Category Archives: Cancel Culture

Academic Freedom Isn’t Free

My poem The 451 App (22 August 2022) is a science fiction/dystopian musing about the possibility of technology providing a comforting veneer to the creeping rise of totalitarianism—a simple App appearing on everyone’s smartphone before erasing all our books.

The point of the poem is less about technology and a dystopian future (alluding of course to Fahrenheit 451) and more about another work of literature: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

For me, this unmasking of the human condition has always been haunting; it also has become disturbingly relevant in the Trump/post-Trump present in which we live.

Real life is always far more mundane than speculative fiction—and far more shocking.

The “worst,” “full of passionate intensity,” launched an assault on academic freedom in the final months of the Trump administration. The initial wave seemed poised at The 1619 Project and a manufactured Critical Race Theory scare.

By January of 2022, a report found that educational gag orders passed in states across the U.S. were having a significant and chilling effect:

We found that at least 894 school districts, enrolling 17,743,850 students, or 35% of all K–12 students in the United States, have been impacted by local anti “CRT” efforts. Our survey and interviews demonstrate how such restriction efforts have been experienced inside schools as well as districts. We found that both state action and local activity have left many educators afraid to do their work.

The Conflict Campaign (January 2022)

As bills have increased since this report, the number of teachers and students impacted are certainly higher.

Concurrent with educational gag order legislation, book banning has increased dramatically, as reported by PEN America:

• In total, for the nine-month period represented, the Index lists 1,586 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,145 unique book titles. This encompasses different types of bans, including removals of books from school libraries, prohibitions in classrooms, or both, as well as books banned from circulation during investigations resulting from challenges from parents, educators, administrators, board members, or responses to laws passed by legislatures. These numbers represent a count of cases either reported directly to PEN America and/or covered in the media; there may be other cases of bans that have not been reported and are thus not included in this count.

• The Index lists bans on 1,145 titles by 874 different authors, 198 illustrators, and 9 translators, impacting the literary, scholarly, and creative work of 1,081 people altogether.

• The Index lists book bans that have occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states. These districts represent 2,899 schools with a combined enrollment of over 2 million students.

Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights

Republicans and conservatives have steadily created an environment of fear around teaching and learning, which is being detailed now by teachers experiencing that fear (with many leaving the field):

Last year, I was quoted in an article in the School Library Journal about how I discussed toxic masculinity with my high school students when we read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”togetherWithin days, far-right publications twisted my words to denounce “woke liberal indoctrination in schools.”

Strangers sent me messages on social media accusing me of indoctrinating students, of being unprofessional and unintelligent. I received a handwritten letter addressed to me at school. The letter accused me of being a “low-life, pseudo-intellectual, swallow-the-lib/woke/b—s— koolaid a — h—-.” [The hyphens were added to replace letters because of Washington Post style and not in the original].

‘Educators are afraid,’ says teacher attacked for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ unit, Sarah Mulhern Gross

This movement is driven by lies and fear mongering, but it depends on the missionary zeal of the liars and fear mongers as well as the passivity of “the best” among us.

My childhood and adolescence were profoundly shaped by books and movies—often the science fiction loved by my mother.

Along with The Andromeda Strain (film adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel), two films based on Ray Bradbury’s work remain with me today—The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451.

There is a profound darkness and fatalism in these works, but in Fahrenheit 451, I was struck by the optimism and power of the individuals who walked around repeating the books they had become.

These people, the best among us, seem to suggest Bradbury held on to some sliver of hope.

It seems overwhelming to consider that as sentient creatures we are doomed to not recognize that things matter until they have been taken from us—taken from us with almost no resistance, with almost no recognition of the book being gently slipped from our hands and then our minds.

Academic freedom isn’t free, but without free minds—freedom to teach, freedom to learn, freedom to read and consider—we are no longer fully human.


