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Banning Books and Pondering Democratic Possibility

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The governing board of Roanoke County, Virginia schools, a jurisdiction located near where I live and some thirty-five miles from Blacksburg, Virginia, the home of Virginia Tech, recently adopted a new policy requiring:

two librarians to write reviews for all titles under consideration for its elementary school collections and
all primary school librarians in its system to accept each positively reviewed book before it can be added to any unit’s collection and thereafter,
to afford parents two weeks to object to any volume that is accepted, on whatever basis, before any may be placed in school libraries.1

This strategy arose in response to a parent(s) recent successful effort to remove a book already in one County elementary school’s library that featured a transgender boy desiring to be a good brother to his soon-to-be-born sibling.

Importantly, not one Roanoke County school librarian spoke in favor of the unanimous School Board decision to adopt this new procedure at its June meeting and the Virginia Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the body’s stance as censorship. The Board members said nothing at their gathering concerning objections to the policy, although several parents spoke in opposition to the new process. Instead, according to the regional newspaper’s account, one Board member, “referenced the national outcry, largely by conservative political groups over the last year about some of the books found in school libraries while [another] said, ‘there has been pornography found in books and not only at the middle and high school level, but also at the elementary level,’ although she did not specify at Roanoke County or what books she was referencing.”2

In any case, no one at the meeting explained why When Aiden Became a Brother was removed from the Herman L. Horn Elementary School book collection, apart from its, it must be said, positive, reference to a transgender person.3 Not coincidentally, this action occurred as conservative groups have targeted such individuals in a national campaign as a unique threat to be feared and hated. Former President Donald Trump has also routinely assailed members of this group in his public speeches and rallies during the past several months.4 The population these groups and Trump have held up for fear and ridicule comprises an estimated 0.6 percent of the U.S. demographic.5 As it remains unclear in the present instance what was so concerning about the character in the book in question as to require this policy shift and its accompanying censorship this step appears to be a nearly pure case of the triumph of demagoguery over freedom of speech and thought. As an empirical matter, removing the book will neither change the fact that a tiny minority of Americans, who would, to be clear, deserve equal treatment under the law even if they constituted a majority of the nation’s population, will continue to identify as transgender, nor help children and youth begin to understand that fact in ways suitable to their stage of development.

Instead, this policy action has de facto removed collection choices from librarians and handed them to those wishing to ensure that only specific viewpoints are represented in Roanoke County’s school libraries. Ironically, given this policy outcome, When Aiden Became a Brother, published in 2019, was named one of the Best Books of that year by the Library Journal, an Editor’s Choice for Books for Youth by Book List, was named one of the Best of the Best Books for 2019 by the Chicago Public Library and received a starred review in the School Library Journal, among other accolades. The text was written for readers of 5-6 years of age and is described by its publisher this way:

When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl. His parents gave him a pretty name, his room looked like a girl's room, and he wore clothes that other girls liked wearing. After he realized he was a trans boy, Aidan and his parents fixed the parts of his life that didn't fit anymore, and he settled happily into his new life.
Then Mom and Dad announce that they're going to have another baby, and Aidan wants to do everything he can to make things right for his new sibling from the beginning--from choosing the perfect name to creating a beautiful room to picking out the cutest onesie. But what does ‘making things right’ actually mean? And what happens if he messes up? With a little help, Aidan comes to understand that mistakes can be fixed with honesty and communication, and that he already knows the most important thing about being a big brother: how to love with his whole self.6

Readers can be forgiven for being puzzled concerning what was so problematic about this book as to require its withdrawal from Roanoke County school library shelves.

But that is precisely the point. The objecting parent(s) and the school system administration and Board members were not operating from anything resembling reason, but instead on a foundation of fear and demagogic hate encouraged by an orchestrated national crusade of lies.  In lieu of reflecting on the book’s message or seeking to provide reasons for their stance, Board members alluded vaguely to conservative group assertions that transgender individuals should be loathed based on, well, the fact, that they are atypical. Apparently, Board officials simply could not countenance a text that treats this population with respect and that suggests that human differences can be addressed successfully by open communication, love and empathy.

