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Letters from the Front: US Edition – Part II “Book Banning”

In Part II of “Letters from the Front: US Edition”, our US correspondent writes about the recent public outcry over restricting schoolchildren’s access to books such as Gender Queer, because of legitimate criticisms about inappropriate adult content. 

However, rather than reaching sensible consensus about age appropriate restrictions, accusations of “book banning” are being bandied about by American progressives, among whom the trend is to resist any kind of censorship. 

In the red state of Florida, on the other hand, teachers have elicited a government response of extreme overcorrection where all books in all classrooms must be inspected. 

As the author recalls from her own schooldays, she self-censored her personal discomfort with aspects of Catcher in the Rye due to the fear of being associated with conservative prudes. Although she would consider herself in the progressive camp, she says: 

“I can’t let that happen again. My feminist analysis of Gender Queer is, ‘It’s the Misogyny, Stupid.’”

Let me preface this by saying I am an avid reader. During a good week I can take out a good size nonfiction and a decent portion of a fiction, and I have no fewer than six titles I’m actively working on at any time. This isn’t a flex, it’s research for my fiction writing and I genuinely enjoy learning new things. When I hear of information or books or journalists or authors being harassed, I pick up and take note. If ever a book has been banned, I try to read it. Sometimes Banned Books are genuinely terrible, and people are afraid to say so.

America lately has been howling at the idea that certain books are being questioned in schools, with the common refrain being that the books are being “banned”.

The biggest title in question is Gender Queer, a graphic novel written by a woman who experienced the ongoing barrage of subtle sexism of our society and decided that if she simply declared that she wasn’t a woman anymore, she was exempt from it. Her goal was and is that “no one knows whether they are looking at a boy or a girl when they look at me.” I don’t know who is going to tell her about Sex Pattern Recognition, but I don’t think she would listen if we did.

I read Gender Queer. I read books that are banned, because like most people I want to see what the fuss is about. There is a genuine mystique about something that has been banned. What don’t they want me to see? The proverbial “they” of course being some mythic power that is trying to control what I think and say.

I read it in the span of an hour. And when I was done I set it down and thought about all the middle school girls who were also reading it.

Forget the panels with the sex toys and the oral sex. Those are the obvious.

There is a panel where the young woman touches herself in an attempt to masturbate, and she shows herself looking at her hand with her fingers now a soft white. She is scowling at it, as though she has laid her hand in a foul substance. The caption reads, “Vagina Slime”.

When I was in middle school, we read Catcher in the Rye. The English teacher handed out little red paper copies with the title in a gold print, stark to the eye. “This book was banned,” she said, perhaps trying to get us excited about reading. I didn’t need an incentive, I read all the time, and this little thing would take me two days at most.

It took me an evening. And I read about the existential trials of a rather spoiled boy who knew he was spoiled and didn’t know why and didn’t know how to make himself special. So he went into the city and had some kind of personal quest, and somewhere in there he hired a prostitute.

Catcher in the Rye was restricted from schools for language, for allusions to homosexuality, and because of the prostitute. The English teacher scoffed at this. “But he doesn’t do anything with her,” she said. “He simply talks with her.”

No one even brought up the fact that kids in the seventh grade already knew what prostitutes are for. No one thought this might be a problem. No one asked how seventh graders knew what prostitutes were, and no one bothered thinking that showing seventh graders a boy hiring a prostitute, even just to talk, might be wrong. Seventh grade me didn’t have the words or voice to raise an objection, all I had was a nagging sense that this was wrong. The objections I did raise were laughed at by the class and elicited an eye roll from the teacher.

The fact remains that for that seventh grade class and me, prostitution received society’s stamp of approval as simply another line of work. Something whose existence we shouldn’t question because it’s the “world’s oldest profession” and just something women do. I was introduced to the concept of selling one’s body for money earlier, but reading it as a classroom assignment was the final seal. Society may outwardly frown on it, but it is tolerated and accepted. Questioning it leaves one open for ridicule. As does questioning any part of a banned book in general.

I realize now that Catcher in the Rye was restricted for seventh graders for a reason. It was never really banned.

If a book was banned, it wouldn’t be available in any form. Gender Queer hasn’t been banned. I bought the e-book off of Amazon with no questions. (While I may disagree with what an author says, I am obliged to pay for her efforts.)

