What are book bans really about? Fear | Tuesday Morning Coffee

The river of knowledge only flows in one direction. Our job is to keep it free of obstructions

April 19, 2022 7:08 am

Good Tuesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

More years ago than I really care to count, the children’s librarian in my little town in rural northwestern Connecticut, apparently tired of my endlessly renewing the same book over and over again, pressed a copy of “The White Mountains” by John Christopher into my eight-year-old hands.

Mrs. Bullock was her name. She was the mother of one of my schoolmates. She’d taken note of my reading habits, such as they were were, and decided to take matters into her own hands. If I liked the book I’d been endlessly renewing, she argued, I’d love this one.

She was right. I read every volume in Christopher’s pulpy series, which followed the adventures of young people rebelling against alien overlords’ bent on keeping a servile population under their collective thumb with futuristic tech that suppressed their individuality and free will.

It was the start of my lifelong love of books and libraries. And viewed through the prism of 40-odd years, it was an oddly prescient choice.

Students and their teachers in schools across the country — and now public libraries — are waging a brave fight against the king of organized book- banning campaigns that once only seemed the province of the worst kind of totalitarian governments — or dystopian YA science fiction.

As Capital-Star Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa made astonishingly clear in a story we published on Monday, hundreds of books, across dozens of states, are being banned at alarming rates.

A majority of the bans have targeted books written by authors who are people of color, LGBTQ+, Black and indigenous. The books feature characters, and deal with themes, that reflect the experiences of marginalized communities, Figueroa reported.

A display of banned books at the San Jose Public Library (Photo courtesy of San Jose Public Library via Flickr | CC-BY-SA 2.0/The Daily Montanan).

And while those behind these campaigns hide themselves behind the mask of ‘parental control,’ what I think they’re really concealing is fear: Fear of a country and world that’s changing around them; fear of voices that were kept silent too long who are now speaking up and demanding their seat at the table of power, and, mostly, fear of the erosion of their own privilege.

Because books are more than printed matter. They’re conduits to an endless universe of knowledge. And they are the greatest democratizer we’ve ever invented.

Take one down off the shelf, read it, and finish it, and it will nudge you to another, and another. Before long, you’re navigating the twists and turns of human experience, letting your own curiosity be your guide, allowing it to bring you to places you’ve never been, and to introduce you to people, places, and cultures you might never have met or experienced on your own.

And that’s why, when they’ve sought to erase people and cultures, every authoritarian from the beginning of time until now has destroyed their books and burned their libraries.

After the the Romans tore down ancient Carthage, brick by brick, and sold its people into slavery in 146 B.C.E., they gave the Carthaginians’ books to the city’s adversaries, who either destroyed or lost them, silencing them forever.

The Nazis held well-documented book burnings in 1933. And in a modern twist, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is struggling to keep the truth of its savage invasion of Ukraine from its own people.

The infamous book-burning scene from 'Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade' (screen capture).
The infamous book-burning scene from ‘Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade’ (screen capture).

Last year, students in the Central York School District, about 40 minutes south of the state capital of Harrisburg, made nationwide headlines when they took on — and won a reversal of — a year-long ban on a list of anti-racism books and educational resources by or about people of color, including children’s books that dealt with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parksthe Washington Post and other news outlets reported.

The school board’s president, Jane Johnson, told the Post at the time that the board was trying to “balance legitimate academic freedom with what could be literature/materials that are too activist in nature, and may lean more toward indoctrination rather than age-appropriate academic content.”

Hear that? Indoctrination? That’s the voice of fear talking. It’s a way to push back, without appearing to push back, against arguments that you’re trying to silence or erase those whose voices badly need to be heard.

At a September 2021 news conference at the state Capitol celebrating their win, the students acknowledged that their work was not finished because they would not give up their effort to provide safe spaces for those marginalized voices.

Because when a student — or anyone — picks up a book, it’s a moment of singular liberation. It’s their first step down that hallway of knowledge. It’s the start, rather than the end, of the adventure. And there’s no telling where it might take them — perhaps even to the halls of power themselves.

And if they’re very lucky, they will have their own Mrs. Bullock to help guide them down those twisting and turning corridors, always nudging them along, gently prodding and testing them, but never, ever standing in their way or blocking the path.

