Republican war on books: They don't just want to control your body — next up, your mind

Gutting public schools, targeting booksellers, shutting down libraries: Every censorship tactic is on the table

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 11, 2022 1:00PM (EDT)

Display of banned books or censored books at Books Inc independent bookstore in Alameda, California, October 16, 2021. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
Display of banned books or censored books at Books Inc independent bookstore in Alameda, California, October 16, 2021. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Once Republicans started to falsely accuse educators and librarians of "grooming" children for sexual abuse, it was just a matter of time before the talk of imprisoning them began. Sure enough, in a clip collected by Tennessee Holler, a recently-elected district attorney in Hamilton County, Tennessee, did just that during a meet-and-greet between her, the pro-censorship group Moms for Liberty (whose name would do George Orwell proud) and the local sheriff. In the video, recorded in May, you can hear an anti-liberty "Mom" ask, "Do you feel like there should be some kind of prosecution for these librarians?"

Coty Wamp, the county's new DA, offers a throat-clearing "tough one," before affirming that prosecution is on the table: "There's going to come a time, in some of these books, where it crosses a criminal line. It's called contributing to the delinquency of a minor."

Now that the video has gone viral, Wamp is denying that she intended to say what she said. When contacted by Jezebel, she unleashed a confusing disawowal, claiming she never meant to say she would "prosecute librarians or teachers for the books that are in our schools," but was only talking about some imaginary scenario in which "an adult was standing on a street corner handing out pamphlets to young children that depict sexual acts." As the video shows, of course, she was responding to a question about librarians, at an event held by a group whose main political activity is harassing librarians and schoolteachers over books with "woke" content they don't like. 

Indeed, in that same Jezebel interview, Wamp hedged again, in a way that sounds very much as if she has not ruled out prosecuting librarians and teachers for allowing kids to read book with content that offends the racist or homophobic sensibilities of Republicans: 

For me as a lawyer and somebody that's prosecuted these cases you also have to determine who at the end of the day is responsible for putting these books in these schools. Is it the librarian? Is it the school administrators? Is it the school board? Because if we're going to talk about who's on the hook, whose on the hook for this, who is on the hook? We have to talk about it.

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Clearly, the Republican war on reading in just beginning. Ever since GOP hedge-fund zillionaire Glenn Youngkin won the 2021 race for Virginia's governor with a campaign that celebrated attempts to censor Nobel-winning novelist Toni Morrison, Republicans across the country have been swept up in a book-banning frenzy. Using fake concerns about "the children" as cover, Republicans have waged all-out war on not just books but any form of speech deemed "woke," usually because it advocates antiracism or humanizes LGBTQ people. Red states have been banning books and terrorizing teachers for anything they deem "critical race theory," now a shapeless umbrella term used to demonizes everything from teaching Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington to telling kids that the Holocaust was bad. Hoary myths that gay people "recruit" children have been revived by simply updating the terminology — these days, LGBTQ people are accused of "grooming" children, with no evidence required — and used to justify legislation such as Florida's "don't say gay" law, effectively forcing queer teachers and students into the closet. The circle of censorship is expanding, as conservatives have started to target drag shows and Pride parades, trying to shut down any public expression of queerness or gender diversity.

But as always happens when reactionaries pull their censorship pants on, the main focus is reading. Spoiler: They hate it. Authoritarians have always been suspicious of reading, because it is such a private act. A reader, after all, is alone with the text and their thoughts. It's very hard to control what kinds of "dangerous" ideas — such as that people of color and LGBTQ people are full, complex, interesting and often contradictory human beings — might start to form in that space. This is exactly why we so often in history see a reluctance to let oppressed groups of people, such as women or racial minorities, have access to literacy or higher education. And it's also why Republicans have gone on an anti-reading rampage in the wake of their barely literate leader, Donald Trump, losing the 2020 election. 

They're even going after math books, for heaven's sake. 

