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An unprecedented wave of school book banning in the USA

Unparalleled in intensity’ – 1,500 book bans in US school districts.

More than 1,500 book bans have been instituted in US school districts in the last nine months, a study has found, part of a rightwing censorship effort described as “unparalleled in its intensity”.

PEN America, a non-profit organization that works to protect freedom of expression in the US, scrutinized efforts to ban certain books from school libraries for its “Banned in the USA” report. The organization found that 1,145 books were targeted by rightwing politicians and activists, including the work of the Nobel prize laureate Toni Morrison.

“Banned book clubs”, where children and young adults meet to read and discuss titles that have been censored by school districts, have sprung up across America, while sales of the book Maus, a Pulitzer prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, soared in January after it was banned by a Tennessee school board.

(J. B. Lippincott & Co.)

What the book is about: The book, published in 1960, is set in a fictional Alabama town during the Great Depression. White attorney Atticus Finch defends a Black man who is falsely accused of raping a White woman. Finch faces down community pressure and a mob set on lynching his client. The story weaves the legal drama with the coming-of-age story of Finch’s young daughter, Scout, who learns about acting with empathy and justice in a community beset by racism and prejudice. The novel won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Last year, New York Times readers voted it best book of the past 125 years.

The American national anthem may tout the country as the “land of the free”, but the legitimacy of that statement is becoming increasingly stretched in 2022, as conservatives have launched a concerted campaign to prevent ideas and books from being presented to schoolchildren. It is a situation that has no parallel in America’s recent history. And in an interview with the Guardian, Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, a non-profit organization that works to protect freedom of expression in the US, said the efforts to censor education, in particular, fit in with a wider attempt by conservatives to influence society.

There are few signs that US polarization will decrease any time soon. Democrats and Republican politicians are deeply divided over issues around education, social care, women’s rights and the pandemic recovery, while only a fifth of Republicans believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected, despite a lack of evidence of widespread election fraud.

In January an NBC News poll found that 70% of Americans believe the country has become so polarized it can no longer solve major issues facing the country.

“We see that in efforts to curtail voting rights across the country and to empower legislatures to overrule the will of an increasingly diverse population that go to the polls.”

A bill introduced in the Kansas house on 9 February would change the state’s obscenity law, making it a class B misdemeanor for a teacher to use any material which depicts “homosexuality” in a classroom, while looming legislation in Arizona would allow parents to sue teachers and school districts for perceived violations of parental rights.

In schools, these laws serve to “hobble our educators, and intimidate them in a chilling way”, Nossel said.

“It puts librarians, teachers, principals in a position of having to fear that if they put forward certain ideas, or even if a student puts forward certain ideas, and it gets taken up as a classroom discussion, that they may be subject to discipline or punishment or fines.”

While classroom censorship has become an eagerly embraced hobbyhorse for conservatives, there is little evidence that a majority of parents are demanding more censorship in the classroom or demanding more influence over what their children can read, or be taught.

CNN poll in early February found that only 12% of Americans believed parents “should have the most sway over which library books are on the shelves and how American history is taught”.

Source: The Guardian

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