Ninety years ago, on May 10, 1933 students in 34 university towns across Germany burned more than 25,000 books. The works of Jewish and blacklisted American authors went up in flames, as students gave the Nazi salute.
“Widespread newspaper coverage called the “action against the ‘Un-German Spirit’ a success. The Nazi war on ‘un-German” individual expression had begun,” reported the PBS American Experience Series.
The last time I can recall Americans speaking out with one voice was following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack. Today there is no unified outrage, not even against senseless gun violence that has taken the lives of innocent children.
There is only partisan divide, often tied to conspiracy theories like the “great replacement theory.”
For true believers, the great replacement theory represents a plot to reduce the influence of white people through immigration and declining white birth rates. The theory’s more extremist devotees charge that Jews are overseeing the replacement plan.
This was no more evident than at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., when white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Klansmen marched with Tiki Torches chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”
This and other public expressions of hate like it seemed to have gone underground for some time. No more. The taboo has been lifted in recent years with the introduction of MAGA-cult ideology and their number one cheerleader Donald Trump.
Government alone cannot fix this. The ultimate outcome is in the hands of people of goodwill who refuse to sit back. There are no short-term solutions. Only a sustained counterforce will do.
Change will require the compassion and commitment of people who wish to prevent any number of America’s children from identifying with the Charlottesville marchers or the guy clothed casually in a “Camp Auschwitz’ T-shirt on January 6.
Make no mistake, the great replacement theory is tied to the extreme far-right book-banning movement. The organization Pen America, whose aim it is to protect free expression, noted that Florida and Texas lead the way in banning books, followed by Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina. In April 2023 book banning has increased by 28% nationwide, reports Pen America CEO Suzanne Nossel.
Banning books is a “gateway drug” to the great replacement theory. Worse, it is a precursor to violence.
As more books are banned, curricula curtailed, and history truncated in public schools across the nation, it is getting harder for children to learn about the experiences of people with histories and cultures that are different from their own.
“Literature builds bridges; it makes our world larger, not smaller,” advises novelist R.F. Kuang. When the truth is redacted from the classroom and library, purveyors of falsehoods and conspiracy theories rush into the breach to capture hearts and minds.
Book banning creates a culture of suspicion; forestalling curiosity, connection, and community. It shuts down critical inquiry, conversation, and constructive debate, all vital for healthy child and youth development and for the ability to thrive in a diverse society.
What is the deepest desire of great replacement theory fanatics? It appears to be to conduct a nationwide frontal lobotomy to erase America’s historical and cultural hard drive and sanitize how different groups of people arrived on our shores and what they have had to contend with then and now.
Florida Gov. DeSantis and Texas Gov. Abbott, America’s foremost lobotomists, have been systematically plotting and implementing the surgical severance of books and other learning materials, leaving millions of young people uninformed, ignorant, and disconnected from their peers.
“DeSantis has taken legitimate anxiety over student well-being in the wake of the pandemic and channeled it into a spiraling moral panic,” states Michelle Goldberg for the New York Times. “Now these voices — you know, Daughters of the Confederacy, Moms for Liberty”— a right-wing women’s group that has spearheaded book bans nationwide — “they’ve been given license now to bring their hatred to the mainstream,” said Lindsay Durtschi, who is involved in a lawsuit filed against Florida’s Escambia County School District for their extensive school library censorship.
We cannot simply move on if we think this is all just about a minority of loud racists running amuck or snarky ones trying to “own the libs” by invoking “woke” culture. Perhaps the greatest risk we face is a preponderance of bystanders that are too comfortable to care.
DeSantis says that Florida is where “woke goes to die.” He uses “woke” as a cudgel when it simply means that someone is informed, educated and conscious about social injustice and racial inequality.
The term has become a convenient sophomoric straw man for legislators like DeSantis to advance book banning as a tactic to dilute and distort history.
Autocrats like DeSantis, Abbott and their authoritarian brethren are preventing America’s children from having free access to ideas that might enable them to better negotiate and navigate an increasingly diverse world.
They are passing laws that will impede students from finding common ground and seeing their classmates as full human beings, as opposed to “others.”
Consequently, some will move on into the world like little missiles of hate, which is how domestic terrorism and political violence are born.
Let’s all get up off the couch together.