated spaces. The intellectual journey has always been guided. Pedagogies have always made distinctions and determined order. In the sciences, the arts, theology and religion, certain things are read and learned before other things; other things even belong properly within its own disciplina arcani. It is not helpful for a person to read anything anytime without guidance and preparation; in fact, that’s often quite harmful. But this presumes community, presumes trust. It also presumes some coherent common account of the good.

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