Recommended

National Days of Teaching Truth

My 31 texts for 31 days in May

Freedom to Teach: Statement against Banning Books (NCTE)

Banning Books Is Un-American

Banned in the U.S.A. Redux 2021: “[T]o behave as educated persons would”

Censorship and Book Burning: A Reader [Updated]

Furman faculty pass resolution rejecting pending state legislation aimed at academic freedom

Educators’ Right and Responsibilities to Engage in Antiracist Teaching (NCTE)

Lehre Ist Tot

This past week an early career teacher, highly regarded in the classroom and very accomplished in the field of education, received a parental request that a student not be required to read The Great Gatsby. That parent, however, had signed a consent agreement with all texts, including that novel, identified as required reading at the beginning of the course.

The parent then reached out to the administration, who confirmed that the teacher had to assign a different work. This, of course, undermines the teacher and the process established, but it also creates more work for teachers already under incredible strain.

While parental oversight of assigned reading has been common in education for decades, this situation comes as states are increasingly passing parental trigger legislation, which moves the parental power from each parent’s own children to parents being able to ban works for all teachers or students to explore in classes.

That same teacher, frustrated and disillusioned, later that day read aloud their resignation letter to me in the context of telling me that much that they had taught in the first three years of teaching could no longer be taught in the last couple years—and increasingly will be directly banned in the coming year (as my home state is poised to pass its own educational gag order this spring).

The teacher cried while reading the letter aloud, and added that the resignation was depressing; this, you see, was a career they had been working toward since high school—and within 6 years, teaching is dead.

The current anti-teacher climate in the U.S. is incredibly harsh and driven by orchestrated false narratives:

Right-wing media are creating parental trigger structures even without the concurrent legislation:

While teacher and school bashing (notably as “liberal indoctrination”) has a long history in the U.S., reaching back to Catholic schools fighting for market space as public schooling increased in the 19th century, the current anti-teacher climate has its roots not in Republican politics but in the Obama administration’s education agenda.

Obama’s appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education heralded an era of education reform that actually doubled-down on the worst aspects under George W. Bush, and that doubling down feed into a growing media attack on “bad teachers”:

Time was a repeat offender in terms of media bashing of teachers.

Instead of rejecting the standard approaches to education reform begun under Reagan and federalized under W. Bush, the Obama administration turned their blame to teachers and teacher quality. During the Obama years, the great experiment in value-added methods (VAM) devastated the teaching profession.

The perennial paradox of education has always been that teacher quality matters but it remains a very small part of measurable student achievement (only about 10-15%). Therefore, the Holy Grail of the VAM experiment—identifying “good” and “bad” teachers through standardized test scores of students—was always doomed to fail.

But it did accomplish planting the seeds of today’s multi-pronged attack on teachers—the “science of reading” movement blaming teachers and teacher educators for student reading achievement and the anti-CRT/educational gag order movements being linked to parent trigger laws.

Throughout the education reform era over the past 40 years, many of us in education have argued that education reform initiatives are less about improving education and more about killing public education and the teaching profession—charter schools and voucher schemes, Teach For America, VAM and merit pay, demonizing and dismantling unions and tenure, etc., to name a few.

From Fox News lies to parental trigger laws and education gag orders, the evidence is very clear now that this current wave of teacher bashing is definitely about killing the profession, and not about student discomfort.

Let me return to the opening teacher story.

When the parent was asked for reasons why they wanted their child not to read The Great Gatsby—so the teacher had context for choosing an alternate text—the parent responded that they did not want the child (a high school student) to read about inappropriate relationships and sexual content. So here is a point of fact about the insincerity of these challenges; that student had already read and studied The Crucible, without any complaint, a play grounded in adultery.

I am certain some parents challenging what their children are being taught are sincere, but I am also certain the larger political motivation among conservatives is to completely dismantle public education.

Just as I have explained that there simply is no CRT propaganda agenda in K-12 schools, there is no liberal indoctrination/grooming occurring in K-12 (or K-16) education either.

