Book burning in the 21st century


Seventy years ago, Ray Bradbury published his dystopian novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” depicting the duty of firemen to burn books regarded by the government as dangerous or subversive. Written during the beginning of the Cold War, the book reacted to the book burnings that took place in Nazi Germany and the attacks on free thought in the Soviet Union. Fearful that these practices were emerging in America, Bradbury was concerned that the House Un-American Activities Committee in Congress was undermining First Amendment freedoms.

In 1993, Bradbury told the San Jose Mercury News critic Judith Green that he wrote the novel because he “was angry at [Senator Joseph] McCarthy and the people before him — Parnell Thomas and the House Un-American Activities Committee and Bobby Kennedy, who was part of that whole bunch. I was angry about the blacklisting and the Hollywood 10. I was a $100-a-week screenwriter, but I wasn’t scared — I was angry.” (Thomas chaired HUAC, and Kennedy was assistant counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, at the time chaired by McCarthy and today by Jon Ossoff of Georgia.)

The assault on reading and understanding has now penetrated our schools and libraries. The New Yorker magazine reports that some 42 states have proposed restrictions on the teaching of gay and lesbian lifestyles; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and critical race theory. The last of these is not taught in public schools: it is a law school creation that examines how race and racial barriers are affected by society.

The Boston Globe recently reported that “libraries find themselves on the front line of the increasingly bitter culture wars. Books are being challenged and removed, events such as drag story hours are being canceled because of safety concerns, and librarians are harassed and insulted in the workplace, sometimes being denounced as ‘pedophiles’ and ‘groomers.’”

But there is more. Led by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the state education department found that an Advanced Placement course covering African American history violated Florida law. Last year, the state legislature passed the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (or WOKE) Act, which requires the teaching of race in “an objective manner,” and “not used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.” Some subjects concerning current issues that are debated in society were cited: “Intersectionality and Activism,” “Black Feminist Literary Theory,” and “Black Queer Studies.” According to the Washington Post, “DeSantis has said he wants students to learn Black history — and by law, they are required to — but accused teachers of indoctrinating students to believe a ‘woke ideology.’”

The term “woke,” rooted in the 1940s, refers to being sensitive to issues of social justice. The political right uses it to attack those who disagree with them. Last November, a federal judge ruled that much of the law violated the First Amendment. The DeSantis administration is appealing the ruling.

The Florida law also requires teachers to carefully ensure that their reading lists do not include any of the banned books that might be considered “woke.” They may be liable to serve a five-year prison term, or pay a $5,000 fine. The result, according to The Nation magazine, is “leading to bare bookshelves in classrooms as teachers panic about whether their own classroom libraries violate state law.”

In one Florida county, banned books include “one Berenstain Bears book; biographies of Henry Aaron, Harriet Tubman, Celia Cruz, Rosa Parks, and Malala; a preponderance of books about nonwhite children and families; as well as those dealing with sexual themes.” In addition, some banned books focused on stories centered around ethnic foods: “Dim Sum, Dim Sum For Everyone!” “Dumpling Soup,” and “Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story.” This is not censorship. It is self-censorship.

One recent national study found that 25 percent of all teachers have now altered their course of study because of laws like this one.

And so, has “Fahrenheit 451” become a reality in the U.S.? Will the Florida law exist in the 42 other states working on similar measures? Is this a new era of books burning, as states threaten to fine and jail teachers and librarians? Have some of our states and counties begun to seem like those the U.S. defeated in World War II and the Cold War?

Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, has written seven books and edited four others, none of which has been banned.