A new dark age is descending on Florida. The so-called “free state” has embarked on a campaign of social engineering, a component of which involves the intellectual stultification of its students. America’s literary history is being whitewashed; its most celebrated authors are banished. Worse, this quasi-Stalinist crusade is catching on across red-state America. It all heralds a bleak future in which subversive texts are consumed only at great peril to their readers, and the accumulated wisdom of the generations is discarded and forgotten. At least, that’s what the hysterics are saying.
At issue is Florida’s Individual Freedom Act, which became law this year and was supposedly designed in part to limit classroom instruction relating to the tenets of Critical Race Theory and sexual or gender orientation. Like a growing number of Florida’s offensives in the culture wars, the law probably goes too far. A federal judge recently imposed a preliminary injunction halting its enforcement because, rather than preventing viewpoint discrimination in the workplace, it perversely encouraged it, thereby infringing on Floridians’ First Amendment rights. It was, however, this law that was said by its critics to justify “book-banning incidents.”
More than 200 popular titles were “banned in Florida,” according to an April 2022 Miami New Times article. School districts across the state have all but forbidden students from accessing newer texts like Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, as well as classic works including Toni Morrison’s Beloved and A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. This alleged campaign of censorship has led Internet-based paranoiacs to denounce the state’s mad frenzy to suppress canonical literature. Indeed, the mainstream press has generally adopted the law’s critics’ characterization of the initiative, alleging that teachers and systems have been drafted into the work of “purging” classrooms of subversive literature. And Republicans around the country are applying Florida’s template to their states.
“This is a state-sponsored purging of ideas and identities that has no precedent in the United States of America,” EveryLibrary’s executive director told the Washington Post. The director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, told the Post that this unexampled campaign is “in fact teaching lessons in censorship.” Florida Gov. “Ron DeSantis isn’t going to be able to eradicate all material that has Black people, Jewish people, gay people, trans people,” Nathaniel Sandler, director of the Bootlegger’s Library, said. But he is trying. “And to me,” he added, “that’s a display of power.”
While clumsily written in the pursuit of overbroad objectives outside the remit of constitutionally constrained government, Florida’s legislative command that the cultural tides recede isn’t the Reichstag fire its critics imagine it to be. Nor is this campaign something that conservative cultural revanchists imagined into existence on their own. Rather, the state is reacting to similar maneuvers by cultural forces aligned with the left.
In some Florida school districts, titles that cover themes involving race, sexuality, and LGBTQ identity are not banned—they are still accessible in libraries and online—but they have been labeled with an “advisory notice to parents.” Call it a “trigger warning.” Teachers have been drafted into auditing books for their identitarian content, but the “policy does not apply to textbooks or books in schoolwide libraries.” Indeed, the discretionary nature of this campaign has sincere advocates of literary censorship on the right up in arms. They don’t believe the state’s efforts to cordon off books with sexual and racial thematic elements have gone far enough.
Introducing parental oversight to what books students at various age levels check out of scholastic libraries may strike bibliophiles as obscene. Literary experiences, titillating or otherwise, are a discouragingly rare occurrence among younger adults these days. There is a movement afoot across red states to intervene in young people’s journeys of intellectual exploration, but it only mirrors what the cultural left has busied itself with for years.
“What to do with ‘classic’ books that are also racist and hurtful to students?” School Library Journal’s Marva Hinton asked in 2020. The question was occasioned by the decision from Caldwell-Stone’s organization, the American Library Association, to drop Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a literary award. Hinton cited the “dated cultural attitudes” in her Little House books. While being careful to avoid the appearance that that anyone sought to “censor, limit, or deter access” to Wilder’s books, the move and others like it nonetheless branded her books offensive to modern sensibilities.
The same could be said of classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn. It was said, in fact, in Hinton’s piece when the librarians with whom she spoke confessed that “deemphasizing” these books advances modern progressive social objectives. “We do harm if we don’t teach that text in ways that are antiracist,” said one Massachusetts-based Teacher Training Center director. Indeed, according to the “intellectual freedom chair” of the Oregon Association of School Libraries, Miranda Doyle, it is a teacher’s job to make sure “we are choosing books that are not problematic.”
These library professionals didn’t suddenly discover the educational imperative to discourage literary works that run counter to the voguish political objective of the moment. They’re rushing to get to the head of a parade already in motion. In 2018, Minnesota’s Duluth Public Schools removed both Mockingbird and Huck Finn from the curriculum citing “questions about the book’s cultural appropriateness” and “racist language.” A little over a year later, California’s Burbank Unified School District followed suit, adding John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Theodore Taylor’s The Cay, and Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry to the list of books booted from the curriculum. The “alleged potential harm” these books could do to the psyches of the district’s black students during the nation’s “urgent reckoning” with systemic racism justified the extraordinary measure.
For years, the activist class has busied itself with the mission of attacking the foundations of classic literary studies, often to the acclaim of elite journalistic institutions. Those texts have been “instrumental to the invention of ‘whiteness’ and its continued domination,” according to one Princeton University professor of classic literature, who was favorably profiled in New York Times Magazine. Organizing under the banner of “#DisruptTexts,” crusaders for the new censorious paradigm have sought to stigmatize Homer’s The Odyssey, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and even the works of Shakespeare, substituting the Bard’s works with a variety of avant-garde antiracism instruction manuals.
Educators have concluded that “it’s time for Shakespeare to be set aside or deemphasized to make room for modern, diverse, and inclusive voices,” School Library Journal’s Amanda MacGregor said. To the extent Shakespeare’s works remain valuable, according to Twin Cities Academy English Teacher Elizabeth Neilson, it is insofar as they help “to teach Marxist theory.”
Dispassionate observers of these cultural trends might conclude that they are two sides of the same coin. The narcissism of small differences explains the loudest denunciations of red America’s attempt to impose a parental check on young people’s literary curiosity. If the left’s revulsion was genuine, we might expect to have seen some of it aimed at the many librarians who believed it was not only their role but their duty to determine that students who read classic books cannot also serve as effective anti-racist activists. The sudden discovery of this censorious disposition, and only when evinced by one’s political adversaries, suggests their real problem is that the wrong people are doing the censoring.