The Ingraham rants are simply political lies.

And these lies are not improving education.

They have one goal and it seems to have been effective: Teaching is dead.

IndoctriNation: Can We Avoid Our Dystopian Republican Future?

“I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes,” Commander Buck Murdock (William Shatner) muses in Airplane 2: The Sequel.

I immediately thought of this iconic Shatner scene from the Jerry Zucker-Jim Abrahams-David Zucker film when I saw a brilliant and urgently serious post on Facebook from a former student of mine currently advocating for all that is Good and Right in her crumbling state of Virginia:

While Stephanie hits succinctly right at the heart of the irony surrounding the current push by Republicans to mandate educational gag orders, parental trigger bills, and a wide range of censorship for not only school and colleges but also throughout society, I want to highlight how the irony is a veneer for the Republican long game.

Many people have now exposed that the Republican use of “Critical Race Theory” is an orchestrated lie for larger political goals since their definitions of CRT are distortions and misinformation.

But what exactly is that end game?

First, let’s unpack the monumental irony in the “Education Not Indoctrination” claims of Republicans.

A related element of the anti-CRT movement is linking CRT to “Marxism” (itself a distortion bordering on a lie), but the more telling aspect of that connection is that Marxist and critical educators forefront a genuine and resolute rejection of indoctrination. As Joe Kincheloe details, seeking out and exposing those who indoctrinate is a “central tenet” of being critical:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive….

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students. This is a central tenet of critical pedagogy.

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (pp. 2, 11)

JOE KINCHELOE, CRITICAL PEDAGOGY PRIMER

Therefore, if an educator is leftist, Marxist, or critical, they are dedicated to not only seeking out and contesting anyone who indoctrinates, but also working continuously to avoid allowing their own teaching to devolve into indoctrination.

To indoctrinate is to be authoritarian (see Paulo Freire’s distinction between “authoritarian” and “authoritative” in the context of critical pedagogy).

Along with the foundational strategy of using lies and mischaracterized terms to advance a political agenda, Republicans also are guilty of projection: Almost everything Republicans attribute to the “Left” is what they actually do (Republicans decry a false specter of “cancel culture” while actually passing legislation that censors, cancels, and bans materials and ideas) or what they would do given the opportunity and the power.

And that leads to the end game.

To understand the Republican end game, you must address that “Education Not Indoctrination” is yet another Orwellian misdirection. Republicans are not anti-indoctrination; in fact, Republicans are actually seeking a world in which they completely control the indoctrinating.

In short, Kincheloe’s “who’s indoctrinating whom” can be addressed simply by acknowledging that given the opportunity and power (see legislation in Republican-led states) the “who” will always be Republicans and the “whom” will be the rest of us.

Republicans are organizing and enacting a broad campaign to create their dystopia, IndoctriNation.

They are counting on a common flaw in the U.S.: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

Freedom and the Politics of Canceling Teachers and Curriculum

By mid-December of 2021, Matthew Hawn, a former teacher in Tennessee, will once again have his appeal heard after being fired for violating the state’s restrictions on curriculum:

The Tennessee General Assembly has banned the teaching of critical race theory, passing a law at the very end of the legislative session to withhold funding from public schools that teach about white privilege.

Republicans in the House made the legislation a last-minute priority, introducing provisions that ban schools from instructing students that one race bears responsibility for the past actions against another, that the United States is fundamentally racist or that a person is inherently privileged or oppressive due to their race.

Tennessee bans public schools from teaching critical race theory amid national debate, Natalie Allison

As Allison reported in May, several states across the U.S. have filed or passed copy-cat legislation aimed at banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

By October and November, the consequences of Tennessee’s law have moved from silencing and canceling teachers to attempts to cancel curriculum [1]:

The Tennessee Department of Education recently declined to investigate a complaint filed under a new state law prohibiting the teaching of certain topics regarding race and bias.