What the critics are saying is that these books need to be restricted from school libraries where they can be accessed by children with no parental supervision. Sadly, that’s far too nuanced for the Average American and their two minute attention span.

When Trump was elected, a popular meme that surfaced on Facebook was a stark text on a black and white image of people doing a Nazi salute. It read, “Whatever you would have done in Hitler’s Germany is what you are doing right now,” or something to that effect. Indeed, in those early days, it really did feel like we might be descending into fascism. The collective hysteria was very real, the fear was palpable, especially in my little liberal town. People put up American flags in the distress position, a neighbor put up big white letters “RESIST” in her lawn, and informal neighborhood watch groups were formed on social media to spot and report Trump Signs and Stickers.

The allusion to Nazi Germany was high in those days, but it’s never really let up since then. Even when Biden was elected, and I woke up from my afternoon nap to church bells and cries from the street, the tension has never really relaxed at all.

Looking at various social justice accounts and the neighborhood posts on NextDoor, it’s still going strong. Neighbors are constantly “correcting” each other on political posts, with frowns and angry faces clearly delineating what is acceptable and what is not. The worst of them stick to Google Groups, where unsavory names for racial groups are used regularly. The more respectable types on NextDoor stick to gently treading the thin line about complaining about an ethnic celebration in the park and respecting a minority’s right to a noisy celebration every now and then. If it’s wrapped up with a mention of how good that minority’s food is, any arguments are quickly and amicably solved. Social media’s ability to allow a society to police itself is rather profound, if superficial.

Any American’s greatest fear is being called Right Wing. A Proud Boy. A January 6th Rioter, no better than Nazis.

Propaganda isn’t a single volley. It’s a siege with several facets, and the The Book Banning debate is one facet of the ongoing siege.

The Book Banning debate brings with it a lot of emotive language. “Banning” by itself carries with it a Streisand Effect, boosting sales to the point where you wonder if it’s a trick by publishers to simply sell more copies. Reporters, of course, are eager to interview the beleaguered authors, who cry that banning books ultimately leads to “Genocide”. Never mind that if this truly were a fascist society, challenged authors would be tossed into the gulag and not winning multiple literary awards.

If I had to categorize Book Banning as a propaganda form, I would call it “Propaganda of Agitation”. It makes people mad. It rattles the sensibilities, calling forth images of gangs of angry men tossing books into bonfires. It makes one think of control, which of course triggers an instinctive reaction deep in the gut. It’s intentional, that use of the word “ban”.

In Propaganda by Jaques Ellul, he states, “Hitler could work his sweeping social and economic transformations only by constant agitation, by overexcitement, by straining energies to their utmost. Nazism grew by successive waves of feverish enthusiasm and thus attained its revolutionary objectives.” He did this with Propaganda of Agitation. He kept people angry. Trump may have lost and the Democrats might be more or less firmly at the wheel, but the specter of the Right Wing Bogeyman was never released.

January 6th would never have succeeded. There were still too many checks in place, and while it could be argued that it was a close call, it wasn’t close enough. But the specter raised by it haunts all Americans in their desire to not be seen as affiliated with it.

Enter Book Banning.

Peter Pomeransky in This is Not Propaganda tracks how modern day institutions have managed to capture the language and actions of past civil rights movements and hijack them for their own ends. “Those images of people power revolutions articulated the victory of democracy over oppression,” he writes. “Connected to a whole vocabulary passed down from the struggles of dissidents and civil rights movements. But what if a cleverer sort of ruler could find other ways to undermine the dissidents, rid them of a clear enemy to fight, climb inside the images, ideas, stories of those great people power protests and suck them dry from the inside until they were devoid of meaning?”

No books are being banned. Reasonable people are raising objections to giving children content that depicts graphic oral sex and telling little girls that their bodies produce “slime”.

But that’s not Biden’s agenda of loving inclusiveness. Instead of simply addressing the objections and engaging in a reasonable debate as to whether or not three-year-olds need to be read Swish Swish Swish Goes the Drag Queen, American progressives are opting to believe they are under ongoing assault from Nazis. The Nazi could take the form of a frightening man in camo with a menacing weapon at the door of “drag queen story hour” to a woman wearing a t-shirt stating that a woman is an adult human female. It doesn’t matter, the enemy isn’t clear and that’s by design.