As Dan Kois at Slate reported on Wednesday, Republicans in Virginia have even launched a campaign to revive the old obscenity laws once leveraged to censor books by Henry Miller and James Joyce. Using "protecting the children" as cover, Virginia state Del. Tim Anderson and some of his GOP colleagues have launched a legal petition to return to the days of declaring books "obscene," allowing them to be banned from libraries, schools and even bookstores. It's a direct challenge to decades of Supreme Court case law establishing that the First Amendment very much applies to literature. But after the overturn of Roe v. Wade — and Justice Clarence Thomas' open invitation to right-wingers to challenge any 20th-century case establishing rights they don't like — Republican lawyers are eager to explore how far they can go to simply delete an entire century's worth of progress on human rights and civil rights. 

This particular case probably won't get that far, especially as the current Supreme Court doesn't seem to hate free speech as much as it hates reproductive rights or the right to vote. But cases like this are often not about trying to win everything all at once, but rather about resetting the parameters of the debate. Now that some Republicans are outright trying to ban the sale of novels, other efforts — such as removing books from schools or harassing and defunding public libraries — can seem more "moderate" in comparison. 

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And make no mistake, the crackdown on reading is shaping up to be a major rallying issue for Republicans in the coming months and years. As Kathryn Joyce reported for Salon, Moms for Liberty sprung up nearly overnight and turned into a powerhouse in GOP politics after receiving a flood of dark money spending. "Today, Moms for Liberty has around 95,000 members in some 200 county chapters across close to 40 states," she wrote. It's now become standard for Republicans to pander to the group by promising a crackdown on schools and libraries that allow kids to read books on subjects the Moms hate, which almost always means racial justice or LGBTQ lives. 

One of the most immediate effects has been on libraries in small-town America. In Michigan, one library's funding was cut as conservative residents rallied to close it down. In Iowa, another library temporarily shut its doors after the staff was harassed over the presence of both LGBTQ books and staff members. Librarians report being fired and harassed — often by being called "pedos" and "groomers" — for stocking books the right deems "woke." In Texas, a conservative activist called the cops to accuse a school library of distributing pornography. The American Library Association has documented censorship efforts at more than 700 libraries in the past year. 

Fortunately, libraries have robust free speech protections, at least for now, and are often able to fend off these censorship efforts. In the long term, however, the most damage will likely be done to the public school system and to the longstanding principle that all American children should have access to a free education. As the Washington Post reported last week, there's a catastrophic teacher shortage across the country, as many teachers who are already underpaid and pandemic-stressed simply quit in the face of all this abuse. 

"This shortage is contrived," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the Post, blaming the situation on the "political situation in the United States."

As Weingarten suggests, the teacher shortage is a feature, not a bug, of the current right-wing hysteria over "critical race theory," alleged sexual "grooming" and other made-up panics. As Joyce has documented in investigative reports for Salon, gutting the very concept of public education has been a cherished long-term goal of the religious right. This political moment, with the GOP base in a full-on freakout over "wokeness," presents a perfect opportunity to push an otherwise unpopular agenda of undermining, defunding and eventually destroying public education as we know it. 

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How far Republicans will get with their censorship campaign is still an open question. On one hand, polling shows that book bans and other forms of censorship are soundly rejected by large majorities of Americans. But that's also true, for example, of laws that ban or severely restrict abortion access. The Republican solution to that is to go around democracy to a form of minority rule. Through gerrymandering and voter suppression, the GOP has gained a political chokehold on large swaths of rural and suburban America where moderates and liberals have been marginalized or driven away amid a stifling climate of religious-right oppression. As Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., recently admitted out loud, the goal is make life so intolerable in some areas that "red states are going to become more red" and Republicans can exert anti-democratic control by cordoning off the blue majority in a handful of dense metropolitan areas. 

Gaining power by making much of the country so inhospitable that only the angriest and most deluded people want to live there is a big task. It starts by destroying people's ability to live in peace in their own homes, by attacking their right to have whatever sexual relationships they want, form whatever kinds of families they want and even read whatever books they want. The assault on the right to privacy was never going to stop at controlling what people do with their genitals. The final authoritarian goal has always and forever been to control what you do with your mind. 

By 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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Book Banning Censorship Commentary Critical Race Theory Education Libraries Republicans