The complaint, the first directed to the state under the new law passed this spring, was filed by Robin Steenman, chair of the Moms for Liberty Williamson County chapter, a conservative parent group sweeping the nation. 

The 11-page complaint alleged that the literacy curriculum, Wit and Wisdom, used by Williamson County Schools and at least 30 other districts, has a “heavily biased agenda” that makes children “hate their country, each other and/or themselves.”

Tennessee Department of Education rejects complaint filed under anti-critical race theory law, Meghan Mangrum

Although the complaint was rejected, Mangrum noted, “The group detailed concerns with four specific books on subjects like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, the integration of California schools by advocate Sylvia Mendez and her family, and the autobiography of Ruby Bridges, adapted for younger learners.”

A teacher fired for teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates, parents calling for bans on MLK and teaching about Ruby Bridges—these events are not unique to Tennessee, but they reflect a pattern of efforts to control not only teachers, but what students are allowed to learn and read.

Notable in these examples is that many of the consequences of legislation are canceling Black writers and key aspects of Black history; additionally, legislation and calls for book banning are targeting LGBTQ+ writers and topics.

Teaching and curriculum in the U.S. are being systematically and politically whitewashed.

One aspect not being addressed often is that political dynamic. Parents, political activists, and politicians are impacting who teaches and what is being taught in the context of a historical and current demand that teachers themselves remain apolitical, both in their classrooms and their lives beyond school.

As I have discussed often, teaching is necessarily political, and teaching as well as writing are necessarily types of activism.

For teachers, then, we must recognize that calls for teachers to be objective, neutral, and apolitical are themselves political acts. Currently, laws being passed and parents/activists confronting school boards are exercising their political power at the expense of teachers and schools—both of which are required to remain somehow politically neutral.

From historian/activist Howard Zinn to critical scholars such as Joe Kincheloe and to poet Adrienne Rich, we have ample evidence that taking a neutral stance is a political act that passively endorses the status quo and that silencing words is an act of canceling thought, eradicating ideas.

Zinn’s commitment to transparency as a teacher and activist is hauntingly relevant to the current political attack on teachers and curriculum:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order [emphasis added]….

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn

And Kincheloe confronted not only who is actually indoctrinating students but the imperative that teachers recognize teaching as inherently political:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive [emphasis added].

Critical Pedagogy Primer, Joe L. Kincheloe

The great irony is that critical educators (often smeared as “Marxists”) are committed, as Kincheloe asserts, to a foundational concern: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”

The Orwellian named “Moms for LIberty,” then, by calling for canceling curriculum are in fact being “totalitarian and oppressive,” calling for not education, but indoctrination. To ban words and ideas is to ban the possibility of thinking, of learning:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there [emphasis in original] to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido [emphasis in original], rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Arts of the Possible, Adrienne Rich

A final powerful point is that many of these political acts to silence teachers and cancel curriculum are occurring in right-to-work states controlled by Republicans. Teachers not only are expected to be neutral, objective, and apolitical, but also work with a distinct awareness they have almost no job security.

Hawn fired in Tennessee simply taught a text and now is fighting for his career; the text in most ways just a year ago was considered non-controversial and even celebrated as Coates had attained recognition as one of the country’s leading Black voices.

During this holiday season at the end of 2021, teachers honestly have no decision about whether or not to be political. We are faced with only two political choices: conform to the demand that we take a neutral pose, resulting in endorsing whatever status quo legislators and parents/activist impose on schools; or recognize and embrace the essential political nature of being a teacher by actively opposing efforts to cancel teachers and curriculum.


[1] Twitter thread:

Reading Matters

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?

Hamlet: Between who?

Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.

Hamlet: Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards….

Polonius: [Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

–Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii.

Reading matters.

I imagine you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree with those two simple words. But the reality is that those two words have dramatically different meanings among people advocating for teaching children to read in schools.

