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Republicans About to Reach Fahrenheit 451

Most have heard of the novel “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, published in 1953. The title, as noted by Bradbury in the front page, refers to the temperature at which a book can be completely burned.

The novel is about a future society where no one is allowed to read or own books. It appears that the government decided that books contained too many potentially depressing or upsetting ideas, so that for the good of the people, no one should have them. If someone is found to own one, “firemen” are called in, not to stop fires as in the olden days, but to set the books on fire.

I don’t remember too much of the details of the novel, or the movie which came out in 1966. The power of it was in the title, and then the concept: that there would be an America where books were not only banned, but destroyed on sight. So the term “Fahrenheit 451” became a shorthand for evoking a totalitarian state where books were considered dangerous, and people who owned them were criminals.

The history of book banning and book burning in Western Civilization is a depressing one. The monk Savonarola was a medieval leader in that unholy crusade. Various arms of the Catholic Church did it in later centuries. In this country, there were various periods, most notably the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, where banning and burning of books had increased.

The arguments made by the book burners were always that the books and their ideas were dangerous;, that they would indoctrinate people, turn them into Communists, or atheists, or anti-capitalists. They wouldn’t necessarily spell all this out, they would just say that the book was dangerous, or obscene, radical, revolutionary.

Against these tides, the liberals were almost always standing strong to protect the importance of ideas, of art, and of diverse points of view. There were many movies and television episodes where the narrative pitted those who would suppress and punish ideas, against those who valued them. Some excellent speeches were written by the scriptwriters, passionately arguing for the importance of a civilization where ideas are esteemed, and where well-intentioned people had the right to debate among themselves. That was the liberal intellectual ideal.

Now, we are in a worse era, where the attacks on books and shows come from different sides. It appears that there is a great deal of intolerance against anything which threatens someone’s sense of values. As if people cannot be trusted to learn and decide for themselves, they must be constantly guarded and protected by those who profess to know what is right, and how people should think and act.

I accept that on the far fringes, books which clearly advocate hatred and killing of ethnic or religious minorities should not be allowed to freely be disseminated. But that is the extreme. Anyone who wants to, can condemn virtually any book for being “radical,” or “dangerous.” The Far Right has done this for centuries; and it is tragic that some parts of the Left now want to do it, at least with movies or shows.

The danger is not just that people are deprived of having their intellects and ideas challenged; but that the people who have the most power then get to control everyone else by deciding what ideas are allowed. That of course is what they always have done in totalitarian, authoritarian states.

The people who control such countries know that their biggest threat is not from the people rising up with weapons, but it is ideas, those which might teach their compatriots that the dictatorship or empire is corrupt, lawless, and evil. So to avoid this, they tightly control all areas of communication, with the ultimate punishment for those whom they think are writing or discussing ideas other than the rigid, brainwashing dogma that the totalitarian purveys.

So now we are in a time when the Republican Party, long an enemy of free speech, and anything which might threaten the power of the monied elites, has turned into a collection of fascists resembling the nightmarish times of 1930’s Europe. Chief among these fascists, is governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, an angry, belligerent man who is determined to keep people from hearing, reading, or voting on anything that he does no want them to.

He is getting away with it; America is moving away from democracy; and also because Republicans have come up with their newest bogeyman, “the woke left,” whom they now contend, as they did with the Communists of the past, are intending to subvert this great country by insinuating themselves into government, ideas, and the arts, and trying to indoctrinate everyone, particularly innocent children, into their evil ways.

This is working so well, particularly absent any interest from the media in fighting for free expression other than what they themselves specifically want to say, that they are now trying to ban all sorts of books from libraries. Just like they did fifty to a hundred years ago, battles that we thought that we and ideas had won. As you know, virtually any book can be attacked for being “dangerous to us,” or “provocative,” or “overly sexual,” or “rebellious.”

They have never given up on banning J.D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye,” which was so appealing to generations of young adults, simply because it questioned adults, and conformity, but was hardly insurrectionary in the slightest degree. The Right hated works that criticized social darwinist capitalism, books such as Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie,” Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” and various movies of the ’30’s and ’40’s. They hated books with an anti-war slant, such as Jones’ “From Here to Eternity,” or Heller’s “Catch-22.” They didn’t like any book which questioned their religiousness. They tried to get rid of books which had sex in them, hinted at, or more explicit. Give them more power, and they will broaden their sweep, and try to turn America into an extension of 1690’s Puritan New England.

They have discovered the perfect enemy in something called “Critical Race Theory,” which, as I have written about here, seems to be a concept advanced by mostly Black people, that racism is so structurally ingrained in our society, that the mechanisms of the structure make it almost impossible to remove, but that everyone should be aware of it.

When someone talks about “teaching CRT in schools,” it is made so sound like indoctrination, rather than analysis. “Teaching about” something sounds different than “Teaching” something. I think that all sorts of things should be taught about, introduced to students, including various political and social theories. But not taught as a concept that the students must follow.