Americans are so desperate to believe they are living in some kind of fascist threat, they are willing to say blatant untruths to get themselves there. At least three libraries I know of are being shut down due to an inability to reach a consensus on this issue. American politics is an all or nothing game, and in the case of the library, the answer is becoming Nothing. When charged with removing the books in question from the Children’s section or be denied funding, well-meaning librarians are opting to stick to their guns and are losing funding. Instead of placing certain books within the reach of parents to read with their kids to guide them, they are shutting down entirely.

Not exactly the fascist state we were expecting. Instead of angry men casting books into bonfires, we get sad librarians locking the doors. All they had to do was compromise.

Florida teachers, unwilling to compromise, have now elicited a government response of extreme overcorrection where all books in all classrooms must be inspected. This is obviously absurd, but it comes from Leftist activist teachers going on social media and bragging about slipping questionable texts in front of preschoolers. They’re doing this in one of the Reddest of Red States. I don’t know what else they were expecting. Activism is one thing, but sensibility and doing one’s job is something else.

Leftists are of course crying and wailing about how the government wants to keep kids from reading, keep kids from learning. As though kids go home to a literary wasteland of some sort and no books are available outside of school, I guess.

Holden Caulfield’s complaint is that grown ups are fake. Phonies. A lot like the outrage being expressed at book banning in America. It’s fake. It’s not really happening. If someone truly wants to have their child read about a cocksucking fantasy between two women with a strap on, they can buy the book themselves for about $10.

Grown ups are fake for a bigger reason, though. Most of them don’t read anyway. Ask an American grown up the last book they’ve read, and the answer will likely be a blank stare or something about wizards. This isn’t to say that I have anything against Gandalf or Dumbledore, I love them both, but neither of them can provide any insight into the current situation in Iran or the leadup to the war in Ukraine. Most Americans have a superficial view of the world provided to them from Facebook memes and clickbait headlines.

Sadly, clickbait headlines are an easy driver of propaganda, as we are more likely to click on something that makes us mad just to see what the fuss is about. And Agitation Propaganda quickly fits this bill, so it spreads faster than Hitler could have ever dreamed.

There are a few accounts from everyday Germans in that time, the real people who lived in Hitler’s Germany. I picked up a copy of The Good War by Studs Terkel and found an account from two Germans, Hans Gobler and James Sanders.

Gobler says, “Every man, especially the youth, can be manipulated. The more you say to him, that’s the way of life, the American Way of Life, the German Way of Life, they will believe it.” He said that if it happened in the United States, a lot of people would run behind Hitler.

Sanders agreed. “It could happen,” he said. “People could be fooled. Memory is short. I have two friends who married German girls. One girl, her family were dissidents. They couldn’t open their mouths. The other girl’s father was a storm trooper. I saw pictures of him in the uniform. She tells how she, as a young girl, strutted with her Nazi emblems in front of American occupying troops. They both came from middle class backgrounds.”

Indeed, it is the middle class houses I see sporting the baby pink and baby blue flags. And it is the middle class realtors and bankers doing the most softcore policing on NextDoor.

I never raised any objection to Catcher in the Rye after that first time. The teacher’s reaction was that I was clearly some kind of bizarre conservative nutcase who was advocating for censorship. All I was doing was asking questions about the prostitute.

I wish that someone would have explained to me about the prostitute. I wish someone would have read it with me and told me that this was wrong, and that women don’t have to sell their bodies. That it’s wrong for women to sell themselves in this way, even if it’s “just to talk”.

I wonder if girls reading Gender Queer, girls who are likely at that age where their bodies are becoming foreign and weird, are reading the words “Vagina Slime” and thinking of themselves. If they are seeing that this person is very clearly female, and doesn’t like being female, presenting this very easy and socially acceptable solution for them, and they start thinking of taking it. Looking back on my own adolescence, I would have.

If I had raised my questions more about the prostitute in Catcher in the Rye, that would have been a real rebellion. A rebellion against sex oppression, and how one sex is expected to sell itself into the servitude of the other. It wasn’t prudish, it was genuine. A genuine pushback against The Proverbial Man. I was silenced by the idea of being associated with conservative prudes.

I can’t let that happen again. My feminist analysis of Gender Queer is, “It’s the Misogyny, Stupid.”