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The New Illiterates

In the US, we now have the New Illiterates: no familiarity with actual contents of the banned books, and no concern to examine them objectively. And THESE are the people who want to ban books.

5 min read

In the US, book banning has been accelerating, along with the right-wing weaponizing both Critical Race Theory and state curriculum lists for teaching Social Studies. But why? Most historians say that fear of social change prompted book banning throughout history.

“The banning of books about race or LGBTQ+ issues does not just affect local communities,” said Kim Anderson of the National Education Association. “It also withholds the opportunity for all students to learn ‘an honest and accurate truth of our history.’”

“Diversity is our strength, so this is offensive to people of color, women, LGBTQ+, immigrants, and the poor ,who have traditionally been marginalized. We’re short-changing every single student if we don’t tell the truth [about who we were and who we are],” added Anderson.

In Kentucky, eastern Kentucky’s Senator Phillip Wheeler’s Senate Bill 167 would do two things consistent with the goal of banning books:

  • Force the terms of all current public library board members to expire at the end of this year.
  • Then have the mostly Republican county judge-executives choose the replacements.

Anyone who has been following the news knows exactly what this is about. “Those pesky librarians and their supporters insist on keeping books on their shelves that we don’t like, and they won’t give in when we give them a list of books we want removed. So we’ll just take over all the boards!” surmises Bruce Maples of Forward KY.

“Once that mostly Republican judge-executive gets to put in ‘right-thinking’ persons on the library board, it will be only a matter of time before that board tells the librarians what books to remove,”  he warns. “And since there is a companion bill in the KY House (HB 480), they could put this into law quickly.”

Book banning isn’t new

Censorship in the form of book banning has been around throughout world history:

  • In 1497–98, Savonarola, a Florentine religious fanatic, instigated great “bonfires of the vanities” which destroyed books and paintings by some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance.
  • In 1616–42, Galileo’s theories about the solar system and his support of the discoveries of Copernicus were condemned by the Catholic Church.
  • In 1624, Martin Luther’s German translation of The Bible was burned in Germany by order of the Pope.
  • In 1597, the original version of Shakespeare’s Richard II contained a scene in which the king was deposed from his throne. Queen Elizabeth I was so angry that she ordered the scene removed from all copies of the play.
  • For hundreds of years, the Roman Catholic Church listed books that were prohibited to its members; but in 1598, Pope Paul IV established the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. For more than 400 years this was the list of books that Roman Catholics were told not to read. It was one of the most powerful censorship tools in the world.
  • In 1859, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, outlining the theory of evolution, was banned from the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, where Darwin had been a student. In 1925, Tennessee banned the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools made famous by the Scopes Monkey Trial; the law remained in force until 1967.
  • In 1885, a year after the publication of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the library of Concord, Massachusetts, excluded it, as “rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.”
  • In 1931, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll was banned by the governor of Hunan province in China, because “animals should not use human language and it was disastrous to put animals and humans on the same level.”
  • In 1933, a series of massive bonfires in Nazi Germany burned thousands of books written by Jews, communists, and others. Included were the works of John Dos Passos, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Lenin, Jack London, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Erich Maria Remarque, Upton Sinclair, Stalin, and Leon Trotsky.
  • In 1962, a group called “Texans for America” opposed textbooks that referred students to books written by the Nobel Prize-winning author, Ernest Hemingway.
  • In 1983, members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for the rejection of The Diary of Anne Frank because it was “a real downer.” It was also challenged for offensive references to sexuality.
  • In 1987, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou was removed from the required reading list for Wake County Schools, North Carolina, because of a scene in which the author, at the age of seven, is raped.
  • During the Bosnian war, Serbian troops shelled the National Library in Sarajevo. They destroyed between 1.5 million and 3 million volumes. It was one of the worst book burnings in modern history. Soldiers shot at anyone who tried to save the books.
  • The U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, passed after 9/11, gave the FBI power to collect information about the library borrowings and internet site browsing of any U.S. citizen.
  • In 2013 in Pakistan, spokesmen announced bans on I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, by the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
  • In 2019 in the US, there was demand for the removal of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series from public libraries due to depictions of magic, witchcraft, and “actual curses and spells” in the texts.

The above texts are classics by anyone’s standards.

Are we going to allow unenlightened partisan hacks to call for these to be banned once again?

Today, Republican Texas state representative Matt Krause released a list of 850 books that he wants to be “investigated.” He demands school superintendents provide him with lists of texts that deal with certain subjects relating to race and sex.

Krause alleges that these titles may violate Texas HB 3979, known as the “critical race theory law.”

This exemplifies the new illiteracy: no familiarity with the actual contents of the listed volumes, and no concern to examine them objectively.

Since the burning of a Chinese library in 221 BCE, the reasons for banning books remain the same – shutting out marginalized voices for fear of a change in the social order. Whether it is the fear of the Protestant Reformation by a fractured Catholic church, the fear of political opposition in Nazi Germany, the fear of social equality in 1960s Britain, or the fear of marginalized viewpoints in the US today, all book banning revolves around FEAR of change.

Ultimately books are banned because of “their ability to represent ideas,” and the fear of what would happen if those ideas became dominant in our everyday conversations.

Americans and Kentuckians need to heed this cautionary tale, and reject the Republican right wing’s desire to send us and our children back to the Dark Ages.

A uninformed citizenry plays into the hands of the corrupt, autocratic-loving Republicans.

Today’s banners and burners are the New Illiterates.


Written by John James Alexander, a pseudonym for a long-time Kentucky educator.

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