COMMENTARY

Banning math books and attacking libraries: Republicans ramp up their mission to spread ignorance

Florida bans 50 math books while a Republican judge in Texas argues there's no reason "to provide a public library"

By Amanda Marcotte

Published April 18, 2022 1:08PM (EDT)

Governor Ron DeSantis signs Florida's 15-week abortion ban into law at Nacion de Fe Church in Kissimmee. The law, which goes into effect July 1, bans the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy without exemptions for rape, incest or human trafficking, but does allow exemptions in cases where a pregnancy isœa serious risk to the mother or a fatal abnormality is detected if two physicians confirm the diagnosis in writing.  (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Governor Ron DeSantis signs Florida's 15-week abortion ban into law at Nacion de Fe Church in Kissimmee. The law, which goes into effect July 1, bans the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy without exemptions for rape, incest or human trafficking, but does allow exemptions in cases where a pregnancy isœa serious risk to the mother or a fatal abnormality is detected if two physicians confirm the diagnosis in writing. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

When Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis rolled out a bold new plan to crush public education under the boot of literacy-suspicious authoritarians, Republicans swore up and down that this was not actually the war on public schools it looked like. A pair of deliberately vague bills — one aimed at censoring "critical race theory" and another at banning "instruction" on "sexual orientation and gender identity" — were justified with disingenuous claims that Republicans merely wanted to protect children from "indoctrination" and even "grooming." Critics, however, noted that the funding and organization behind these efforts linked the DeSantis plan to a larger religious right assault on the very concept of public education

Then Florida banned over two dozen math textbooks, proving critics right. This is, and always has been, an assault on education itself. DeSantis praised the ban, declaring that the books are "indoctrinating concepts like race essentialism, especially, bizarrely, for elementary school students."

RELATED: The secret plan behind Florida's "don't say gay" bill: Bankrupting public education 

The only thing that's bizarre is the attempt to reframe mathematics education as "critical race theory." It's been clear for months that when Republicans talk about "critical race theory," they are not talking about the college-level academic theory that looks at the legal infrastructure that supports racial inequalities. Instead, it's a catch-all phrase to demonize any history book or literature that acknowledges that racism is real. Now, the circle of censorship is expanding to basic math. 

Thinking is the enemy of authoritarianism.  

To those who have been carefully watching the GOP as they become more openly fascistic, none of this is surprising. As I wrote in December, authoritarians have long taken a dim view of the very concept of education. Even basic literacy and math skills are viewed as a threat because they open the door to critical thinking. Above all else, Republicans do not want a population armed with critical thinking skills. While it doesn't get much mainstream press coverage, conservatives have long been nurturing anger over federal education guidelines, often called "Common Core." These standards aim to give kids a real understanding of math and how it works, instead of simply memorizing multiplication tables and quitting before they get to calculus. Having people understand concepts on a deeper level terrifies the right, however.  They prefer a populace that's kept ignorant because they are prone to blindly following authority. 


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So under such circumstances, it's not a surprise that Republicans are expanding their war on learning past schools and targeting libraries, as well. On Sunday, the Washington Post published a chilling story looking at this nationwide attack on reading through one Texas community's battle over the local public library.

The religious right in Llano, Texas has been bullying the local library to pull books deemed "pornographic filth," mostly because the books admit racism is real, that LGBTQ people exist and that human beings are naked under their clothes. If that sounds like an exaggeration, it's not: One of the books targeted is "In the Night Kitchen" by Maurice Sendak, a children's book that has a drawing of a naked child that is only "pornographic" to people who think all nudity, even children's nudity, is about sex. Another book is "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates, clearly targeted for the "pornography" of being about how racism is a real problem that affects real people.  

As the Post reports, the GOP book banners, "some of whom did not even have library cards," have made incredible headway at circumventing the library's rigorous protocols against censorship. They've been working through the head chair of the governing body of Llano County, a Republican named Ron Cunningham, who simply walked right into the library and pulled the books he didn't want other people to read off the shelf. 

RELATED: Salon investigates: The war on public schools is being fought from Hillsdale College 

"The board also needs to recognize that the county is not mandated by law to provide a public library," Cunningham wrote in a letter to Bonnie Wallace, a far-right activist who has been granted secretive but wide-ranging censorship powers. After the Post confronted Cunningham with this letter, which was obtained under a FOIA request, he replied with pablum about how the county is "committed to providing excellent public library services." But, of course, the true attitudes are coming out in that letter and the relentless hostility to educators and librarians in general. 

Conservatives have long been nurturing anger over federal education guidelines, often called "Common Core."

As Kathryn Joyce has demonstrated through expansive reporting for Salon, once you look past the surface talk about "protecting" children and towards the actual organizers and brain trust for the right, it becomes clear that the long-term goal here is destroying public education. In some cases, the plan is to replace it with private and for-profit "schools" that teach fake right-wing science and history. Realistically, for most people who can't afford private school tuition, this GOP plan would likely mean no real education for their kids at all. This is absolutely fine by the authoritarian right, of course, which views functional literacy as a gateway drug to that dreaded "critical thinking." Plus, if poor and middle-class kids don't finish high school, that means that the children of the wealthy have fewer people to compete with for spots in elite universities. 


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As Umberto Eco wrote in his fundamental examination of fascism, "All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning." To be functionally literate, instead of being incapable of reading much more than a street sign or a Donald Trump tweet, is to open the door to thinking. Thinking is the enemy of authoritarianism.  

To be certain, most Americans — even most Republican voters — don't think literacy, much less math skills or scientific knowledge, are bad things. And they certainly wouldn't approve, if they found out how expansive the Republican war on education actually is. That's why these leaders dress up their hatred of education with conspiracy theories about "critical race theory" and "grooming." It's about distracting voters from what's really going on: a full-blown assault on the ability of all kids to receive a basic education. 

RELATED: Betsy DeVos is back — and her family is flooding Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with cash

That said, the abject terror that has been instilled in the average Republican voter of "wokeism" has opened the door to radicalizing them towards a fascist view that literacy itself is the enemy. As this battle in Llano shows, it doesn't take much to get conservatives to start taking a dim view of the mere existence of books and libraries. Take this recent propaganda video from Tucker Carlson and Fox News, an unwittingly campy portrayal of "manhood" as being a matter of throwing tires and drinking raw eggs. 

It's a short step from this sort of imagery to portraying the more cerebral pastimes of reading and studying as emasculating wastes of time. As Eco writes, to the fascist, "Thinking is a form of emasculation." We're already most of the way with the right, which has taken to demonizing school teachers as "groomers" and using the word "professor" as a slur term. It's a movement led by Trump, a man who is proudly illiterate and whose social media writers would deliberately inject grammatical errors and misspellings into his tweets to keep up his image as someone who can barely read. Republicans are swiftly reimagining illiteracy not as an embarrassing flaw, but as an aspiration. A child's right to education is caught directly in the crosshairs. 


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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