Book Bans & Apple Pie

Since 2021, American public school boards have played host to a coordinated, conservative campaign intent on revising curricula, altering policies, and banning books. Especially after Glenn Youngkin’s surprise victory in the Virginia Governor’s race that fall, the rhetorical power of child- and school-based concerns has been revealed and cultivated. This movement is active here in Pennsylvania, where it has staked a claim on American values.

Back in 2010, I began writing a doctoral dissertation on the role of classically liberal language in culture war rhetoric. Specifically, I was interested in the various ways that terms like liberty, freedom, and rights had been adopted by religious-political movements to align their goals with core American values. I was especially focused on conservative movements, since they seemed to do this sort of thing a lot more often (and a lot more successfully) than their counterparts on the left. After completing and defending the manuscript in 2012, I sliced it up and sent it out as a series of six journal articles. The crux of the argument appeared in the first of these, “Fighting for Freedom: Liberal Argumentation in Culture War Rhetoric.”

That essay considers the speech and writing of conservative columnist and National Organization for Marriage founder Maggie Gallagher, who worked tirelessly to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States prior to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. A devout Catholic, Gallagher might have opposed same-sex marriage from an explicitly religious angle, arguing that it violates God’s will for the institution—a view that she plainly held. But because she was also a shrewd politician, she instead pressed the argument that legalization would violate the religious liberty of its opponents. Her rhetoric advanced a religious claim in a liberal frame, in other words, hoping thereby to persuade centrists at a time when public opinion was trending steadily against her. Allies rallied, but critics smelled a rhetorical bait-and-switch.

There’s nothing wrong with religious figures drawing on liberal premises to make arguments in public, of course, and ultimately I endorsed the view that the strategy is beneficial if it allows competing factions to confront each other in a shared vocabulary. But as Gallagher demonstrates, it may also have limited prospects for success. If you’re really out to represent God, on any issue, then your claim to represent liberty may make for an awkward fit. The extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples did not really violate the liberties of conservative Christians who disapproved, and the concerted effort to claim otherwise survived only as long as it seemed useful to Republican politics. When it became a liability, Gallagher lost her platform. I, too, have mostly moved on from these sorts of questions. But I’ve been thinking through them again since learning about “Moms for Liberty.”

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I might not have learned about the Moms at all except that they turned up at Warwick High School, my alma mater in Lititz, Pennsylvania. A national advocacy organization established in January of 2021 and based in Florida, Moms for Liberty is “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” Its co-founders are former school board members, and its advocacy is focused on local politics. As of last year, the group claimed 195 chapters in 37 states, with nearly 100,000 members. Their website features a map on which these chapters are documented, with many clustered in Florida, South Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. One of these is in Lancaster County.

The Lancaster chapter is led by a woman named Rachel Wilson Snyder, who addressed the Warwick School Board on December 20. Also present were members of “Warwick Parents for Change,” an affiliated group that has been frequenting school board meetings and raising concerns about district policies and curricula. Their objections have focused so far on gender definitions, approaches to “equity,” and the inclusion of certain books in the high school library or among course assignments. At a meeting on November 29, speakers identified a pair of books as particularly troubling. One of these, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, is an assigned reading in sophomore English classes. The other, Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel Gender Queer, is not assigned but is available in the library. Both appear on American Library Association lists of most frequently challenged books from 2020 and 2021, meaning that each is a popular target of groups that claim to stand for liberty, animated by what they call parental rights.

Critics of these groups question whether liberty or rights are really at stake, and they seem to doubt that this top-down campaign is really about books. Citing a local effort to mobilize pastors and churches against Warwick’s curricula, some in Lititz have decried an effort to impose a “Christian worldview” on public school students. Others have pointed out that, though most objections focus on bad language and racy images, All American Boys and Gender Queer serve as conversation starters on race and gender, a pair of topics that the largely white, straight opposition evidently does not want to discuss. For district supporters, freedoms just another word for letting students read.

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Clearly, though, the vocal participation of Lititz residents on both sides of the question suggests that the factions do share a few basic points of agreement. Everyone seems to accept that public schools are important local institutions and that citizens have an obvious interest in both their methods and their quality. In that sense, the connection between excellent public education and the health of American liberty is already presumed, and the conviction that parents and taxpayers enjoy certain rights is already established. Some might even characterize these heated local meetings as exemplary of a lively democracy, in that people who might otherwise be home watching television are instead out in public venues debating first principles. But for the bad blood, you could certainly see an upside.

The divisions are real, though, and they seem to be rooted in a very basic and very mutual distrust among neighbors. The members of Moms for Liberty and Parents for Change quoted in the articles linked above are adamant that something sinister is happening in American schools, with administrators, teachers, and boards implicated in a plot to normalize woke ideologya formless and flexible concept that has supplanted “political correctness” in popular arguments from the right. Their critics see this claim as the latest swindle in a series of liberty-laced, right-wing conspiracy theories intended more to rile emotions and mobilize activists than to educate anyone on matters of public concern. Like the skeptics confronting Maggie Gallagher, they suggest that an unpopular cause (bigotry) has been veiled here behind the nation’s most popular value (liberty), a rhetorical misdirection that casts the perpetrators as victims and vice-versa.

Admittedly, I’m pretty sympathetic to this view, for reasons that I will explain in a moment. But I also wonder whether the “big picture” frames adopted by the competing sides have left any room for small scale evaluations of the policies on their merits. Beyond innuendo, have the critics of Warwick’s gender and equity definitions provided evidence that these are harmful to students in concrete ways? When they picture those students, does their vision have room for any representing “marginalized” groups? Are they willing to imagine that district policies might have been implemented in good faith, for honorable reasons?

At minimum, given that this highly emotional debate about liberties, rights, and impressionable children hinges largely on a few particular books, it seems worth asking—are the books any good?

