Freedom to Read Week 2022: Notes against the resurgence of censorship in North America

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” – United Nations‘ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, as quoted in Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News by Eric Berkowitz

Censorship is on the march once again in North America.

In January of this year, the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee announced it was banning Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic novel Maus due to “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.” The omnibus volume, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is an allegory of the Holocaust that uses mice to represent its Jewish characters and cats to represent the Nazis. Given its subject matter, it is unsurprising that the narrative would include scenes of violence and self-harm; it is precisely Spiegelman’s frank exploration of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust that makes the book such a powerful work.

The McMinn school board was quick to point out that it did not question the value of the book, only its suitability for students in Grade Eight. “We do not diminish the value of Maus as an impactful and meaningful piece of literature, nor do we dispute the importance of teaching our children the historical and moral lessons and realities of the Holocaust,” the board wrote.

That disingenuous piece of prevarication did not diminish Spiegelman’s astonishment at the decision, after he found out about it via a tweet posted on January 26, ironically the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day.

CNBC quotes Spiegelman as saying, “I also understand that Tennessee is obviously demented. There’s something going on very, very haywire there.”

McMinn County is not the only place where something haywire is going on. Last October, Texas state representative Matt Krause compiled a list of 850 books he wanted to have evaluated for disturbing or offensive content. That list included titles such as How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Native America and the Question of Genocide by Alex Alvarez, Rainbow Revolutionaries: 50 LGBTQ+ People Who Made History by Sarah Prager, and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. No points for figuring out what all those books have in common.

Meanwhile, anyone who was under the misguided impression that book burnings are a thing of the past should direct their attention back to Tennessee, where this month a “pro-Trump, anti-vax pastor” named Greg Locke literally burned “some unholy covenants and alliances and some word curses and some witchcrafts.” Books that went onto the pyre include J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, as well as other assorted “demonic” texts.

Meanwhile, multiple states have put forward legislation that would ban or curtail the teaching of critical race theory, including one bill in Florida that would allow parents to sue if they discovered their children were being exposed to CRT in schools. This notwithstanding the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Keyishian v. Board of Regents, which reads, in part, “Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.”

Nor is Canada immune to the kind of censorious attitudes that appear to be taking hold south of the border. As political science professor Emmett Macfarlane told the National Post’s Tyler Dawson in December, “Canada is not some safe harbour from the evils of far-right populism; if you’re a progressive voter, we are not immune from what is happening in other countries with white nationalism and other movements.”

Indeed, it was not that long ago that one journalist, also writing in the NaPo, took umbrage at a Governor General’s Literary Award–winning LGBTQ+ YA novel, which she called “values-void” and an example of the “narcissism of queer/transgender identity.” That column resulted in an online petition calling for the author’s GG award to be revoked.

Far from being a historical anachronism, censorship is alive and well in the 21st century. Its most frequent targets tend to be works that foreground racial justice or LGBTQ+ issues and themes or, in the case of Pastor Locke, books that are assessed as doing the devil’s work. (Historically, these have proved some of the most interesting and invigorating literature around: there was a time that if a work was on the Catholic Index of Banned Books, you could be sure it was worth reading.)

Often these attempts at suppression backfire. Maus became a latter-day bestseller in the wake of Tennessee’s move to ban it. But this does not make up for the damage such attempts have on the basic freedom to read and access books of all kinds on all manner of subjects and from all sides of the political spectrum. February 20–26 is Freedom to Read Week in Canada, an annual initiative sponsored by the Book and Periodical Council “that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom.” This year, more than most in recent memory, it is essential to stand up for the right to read and to oppose those who would try to infringe upon that basic freedom.

Freedom to Read Week 2022: Notes against the resurgence of censorship in North America