Texas most aggressive censorship as GOP rejects literature

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Writers and publishers make their money trading in ideas and information, with the number of copies or subscriptions sold a gauge of our success.

We also believe freedom of expression creates an informed citizenry, joyful entertainment, critical insight and life-affirming comfort. Suffice it to say, those of us in the ideas and information business are no fans of censorship.

A vocal minority in our community believes their taste in books and other art forms should determine what’s available to all. Every few years, politicians in need of an issue to demagogue mobilize the censorious with faux outrage over things most of us find artful or inert.

“Think of the children!” is a sadly effective battle cry and one currently echoing in libraries and the corridors of power across Texas.

These tumultuous periods are why PEN America exists and why we observe Banned Books Week every year. Because if you let the censors get going, you never know where they will stop.

Last year, 277 writers, academics, and public intellectuals in 36 countries were detained or imprisoned for their ideas, PEN reported. China, Iran and Saudi Arabia were the most repressive nations, according to the Freedom to Write Index.

In the United States, lawmakers introduced 159 gag-order bills to limit what teachers may say in the classroom in 2021 and 2022, and Texas passed one of the 19 bills signed into law. Almost all these orders limit what a teacher may say about race, gender or LGBTQ issues.

On a personal note, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick last year ordered the Bullock State History Museum to cancel a speaking engagement where Bryan Burrough and I were to discuss our book “Forget the Alamo.” Using the power of elected office to prevent a person from speaking violates the First Amendment, but hey, it’s Texas.

Across the country, our fellow Americans tried 681 times to ban or restrict library resources in schools, universities and public libraries in the first eight months of this year alone, according to the American Library Association. Almost all the targets addressed race, gender or LGBTQ issues.

Right-wing activists still push school boards to ban more books in schools and public libraries. My colleagues Hannah Dellinger and Alejandro Serrano proved that far from being an uprising of angry parents, all the bans emanated from state Rep. Matt Krause and Republican officials looking to get out the vote.

Krause attacks groups historically marginalized in Texas because it appeals to the GOP base. The 850 titles he targeted predominantly feature LGBTQ characters and people of color in prominent character roles or mention racism, the Holocaust, sexual violence, sexuality and abortion.

Bigotry is the common denominator in all these bans, which can lead to violence.

Last week, I attended PEN America’s symposium, “Words on Fire: Writing, Freedom and the Future.” The event took place under heightened security because a few weeks earlier, an attacker stabbed Salman Rushdie, a scheduled speaker who missed the event because he remains hospitalized.

The alleged attacker reportedly confessed that he attacked Rushdie for his criticism of Islam in the bestselling novel “The Satanic Verses.”

Filling a New York stage with writers who’ve seen their work censored was sadly too easy. Margaret Atwood, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jennifer Finney Boylan and Dave Eggers discussed their bans.

Boylan, a transgender writer, described how difficult it was to make sense of her feelings when she could find no literature that reflected her experience as a teen. Her 13 books have helped millions of readers understand transgender people. Bigots are trying to ban her books for young adults.

The threat is not only from the right. Adichie correctly questioned whether any publisher would touch “The Satanic Verses” today because it satirizes a major world religion. In the name of sensitivity, activists on the left also try to control what ideas enter the public domain.

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist,” Rushdie frequently says.

Texas has the most aggressive censorship movement and has banned more books than any other state, PEN found. Twenty-two school districts have banned 801 books. Some activists are calling the police to file criminal complaints against school districts that reject requests to remove books.

A McMeans Junior High teacher in Katy removed every young adult book to avoid controversy.

People have a right to decide what they want to read, but they have no right to deny others access to what they reject. I’m betting this flare-up of censorship dies after the election, but if it doesn’t, the fight for liberty and freedom will continue.

Chris Tomlinson, named 2021 columnist of the year by the Texas Managing Editors, writes commentary about money, politics and life in Texas. Sign up for his “Tomlinson’s Take” newsletter at HoustonChronicle.com/TomlinsonNewsletter.


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