Only the fearful do that.

Then-House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler speaks at a 2019 press conference surrounded by the House Republican caucus. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Our Stuff.
Driven by anger that started building up two years ago during the early days of COVID, Pennsylvania’s legislative Republicans face double-digit challenges in next month’s primary electionsStephen Caruso reports.

After shaking up Harrisburg, state Rep. Summer Lee, D-Alleghenyhas her sights set on Congress in the May 17 primary. Our partners at City & State Pa. recently chatted with the western Pennsylvania lawmaker.

Three months after taking over as Pennsylvania’s top public health official, acting state Health Secretary Keara Klinepeter is stepping down, Marley Parish reports.

Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate dropped to 4.9 percent in MarchCassie Miller reports.

In the last nine months, hundreds of books across dozens of states are being banned at an alarming rate. A majority of the bans feature books written by authors who are people of color, LGBTQ+, Black and Indigenous, and feature characters from marginalized groups, Capital-Star Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa reports.

A landmark case now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeks to challenge the state’s ban on parole for people convicted of felony murder. Our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper have the details.

Republican Congressional candidate Lisa Scheller continued to raise more money than her GOP primary opponent Kevin Dellicker in the race to win the Republican nomination in the 7th Congressional District, our new partners at Armchair Lehigh Valley, a politics newsletter, report.

And our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune take an in-depth look at how city residents are dealing with spiraling inflation and its impact on their finances.

On our Commentary Page: Opinion regular Fletcher McClellan explains how the film ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ sheds light on abortion politics in Pa. And state Sen. Amanda Cappelletti says Pennsylvanians deserve an honest dialogue about what interests are really driving the climate debate in the state.

GOP U.S. Senate hopefuls David McCormick (L) and Mehmet Oz (R) | Capital-Star photo collage by John L. Micek

So just how rich is GOP U.S. Senate candidate David McCormick? He’s worth at least $116 million – and maybe more, the Inquirer reports.

The Inquirer also looks at how much of their own money McCormick and GOP competitor Mehmet Oz are spending in their fight for the Republican Senate nomination (via the Morning Call).

Days after a mass shooting at an AirBnB in the city, members of Pittsburgh City Council are looking to rein in ‘rogue’ rental properties, the Post-Gazette reports.

Pennsylvania’s prison guards union says it needs to fill 600 guard positions – but PennLive wonders whether those staffing wounds are self-inflicted.

LancasterOnline has the latest on the deadly outbreak of avian flu in Lancaster County.

Former Luzerne County Councilman Robert Schnee has been named the winner of the April 5 special election for the 116th House District seat, the Citizens’ Voice reports.

As its mask mandate returns, Philadelphia is reporting higher COVID case numbersWHYY-FM reports.

Doctors are lining up to oppose a bill that would continue to allow pharmacists to vaccinate children when the pandemic ends, WHYY-FM also reports (via WITF-FM).

A 7-year-old boy from Erie has died after being shot in the head on a city sidewalk, GoErie reports.

Josh Shapiro’s campaign says a new ad by Democratic lieutenant governor hopeful Brian Sims wrongly implies he has the presumptive nominee’s endorsementPoliticsPa reports.

A federal judge has overturned the travel mask mandateRoll Call reports.

Here’s your #Philadelphia Instagram of the Day:

What Goes On
The desk is clear. Enjoy the silence.

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition)
5 p.m.: 2022 Dauphin County Commissioners’ State of the County address
5 p.m.: Reception for state House Speaker Bryan Cutler
Hit both events, and give at the max, and you’re out a wallet-busting $15,000 today.

Gov. Tom Wolf does his usual 8:07 a.m. phoner with KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh this morning.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to Faith Curran, of Shelly/Lyons Communications, in Harrisburg. And to PennLive college sports sage David Jones, both of whom celebrate today. Congratulations and enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation
Here’s a classic from The Cure that popped up as I was pulling this column together. From The Head on the Door,’ it’s ‘Close to Me.’

Tuesday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link
The baseball gods give and take away. After shutting out the Yankees on Sunday, Baltimore lost 5-1 to Oakland in a late game on the West Coast on Monday night.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.