“[S]ociety should get behind teaching everybody to read the right way,” explains John McWhorter, linguist turned public intellectual who uses his bully pulpit at the New York Times to join the long list of Black celebrities and notable people invited into the white mainstream of conservative thought cloaking racism and racial stereotyping.

The problem in McWhorter’s words, of course, is that “right way.”

Since early 2018, the U.S. has once again lifted the Reading War into public consciousness with a misleading refrain, “the science of reading” (SoR). The media has maintained a steady beat claiming that teacher education and practicing teachers have failed to embrace the SoR, and as a result, children are failing to learn to read.

The SoR media movement has merged with some aggressive parent advocacy groups, notably related to dyslexia, and the result is copy-cat SoR reading legislation being passed throughout the country. Ironically, and disturbingly, that legislation often codifies policies and practices that are strongly refuted by scientific research—grade retention, universal screening for and oversimplification of dyslexia [1], systematic intensive phonics programs for all students [2], bans on popular reading programs, and efforts to mimic policies implemented in Mississippi [3] (after one round of improved NAEP scores in reading at grade 4).

While I am certain that people advocating for improved reading instruction in our schools all have mostly good intentions (except for a powerful lobby for phonics programs and some media/journalists seeing an opportunity to cash in on SoR), the problem remains with what anyone means by “reading matters.”

We must acknowledge two contexts here.

One context is approaching a common term but a rare case that it may be accurate—crisis.

Since the SoR movement and advocates such as McWhorter are speaking into a conservative and traditional ideology about language, reading, and literature (used broadly to mean any texts students reading), the SoR movement has been swept into a concurrent movement against public education broadly begun under Trump with the purposeful and orchestrated attacks on the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory (McWhorter’s “right way” comment sits inside his joining the anti-woke movement).

What merges the anti-woke education movement and the SoR movement is the focus on parental rights to monitor and control what students learn and how students learn.

The crisis we are approaching, I think, is the ironically disturbing part. The merging of the SoR movement with the anti-woke movement means that so-called advocates for better reading instruction have joined forces with a new rise in censorship that includes book banning, removing books from libraries (lists of 850+ books identified in Texas), proposing bans on terms deemed “woke,” and even calls for burn burnings.

A significant but less powerful group of literacy advocates, teachers, scholars, and writers have noted the problem with emphasizing the need for children to learn to read while simultaneously reducing what they can read, and even what those students are allowed to consider or think.

A second context is the contradiction between the narrow demands of the SoR movement and the likelihood that policies and practices being implemented in the name of SoR are likely to inhibit and even discourage children from reading.

I have detailed several times that I grew up in a racist and deeply conservative community and household. The conditions that saved my life, my mind, and my soul include the coincidence that my very misguided parents happened to respect intellectual freedom; I was allowed to read anything throughout my childhood and teen years.

Once I moved beyond my home and community—college—I was then liberated by reading Black authors assigned and recommended by wonderful professors, again a context that respected intellectual freedom and my mind.

Not an exhaustive list, but for me, someone who has spent almost 40 years as a literacy educator, I want to offer some reasons reading matters for me, highlighting John Dewey, William Ayers, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde:

The allure of SoR for the media, parents, and politicians is grounded in silver-bullet “all students must” thinking that is antithetical to the reasons I believe reading matters.

At the core of the tension in debates about teaching reading and what texts students are assigned or allowed to read is those embracing indoctrination (“teaching everybody to read the right way”) versus those embracing education as liberation (from Dewey to Ayers to hooks and to Lorde).

Indoctrination depends on someone not only controlling what people read, hear, and think, but also erasing what people read, hear, and think.

The SoR movement ultimately fails because it resists being student centered and allows far too often for reading to be reduced to decoding (systematic intensive phonics for all); further, while SoR advocates often demonize popular reading programs (and I am a strong critic of all reading programs), they make the same essential mistake by simply choosing different programs to endorse as rigid expectations for students and teachers (LETRS, DIBLES).

