Last week saw the latest chapter in the fight over what books public schools have in their libraries. After a weeks-long debate, the Central Bucks School Board voted 6-3 for a new policy of reviewing school books for inappropriate sexual content. Proponents of having explicit books in children’s libraries cried censorship, drawing parallels to various oppressive regimes around the world.
Here’s the thing, though: no one anywhere in America is banning books. That has been true for longer than most of us have been alive. This is all a gross exaggeration that cheapens the fight against actual censorship that is still going on around the world today. China has censorship, with lengthy jail terms for those who violate the law. America doesn’t.
The book at the center of this fake firestorm, Gender Queer: A Memoir, is a graphic novel with pictures of, among other things, teenagers performing oral sex on each other. The couple in question is not heterosexual (which is kind of the point of the memoir) but as one concerned parent said at the Central Bucks meeting, any such depiction should be “inappropriate to have in a school library. If it were art depicting a heterosexual couple engaging in oral sex it should also be excluded.” Some of the images were so graphic that school boards refused to allow them to be shown — in the very meetings where the book was discussed!
So what happens if you think your child actually should be reading this graphic novel? No worries: it is available for purchase anywhere in America!
As I write this, Amazon lists Gender Queer as the #1 Best Seller in LGBTQ+ Graphic Novels. That’s admittedly a niche category, but it goes to show that getting your hands on this book is incredibly easy. You can get it for $8.99 on Kindle, delivered immediately. Go ahead, look it up yourself.
Part of the protest is hyperbole, but part is a real misunderstanding of what our rights mean. The First Amendment guarantees that the government cannot stop you from speaking or publishing anything. In this case, Central Bucks is abiding by that rule. You can get this book — or any other book — at bookstores across the district and by mail from Amazon and other booksellers.
What you can’t do is force the government to pay for it. That’s the way rights work — they preserve our liberty, not subsidize it. One half-witted sign photographed outside the CBSD meeting read “ban guns, not books”. Well, you’re half-right, crazy sign-wavers: the school district cannot ban either of these things. But, at the same time, they also can choose not to have them in their schools.
Even the biggest library has its limits, and none can contain anything but a small fraction of the world’s literature. In deciding which books to include, a library — especially a school library — must impose some sort of standards. A standard that excludes graphic descriptions of sexual activity seems like a pretty commonsense rule. It’s a no-brainer, really. There are millions of books, excluding a few of the more explicit ones does not make America into a fascist, pro-censorship regime — especially since anyone with nine dollars can get a copy for themselves very easily.
If it is so easy, why elevate the protest to this level of hysteria? Part of it is about control. The people running government schools have a massive responsibility: educating the nation’s youth. About nine in ten kids attend government-run schools, so what they choose to teach there matters. Traditionally, these schools have taught skills for life, but they have also always included some sort of inculcation into mainstream community values — civics, patriotism, and that sort of thing.
When the values taught in a school vary from those practiced in the community that built them and funds them, there will be pushback. And that pushback will cause countervailing pushback from the professional elite that thinks the public has no say in how their community is governed — not when it conflicts with the latest ideas in grad school education courses, anyway.
Corporate media and professional lefties will pick up this challenge like any other, not because it is a truly important struggle, but because they were raised on the heroic tales of the civil rights era and want to feel what their parents (or grandparents) felt. The idea of being ordinary, of not being engaged in a titanic struggle for justice, is just unbearable for them.
The cause of those days was a good one, but not every generation is well-placed to engage in a great struggle for justice. The Selma envy of modern lefties makes them charge into every fight with the same vigor as they imagine they would have back then, had they been alive to do it. The right to vote and the fight against segregation were noble struggles, things worth fighting for. The right to show kids a cartoon of a blowjob? It does not have the same resonance.
Our governments — local, state, or federal — do not censor books. Conflating the liberating strife of the past with the petty squabbles of the present does no one any good.
Kyle Sammin is Broad + Liberty’s editor-at-large.