The Texas Taliban Lowers the Boom

High-ranking state government officials seek vast censorship powers through intimidation of schools

Texas has everyone in a tizzy again this week, with decent reason. In one of my endless Facebook posts about censorship, someone wrote:

“A friend who works in publishing was just in Austin and reports: ‘The teacher we talked to yesterday reported that the state has a list of 800-some titles schools must remove from their library, most anything to do with Native American history in Texas, women’s suffrage, slavery, and the Civil Rights Movement.'”

From this, you get the sense that people are gleefully burning Dr. King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail in the town square in New Braunfels. But that’s not what’s happening, at all. What is happening isn’t good, but it’s also not going to succeed. Here’s how it breaks down.

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On October 25, Matt Krause, a Texas State Representative and the chairman of the ominously-named “Committee on General Investigating”, sent a letter to the Texas Education Agency and Texas school-district superintendents. In the letter, he included a list of 800 books, asking if the school districts stocked them in their libraries. The list is too vast to quote here, but it starts with a Michael Crichton book from 1969 and goes right up to the present day to a book called “2020 Black Lives Matter marches.” Much of the so-called controversial literature is about abortion or homosexuality or transgender identity, but quite a bit of it is just left-of-center content about various issues.

In addition, Krause asked,

“Please identify any other books or content in your District, specifying the campus location and funds spent on acquisition, that address or contain the following topics: human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), sexually explicit images, graphic presentations of sexual behavior that is in violation of the law, or contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Krause played the moral-majority card harder and more aggressively than any politician in recent memory. Not surprisingly, though a few districts complied with his request, most told him to stuff it. The Texas State Teachers’ Association called it “disturbing and political overreach into the classroom.” The Texas Library Association said it “opposes efforts that restrict the freedom to read through banning, removing, or other forms of restricting access to books or other materials”.

And that, we assumed, was that. Just another provincial lawmaker trying to play the morality card to appeal to an angry base. But we were wrong.

Here comes the governor

Then, this week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, as craven a political weasel who’s ever darkened the state, piped up, writing the Texas Association of School Boards. “A growing number of parents of Texas students are becoming increasingly alarmed about some of the books and other content found in public school libraries that are extremely inappropriate in the public education system. The most flagrant examples include clearly pornographic images and substance…parents have the right to shield their children from obscene content…your organization’s members have an obligation to determine the extent to which such materials exist.”

Abbott cares about as much about “obscene” materials in public-school libraries as he does about the families of thousands of Texans who died last winter when the state’s power grid failed during a freeze. It’s all just grist for his pandering power mill. And it’s very trendy right now for Republican government officials to cry “obscenity,” as witnessed by the absurd battles in Virginia over whether or not it’s appropriate to teach Toni Morrison to 17-year-old AP English students.

More practically, the Texas Association of School Boards responded to Abbott’s letter, saying they have no jurisdiction over what individual districts choose to stock in their libraries. As for this publication, how we feel is pretty apparent. Government officials shouldn’t be trying to intimidate school districts, school boards, principals, teachers, or librarians. If they have concerns about content, then they can debate that specific content in classrooms or in public forums. If we allow purely political creatures like Matt Krause and Greg Abbott to determine what is or isn’t “obscene”, then we, as Americans, are no better than the unfree societies whose values we purport to oppose.

You may not like books about transgendered teens or institutional racism or whatever your current political buzzwords are. But state censorship, whether it comes from the right or the left, has no place in our democracy. The National Coalition Against Censorship says it as well as we ever could:

The State of Texas had better watch its step. People on Facebook are very concerned.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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