Reading matters, but if we become distracted by raising reading test scores, our practices are likely to produce non-readers (Dewey).

Reading matters, but if we fail to distinguish between indoctrination and education for liberation (hooks), we reduce reading instruction to training (Ayers).

Reading matters, but our commitments must be to how reading matters for the individual, especially for those “who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable” (Lorde).

If we truly believe every person deserves the human dignity of intellectual freedom, as my parents and teachers afforded me, then reading matters only if we refuse silver-bullet scripts, only if we protect all the books and ideas available to free people.

That is the only “right way” worth evoking.


[1] See the following:

An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction, with Policy Implications, Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon

Research Advisory: Dyslexia (ILA)

[2] See the following:

A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Reading Comprehension Interventions on the Reading Comprehension Outcomes of Struggling Readers in Third Through 12th Grades, Marissa J. Filderman, Christy R. Austin, Alexis N. Boucher, Katherine O’Donnell, Elizabeth A. Swanson

“the simple view of reading does not comprehensively explain all skills that influence reading comprehension, nor does it inform what comprehension instruction requires.”

The Sciences of Reading Instruction, Rachael Gabriel (Educational Leadership)

The Trouble With Binaries: A Perspective on the Science of Reading, David B. Yaden Jr., David Reinking, and Peter Smagorinsky

Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction, Jeffrey S. Bowers (2020)

[3] UPDATED 23 February 2020: Mississippi Miracle or Mirage?: 2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers

See Also

The Problem with Balanced Literacy

Failing Balanced Literacy Is Failing Readers, Katie Kelly and Paul Thomas

Banned in the U.S.A. Redux 2021: “[T]o behave as educated persons would”

We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.

–  Arundhati Roy

The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes it way—certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice art at any deep levels. The impulse to create begins—often terribly and fearfully—in a tunnel of silence.

“Arts of the Possible,” Adrienne Rich

It is the morning of November 11, 2021, and I spend some of that time creating gentle memes to post in honor of Kurt Vonnegut’s day of birth:

I wanted to highlight Vonnegut’s career-long plea for a secular kindness, rooted in his faith in humanism, and I have long admired Vonnegut as an anti-war crusader.

Celebrating the birthday of a person after their death is always bittersweet, but on this morning, the act was awash in a very ugly sort of irony. As I loaded The State (Columbia, SC) web page, I saw this as the lead story:

My home state of South Carolina is heavily conservative—first to secede and uniformly conservative in politics throughout the decades of Democratic control of the South and then Republican in the wake of Strom Thurmond changing parties and later Ronald Reagan leading a conservative Christian shift in the South.

Gov. McMaster is not often “first to” about anything, but he is an uncritical and resolute soldier in the Republican culture war regardless of what that means.

Vonnegut—while alive and since his death—has often had his works challenged and even banned; one of the most enduring things he ever wrote, in fact, was a response to censorship:

In October of 1973, Bruce Severy — a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota — decided to use Kurt Vonnegut‘s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, as a teaching aid in his classroom. The next month, on November 7th, the head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, demanded that all 32 copies be burned in the school’s furnace as a result of its “obscene language.” Other books soon met with the same fate. On the 16th of November, Kurt Vonnegut sent McCarthy the following letter. He didn’t receive a reply.

Letters of Note

In part, Vonnegut replied as follows:

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?…

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us….

If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

I am very real, Kurt Vonnegut, November 16, 1973

Reading about the censorship wildfire spreading to SC on Vonnegut’s birthday adds insult to injury, but this is not mere partisan politics, not something as innocuous or abstract as a “culture war.”

Just as Vonnegut ends his letter with “I am very real,” I want to stress that the missionary zeal behind removing and burning books from school libraries is also “very real”:

Calls for censorship, book removal from school libraries, and book burning are the logical next step in the Republican/conservative assault on Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project; at the core of this movement is a misguided demand for parental rights that grows beyond any parents’ children to all children.