To state the obvious, the Board’s action in this case was cruelly absurd.  Historian Timothy Snyder has highlighted this sort of a priori hate-based thinking as “a blatant abandonment of reason” and an “accepting of untruth of a radical kind.”7 Board members embraced uninformed prejudice concerning this population rather than view the book as the opportunity it represents to develop students’ critical capacities to respect and understand all people, as individuals, possessing dignity and unique abilities and frailties. In so doing, these leaders narrowed the range of reality to which youngsters in the system’s schools will be exposed. Importantly, this censorship arose as a response to an instance of self-declared victimhood in which an aggrieved parent(s) (whose identity has been kept anonymous and who is (are), therefore, unaccountable) professed to be so offended by this text for never publicly articulated reasons that they sought its exclusion from the educational experience of all of Roanoke County’s elementary schoolchildren.

More generally, as the ongoing conservative group efforts nationally to tar and scapegoat the transgender population suggest, discriminating against these individuals based on appeals to hate and fear is a political initiative having nothing to do with education. Rather, it is aimed at mobilizing evangelicals and a share of Roman Catholic voters especially, to the GOP banner. And to be sure, the Republican Party has discriminated actively against this population where it can:

Still, since 2020, 15 states have passed laws barring transgender kids from playing sports in their lived genders. Three have put laws on the books to prevent trans kids from accessing care for gender dysphoria recommended by major medical associations. Two have outlawed mention of LGBTQ+ history or people for young kids in public schools.8

The locally elected Roanoke County School Board, operating in a strongly Republican-leaning jurisdiction, seems to have adopted the last listed course in this case.

The School Board’s action provides an example of fascist politics in which government officials employed their authority to attack a group via censorship. Instead of actively working to offer an important opportunity for learning, Roanoke County schools moved markedly to diminish, as Zena Hitz has recently argued:

The world of learning [which] is simply the world of humanity. It is common property, a shared home. Readers of all locations, backgrounds, and walks of life are free agents, capable of creative engagement and repurposing such culture as they find for the needs they see for themselves. ‘Humanity’ is not a piece of essentialism, as some of its critics claim. It is an aspiration, a dream shaped by all who share it, toward which we advance piecemeal and with difficulty.9

Robbing students, or anyone for that matter, of appropriate encounters with reality, with humanity, enervates their birthright as human beings and diminishes their lived experience and in so doing weakens their capacity to make informed choices as democrats or would-be democrats. Adopting a policy with this result based on vacuous innuendo and lies in efforts to mobilize to secure political power is the very definition of tyranny and its exercise should outrage any friend of freedom. Roanoke County Virginia Public Schools has embarked on a treacherous journey whose ultimate destination remains unclear, but one thing is already obvious, its chosen path is a profoundly anti-democratic and fascistic one that has only degraded those who have so far pressed and embraced it.

Notes

1 Wall, Sam. “Roanoke County Board Tightens Book Policy,” The Roanoke Times, June 24, 2022, pp. A-1, A-4.

2 Wall, “Roanoke County Board Tightens Book Policy,” p. A-4.

3 Lukoff, Kyle. When Aidan Became a Brother, New York: Lee and Low Books, 2019,  https://tinyurl.com/yazf7dyd, Accessed June 24, 2022. 

4 Lizza, Ryan. “POLITICO Playbook: Trump’s New Obsession,” Politico, May 29, 2022, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/playbook/2022/05/29/trumps-new-obsession-00035857, Accessed June 21, 2022. 

5 Sosin, Kate. “Why is the GOP Escalating Attacks on Trans Rights? Experts Say the Goal is to Make Sure Evangelicals Vote,” PBS News Hour, May 20, 2022, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/why-is-the-gop-escalating-attacks-on-trans-rights-experts-say-the-goal-is-to-make-sure-evangelicals-vote, Accessed May 25, 2022. 

6 Lukoff, Kyle. When Aidan Became a Brother, https://tinyurl.com/yazf7dyd.

7 Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017, p. 68.

8 Sosin, Kate, “Why is the GOP Escalating Attacks on Trans Rights? Experts Say the Goal is to Make Sure Evangelicals Vote.”

9 Hitz, Zena. “Human Fundamentals: The Case for Great Books Programs.” Commonweal, June 13, 2022, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/human-fundamentals, Accessed June 13, 2022.  

Publication Date

June 27, 2022

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