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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Book bans: Both sides do it, and both should be opposed


On Nov. 18, a headline in Education Week read: “Nearly 300 Books Removed from Schools Under Missouri’s ‘Sexually Explicit Materials’ Law.”  

School boards throughout Missouri have removed from school libraries books thought to violate the new law (enacted from Senate Bill 775) that bans sexually explicit content from being made available to students in grades K-12. 

The Wentzville School District has led the way, but many districts not only around the St. Louis region and the state but across the nation have followed suit. Included are widely taught graphic novels such as “Maus,” about the Holocaust. The Education Week article reported that the ban is “mostly books about LGBTQ people and people of color.” 

That is, books that have been added to the curriculum by liberal-minded educators and that have drawn the fire of right-wingers.

Liberal groups such as PEN America and the American Civil Liberties Union have protested and attempted to counter the bans by filing lawsuits. 

I am against this sort of book-banning except in the most egregious cases of exposing children to excessive sexuality in school. We should be promoting as much freedom of inquiry and expression as possible.

That said, I am also bothered by the double standard I see on this issue, where PEN, the ACLU and liberal groups tend to criticize book banning only when it comes from the right, despite the fact that it often comes also from the left. 

Let me give a specific example of my concern. 

My temple, Congregation Shaare Emeth, recently started a new “Banned Book Club” that brings congregants together to discuss these issues. I attended a meeting of the club in June. We discussed Toni Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” which is among the books banned in Wentzville and elsewhere. 

The book tells the story of three Black girls in 1940s America, depicting violent child sexual abuse relating particularly to Black and female oppression. Even those in the audience who supported teaching the book, which seemed to be a majority of the participants, confessed that the book contained very disturbing language and a difficult theme even for mature readers. Supporters of the book included the moderator of the meeting, professor Michael Sherberg of Washington University, who shared the expansive view of literary freedom promoted by PEN and the ACLU.

During the Q&A session, I said: “I am guessing that most of the people in this room and who organized this event see the book-banning phenomenon coming from the right, from conservative groups concerned about explicit sexual content and critical race theory taught to kids in K-12. I wonder if you are equally concerned about book-banning from the left, coming from liberals. For example, at many high schools (e.g., Clayton High School), in the name of diversity and inclusion, no longer is Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” being taught due to the use of the N-word, even though it was once a staple of the English curriculum and Ernest Hemingway himself  said ‘all modern American literature comes from “Huckleberry Finn.” ’ The book is that important a part of American literature.”

Sherberg said in response that he did not fully support the teaching of “Huckleberry Finn” and could understand the opposition to it because one “must be sensitive to one’s audience.” Yet he seemed to be sympathetic to teaching “The Bluest Eye,” never mind that Morrison’s novel also contained repeated references to the N-word as well as other coarse language. 

Why is it OK to teach Toni Morrison but not Mark Twain? Is this not a double standard? 

The fact is that we are seeing an attack on books and free speech generally from both the right and the left. Clearly, the right is part of the problem. But liberals must acknowledge that so is the left. I am not aware that PEN or the ACLU have protested the elimination of Mark Twain and Huck Finn from the high school canon. 

Indeed, liberals have led the way in “cancel culture,” demanding elimination of wording and traditional elements of our culture that offend “woke” sensibilities, even going so far as to demand the removal of George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s names from school buildings, as well as instituting speech codes that ban “microaggressions” such as phrases like “the most qualified person should get the job.” 

Professor Jonathan Turley of the George Washington University Law School, writing in The Messenger online (July 5), says that “the left was once the target of censorship and blacklisting during the Red Scare. Today, they have literally adopted the arguments used to target liberals and socialists.” He writes that the President Joe Biden’s administration has been accused of colluding with social media tech companies to restrict opponents’ speech, with a recent court case finding that “the censorship … almost exclusively targeted conservative speech.” 

To the extent democracy is threatened today, we need all sides of the political spectrum to stand up for free speech and open debate. Don’t just get your back up against “the far right.”  

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