Some parents and political leaders on the Right have mistaken Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a manual for partisan politics instead of, as Neil Gaiman (born a day before Vonnegut 38 years later) explains in the 60th anniversary edition of the novel:

This is a book of warning. It is a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted….

People think—wrongly—that speculative fiction is about predicting the future, but it isn’t; or if it is, it tends to do a rotten job of it….

What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future but the present—taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place. It’s cautionary.

Fahrenheit 451 is speculative fiction. It’s an “If this goes on…” story. Ray Bradbury was writing about his present, which is our past.

Introduction, Fahrenheit 451, Neil Gaiman

In my early days as a public high school English teacher, I had a book challenge targeting John Gardner’s Grendel, but it was clearly mostly about attacking me as a young teacher. While I think we are careless and even cavalier in the U.S. about any parents’ right to control what their children read and learn, I experienced first-hand the power of a few parents to determine what all students read and learn.

I must return to Vonnegut here and stress, “If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.”

Removing books from libraries, banning books from schools, and book burnings are never justified; these are acts of tyranny, of fascism—and not in any way a gesture of what we like to call “American.”

There is no individual freedom without the freedom of the mind. Banning a book is closing the mind.

In Athens-based R.E.M.’s “Its the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” the lyrics include a verse that is haunting in 2021:

Six o’clock, TV hour, don’t get caught in foreign tower
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn
Lock him in uniform, book burning, blood letting
Every motive escalate, automotive incinerate
Light a candle, light a votive, step down, step down
Watch your heel crush, crushed, uh-oh
This means no fear, cavalier renegade and steering clear
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline

“Its the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”

The Republican assault on teaching, learning, reading, and thinking is nothing more than a “tournament of lies” aimed at partisan political power.

Simply put, censorship and book burning are UnAmerican; to ban a book is to dismantle the American Dream.


Resources

Statement on Censorship and Professional Guidelines (NCTE)

Guidelines for Dealing with Censorship of Instructional Materials (NCTE)

NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center

The Students’ Right to Read (NCTE)

See Also

The 451 App (22 August 2022)

Teen’s Eyes Begin Glowing Red While Reciting Forbidden Knowledge From Book On Critical Race Theory

Fact Checking “Cancel Culture”

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin (Los Angeles Times, 1979)

If we can take seriously the high-quality source, the actor who plays Mr. Bean, it appears we should be fearful of a future where there is no freedom of speech because “what we have now is the digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn,” claims Rowan Atkinson.

Of course, this is but one of many alarm bells about the scourge of “cancel culture.”

It would be easy to smile at Atkinson’s goofy face and brush this off—except there are dire consequences to this manufactured crisis. Take for just one example the language being used to propose legislation in my home state of South Carolina.

“Pushing back against what they called America’s ‘woke mob,’ a group of GOP lawmakers want to protect South Carolina historic monuments and markers and penalize any community or elected official that removes them,” writes Adam Benson for the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC).

Later in the article, Benson quotes Republicans advancing this legislation:

“In South Carolina, our heritage roots run real deep, and they’ve got to be protected from the small number of people that could cancel out our monuments and pull them down,” Taylor said, who is sponsoring the bills with state Reps. Steven Long, R-Inman, and Lin Bennett, R-Charleston.

“In today’s day and age where the woke mob is coming after our monuments from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to South Carolina’s heritage, this is all inclusive,” Long said of the proposed state certification of plaques.

Proposals would punish removing monuments: ‘Time to stand up and defend the history of SC’

Conservatives in the U.S. have taken over the “cancel culture” label and used it to create a false narrative about liberals (“woke mob”) having the disproportionate power to unfairly punish conservatives, to end free speech, and as these Republicans argue, to erase history.

