Analysis | There is a consistency to the debate over book censorship: Distress about change – The Washington Post

You will recall a moment earlier this year when the nation’s political conversation was focused on the unlikely subject of children’s books. The prompt was a decision by the estate of author Theodor Geisel — Dr. Seuss — to stop printing six titles that included images or text that caricatured Black and Asian people in offensive ways. So offensive, in fact, that as Fox News spent days ranting about the decision, the network only once actually showed the images at issue.
Instead, the conversation on that network and among Republican elected officials was that this was another example of the “woke” left censoring an author who didn’t fit their agenda. Never mind that it was Seuss’s estate itself halting the publication, Republican officials shared performances of themselves reading other, not-controversial Seuss books as a way of demonstrating their robust support for newly imperiled free speech.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) suggested that this decision epitomized a “cancel culture” that was a first step on a path toward people’s Facebook posts leading to their not being able to get a bank loan. Some likened it to the book-burning that occurred in Nazi Germany. Others blamed President Biden.
When I wrote about the issue, responses generally followed the tracks above. This was a slippery slope, some argued, or I was a book-burner. There was another common response, too, when I wrote about having received one of the books as a gift: This was a good opportunity for me to teach my son about America’s fraught racial history and the time when Seuss was writing. I demurred, assessing that my 4-year-old might not be ready for that discussion.
The reason it’s useful to elevate this controversy surrounding a beloved children’s book author is because of the more recent discussion of the author of “Beloved.”
This week, the campaign of Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin ran an ad featuring a mother who had objected to a book that her son had been instructed to read in class. She supported Youngkin, she said, because the Democrat in that race, former governor Terry McAuliffe, had vetoed a law created to address her concerns about that book.
Missing from the ad was the full context: Her son had been assigned Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” as part of an advanced-placement English class he took when he was in his late teens. When the controversy first emerged in 2013, he described the book as having been “hard for him to handle.” It reportedly gave him night terrors. He recovered and is now a lawyer working for the Republican Party.
The incident was useful to Youngkin specifically because of the national debate over race and books that unfolded in conservative media this year. Not the one about Seuss but the mirror-image of that, as Republican legislators and activists pushed to limit teaching about issues of race in schools. This was shoved under the umbrella term “critical race theory,” an academic term that has been appropriated to refer to a sweeping array of race- and culture-focused books and curriculums. The 2013 “Beloved” scrap was asymptotic to that debate: a powerful, challenging book about slavery that made a White mother uncomfortable.
Wednesday morning brought a new addition to the national conversation. The Dallas Morning News reported that Texas state Rep. Matt Krause (R) had started an investigation into the state’s school curriculum, identifying scores of books that he believed warranted further investigation. There was an obvious theme to the titles: Many focused on discussions of race, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” and books from historian Ibrahim X. Kendi. Others dealt with sexuality. The overarching concern, Krause wrote in a letter to school officials, was to identify any books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.”
Here we see the irony in suggestions that I use the imagery in Seuss’s books to teach my young son about the history of racist stereotypes. Seuss books do have an educational component, certainly, one deployed in schools and informally by parents — but the focus of the books is on reading and the enjoyment of reading, not on better understanding the diaspora of imaginary talking creatures Seuss invented. The dubious imagery was incidental to that component, not central to it.
Yet here we have examples of books being presented specifically in an educational context being presented as emotionally harmful and damaging. The kid in Virginia was being asked to read “Beloved” not to get him to love reading but because it’s a challenging book written for adults that is presented to advanced students to both prepare them for college and to sharpen their critical thinking.
Education is fundamentally about being challenged. My 4-year-old finds reading frustrating, so he objects even to Seuss. But we encourage him to do something hard — psychologically distressing, if you will — because he learns from it. There are certainly boundaries to this idea, and not every piece of writing would naturally fit within an educational curriculum. But promoting a world in which books never make a student feel uncomfortable is promoting a world in which learning is hampered.
A state legislator scrutinizing what books are appropriate is, of course, a lot closer to state-sanctioned censorship than Dr. Seuss’s estate halting publication of a few titles or than anything Biden did. But it’s unlikely to raise the hackles of Fox and Republican politicians because of the direction in which it’s pointed.
The Dr. Seuss outrage cycle was at least in part about defending how race has historically been presented; the “critical race theory” outrage cycle was about protecting that presentation from revision and examination. Krause’s effort is clearly in part about shielding Texas students from ideas about race and gender that might conflict with their understanding of the world. “Beloved” is challenging because it is a direct reminder of horrible things that have occurred and can occur, not because it’s science fiction detached from reality. A goal of education is to present such challenges.
All of us, myself included, often use isolated, nonrepresentative anecdotes to power rhetorical points. This is not ideal. There are no doubt many on the right who object to Krause’s broad inquisition just as there are no doubt many on the left who found the Seuss estate’s decision disconcerting. It is nonetheless worth highlighting how the new discussion of limiting access to books in schools overlaps with the old discussion of how access to books was being limited.
Again, there is a throughline.
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