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”together. Within 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.
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.