Recent “cancel culture” controversies that represent that false narrative include Dr. Seuss’s estate ending the publication of six of his books, changes to Mr. Potato Head, and the firing of Gina Carano from The Mandalorian.

While all of these have been framed as “cancel culture,” they aren’t all the same. Dr. Seuss wasn’t canceled (most of his books remain in print, and this was an estate decision), but like the renaming of Mr. Potato Head, these are market decisions, not some government mandate driven by “woke culture.”

Carano’s firing isn’t even that unusual in Hollywood; consider Kevin Spacey. Was he canceled? Or are there simply consequences for people’s words and actions—even, some times, when you are rich and famous?

To dissect the false narrative around “cancel culture” by conservatives, let’s return to the Dr. Seuss fake news cycle. Consider these Tweets from Michael Hobbes:

The pattern: Falsely claim “cancel culture,” point fingers only at the liberal mob, and ignore what is really happening (market forces versus actual canceling legislation proposed from conservatives).

Also conservatives shouting “cancel culture” tend to have a weak grasp on the past along with being highly selective in their outrage.

John Warner offers an excellent comparison between his own experiences as an author and the the Dr. Seuss controversy:

Was Warner’s liberal parody of conservative W. Bush canceled? The nefarious workings of the liberal mob? Or was this the free market doing its work?

But consider a much more substantial situation—the end of Colin Kaepernick’s NFL career.

I do not recall any conservatives crying “cancel culture” when Kaepernick was essentially banned from the NFL by mostly conservative billionaire owners because of Kaepernick’s liberal politics. And I don’t recall those players standing during the national anthem having any consequences for their ostensibly conservative political actions (standing during the anthem).

I do recall conservatives wringing their hands over Tim Tebow’s short-lived NFL career since Tebow is a darling of conservatives and also conveniently used his NFL platform to express his conservative religious politics.

“Cancel culture” as a terminology of any social value has been erased, ironically, by conservatives who have co-opted the language to perpetuate lies about the left as a distraction from their own penchant for canceling.

The partisan political nature of the shift to “cancel culture” being the mantra of conservatives has some very serious consequences in the U.S. since it misrepresents free speech and also blurs the line between valid accountability and the so-called mob mentality in pop culture.

Conservatives have repeatedly misrepresented the free market as a free speech issue, which is essentially about the role of government in what people are allowed to express.

The decisions made by Dr. Seuss’s estate, Republicans losing Twitter followers, and Carano being fired (see also, Spacey)—these are all the workings of the free market, not mandates of government. If Republicans want to start a conversation about the silencing impact of capitalism, then I think many of us on the left would be thrilled, but they seem oblivious to how their own ideology works.

Ultimately, the most problematic aspect of conservatives capitalizing on “cancel culture” is that it has distorted a needed conversation on fairness since free speech isn’t license; even when what we say and do is not mandated by either the government or the market, “free” in free speech doesn’t mean we are free of the consequences.

So which is unfair here—that Woody Allen has never suffered any real consequences for his behavior or that Louis CK had his comedy career briefly stalled due to his serial sexual harassment?

Maybe there are petty dynamics on Instagram in which mob mentalities evolve and people are unfairly “canceled,” but what is currently passing as “cancel culture” is a bald-faced lie with political/ideological intentions.

The history of people being closeted in the U.S. as well as the current reality of closeted people is a narrative about the precariousness of being outside the norms of this country—norms that are decidedly conservative and thus to be outside those is necessarily liberal.

Unfair consequences in the U.S. remain mostly for people on the left; conservative Americans are themselves fretting about losing their status of privilege, and their cries of “cancel culture” are ugly projections since it is they who wish to erase the realities that have always existed but have too often been forced behind lock and key.

When millionaire white men wag their fingers about “cancel culture” from the floor of the U.S. Senate, we must be more than skeptical that they are being sincere about freedom of speech since they are embodying that they, in fact, haven’t been canceled at all.