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Like most readers of banned books, I hadn’t heard of All American Boys or Gender Queer until people started trying to get them banned, and like most high school students, I probably would not have read them otherwise. But now I have, and I can see the affirmative case for their inclusion in the curriculum and the library, respectively.

All American Boys is a really engrossing read. It tells the story of Rashad and Quinn, two high school boys—one black, one white—growing up in a generic American town in the early 21st century. The action begins when Rashad is brutally assaulted by a white police officer who turns out to be Quinn’s close family friend and father figure. As that set-up suggests, the story is weaved through a complex web of nuances and relationships as the town is divided over the attack and the assignment of blame. Reynolds and Kiely do an excellent job of humanizing their characters, resisting the temptation to make anyone simply virtuous or evil, and their narrative clearly speaks to current events. (Yes, there is some swearing, too, but it’s never gratuitous.) A tightly written and well-crafted story about our contentious moment-in-time, the book is bound to get teenagers reading—and talking.

As a graphic novel and a personal memoir, Gender Queer is a different sort of project with a different set of concerns. In it, Kobabe recounts a childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood experienced through the lens of pronounced gender confusion. Born female, she never feels at home in her own body, and cannot force herself comfortable with the norms and expectations that girls must navigate as they grow. Because the book focuses on the formative years, and because its method is largely visual, Gender Queer features some jarring images at times. There’s a lot in there about puberty, menstruation, body hair, and body changes, as well as the first stirrings of sexual desire and fantasy, which are especially complicated for someone confronting the other confusions that Kobabe recalls. The book features hundreds of well-illustrated cells, maybe three of which depict sexual activity. An eye-opening read for those of us who have never struggled with gender confusion, it is likely to make some students a little more empathetic while making others feel a little less alone. It certainly deserves a spot on a library shelf, where students are free to find it—or not.

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If the proponents of a book ban at Warwick voiced any challenge to the literary value of these works, the local press did not report it. In fact, the Moms for Liberty seem entirely indifferent to the matter of artistry, a consideration that remains understandably important to the English teachers who make curricular decisions. Instead, the defining quality of their comments and complaints is invariably fear, often bordering on panic. Coming from devoutly Christian people, the collective hysteria here is striking. There’s very little of that blessed assurance; no foretaste of glory divine.

The palpable sense of anxiety driving these and related groups on the American right today undercuts their claims to stand for liberty and rights, for at least two reasons. First, because they imply a greater range of movement and choice for citizens, liberties and rights are generally not advanced by the imposition of strict new limits, which is clearly what these groups demand. Second, because a greater range of movement and choice implies some relaxation of control, it generally cannot be advanced by frightened people, which is clearly what these folks are. Liberty demands confidence, and confidence is unafraid.

A few years back, Messiah University historian John Fea identified fear as one of the primary drivers of conservatism in the Trump era, mourning the destructive influence it has had on evangelical faith and practice. Last fall, University of California historian David Hollinger situated this fearful turn within a longer evangelical legacy defined by the persistent rejection of complexity in favor of simple explanations and easy answers. When I hear Christians and their pastors freaking out over thoughtful discussions of gender and race, I can practically feel these currents converge.

On one level, I’m sensitive to their feelings, because I, too, have begun to feel that the world is moving on from me. I’m reminded of the middle-aged Abe Simpson, who, charged with no longer being “with it,” sighs. “I used to be with it,” he says, “but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me. And it will happen to you.” Every generation falls out of touch with those that follow, and yet somehow every generation is caught off guard when it happens. I can sympathize. On a deeper level, though, I think Moms for Liberty and their surrogates deserve no sympathy at all.

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When she addressed the Warwick School Board on December 20, Rachel Wilson Snyder gave members a copy of a book by James Lindsay, referring to it as “the gift of education.” But Lindsay is not an educator. Though he holds a Ph.D. in math from the University of Tennessee, he is mostly known for his work as an academic prankster and an internet troll. More than anyone else, he is responsible for reviving the 90s-era smear that members of the LGBT community are pedophiles. When he delivered an invited keynote at the Moms for Liberty convention in Charleston last summer, his trademark “groomer” jabs received sustained applause. A not-so-subtle nod to Q-Anon, Lindsay’s bizarre grift has won an enthusiastic following among conspiracy theorists who claim that American education is now oriented around “the sexualization of children.”

By embracing Lindsay and his uniquely noxious brand of public argument, the Moms for Liberty have diverged from Maggie Gallagher’s method in an important way. Though Gallagher touted liberty to align her right-wing movement with the respectable American mainstream, the Moms have done so while aligning themselves instead with the sneering extremity of the online right. Rhetorically, this is pointless, because any goodwill won by liberty is quickly lost to the trolls. Ideologically, it is revealing, because the language rings so reflexive and insincere. Carelessly hung, the veil slips.

Simply put, there is no creeping shift toward “wokeness” or pornography in American schools; no concerted effort to exploit children at Warwick or elsewhere. The hard-working and under-appreciated staff, faculty, administrators, board members, and librarians of our institutions do not deserve to labor under the weird and unfounded insinuation that they comprise a nest of predators. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

The responsibility for this round of faddish moral panic falls to a 501(c)(4) calling itself “Moms for Liberty,” the latest in a line of rightist movements for whom liberty is little more than a happy gloss painted over ugliness and dishonesty. (Also open to “Dads, Grands, Aunts, Uncles, Friends,” and rivers of dark money, this outfit seems to be pulling the same trick with Moms.) For these reasons, I hope that the Warwick School Board will join other boards across the nation in serving their communities, educating their students, and honoring their faculties by extending this group and its affiliates only as much courtesy as they deserve, and that is very little.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
This entry was posted in Books, Culture War, Politics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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