Of course no one is doing that, but the Fascist Right has its easy target, which is Black people; so if CRT is advanced by Black scholars, then they can frighten people that their children are being taught to hate Whites, including themselves. If people believe that, then CRT is always a winning issue for Republicans. In Virginia, thanks once again to the help of a compliant and foolish media, they convinced enough voters that CRT, which was not on the curriculum of any school in Virginia, was the most important issue, and so they got Trumpist Glenn Youngkin elected governor, whereupon he immediately started firing people, and trying to control dissemination of ideas.

Then Republicans knew they had a winner, so they started using “CRT” as a potential scare symbol, in every election. It is their way of hiding the intellectual tyranny they want to impose, a tactic used by absolutists and zealots.

DeSantis got rules passed in Florida that if any parent objects to something being taught in a classroom, he or she can report it, and it will mandate investigations, hearings, and very possibly firings and loss of career. This has two effects: first, the process itself, where any disgruntled Right Wing parent (any disgruntled Left Wing parent, assuming there are any in Florida, would not do this, out of respect for freedom in classrooms, and because they would be ignored) could complain about anything said, or invented to have been said, in any classroom. And then second, the “chilling effect” of intimidating teachers into never bringing up a subject or an idea which one of the repressive Right Wing parents in this oppressively Right Wing state might object to, or not want brought up.

And of course, inevitably, they are going further. The Florida Board of Education just announced that it was banning 41% of the math books for use in schools in the state. The statement said, “The highest number of books rejected were for Grade Levels K-5, where an alarming 71% of textbooks were not aligned with Florida standards or included prohibited topics.” The Lieutenant Governor said something about how the people who wrote these textbooks tried to slap a new coat of paint on their efforts to indoctrinate students.

Now, were there any examples given by her, or by DeSantis, or by the Board of Education? Not one. Not one single thing they could point to, to show what they meant, even if what they meant is absurd. No, they just declared it.

In more normal times, this would be challenged by parents, and by attorneys. They just tossed out 71% of the math textbooks for kindergarten to fifth grade, contending that some mysterious entity was using them to indoctrinate students, but had not one sentence or word in there that they could point to.

Now, what is between this, and the impending goal of trying to toss out every history book or literature book, or reading book, and replacing them with books by Christian Fundamentalists, or QAnon? The Board of Education is not fighting for academic freedom, even for little children, they are on the side of the book banners. They might as well declare Florida “The Christian Republican State of Florida.” They won’t do that, they’ll just institute it. And that’s what DeSantis, and Hawley, and Cruz and the rest of them have as their dream for what was once known as America, The Land of Liberty.

There is not possibly anything in elementary school math textbooks which is propagandistic. But the MAGAs are using CRT as their cudgel to simply ban things out of hand, just like the Republicans used to say that this or that book was pro-Communist, a clear and present danger to the country. There were always some credulous people who believed the likes of Joe McCarthy, and there are more like that now.

This is so awful in so many ways. Florida may as well be Hungary. It is not America. Every book in the Florida school libraries and classrooms will now be completely at the will of the Far Right Florida state officials. We cannot control what kind of people various states elect, but everyone this country should be protected from fascists trying to control what is read, and what people can say, inside of the fringes.

That was the idea of America, it is why we wrote a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution. “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” I am well aware that a state banning textbooks or proscribing what is said in math books does not absolutely directly fall under the First Amendment. But how much different is this than a state passing laws to require various things not be taught, not be said, not be learned about by children or adults?

And if someone wants to debate that issue, you certainly would not want to start with math books for second graders, that some insanely evil people are trying to contend are subtly trying to indoctrinate the children into some agenda that is being insidiously put into the books by subversive forces, in a state where the Far Right controls the entire executive and legislative mechanism.

Govenor DeSantis recently officially proposed a redistricting map which literally eliminated the seats of three Black Florida Congresspeople. That is acceptable, the Supreme Court keeps saying; but somehow there is this unidentified, unnamed cabal of people who keep trying to slip Critical Race Theory and various liberal ideas into the children’s textbooks?

Unknowledgeable and very dangerous people will believe anything, including that the Republicans in the state of Florida are protecting them and their children from people who are trying to fill the elementary school math books with subversive propaganda. Next, it might be the drinking water. We went through that in the 1960’s with the “fluoridated water Communist plots” They also said that the PTA was a Communist Front organization. We’re getting back there, but at least then the Supreme Court was not filled with opus dei members who would gladly let them get away with this kind of would-be tyranny over speech and expression.

This has to be stopped, or at the least, exposed and countered. I strongly urge Democrats to not shy away from using the term “fascism” to describe what the Republicans are, and what they are doing. If more people are not awakened to this threat, it will just become accepted reality, and that must never happen. Move out of Florida; file lawsuits against the Florida Board of Education; hold parent meetings at the school. Vote DeSantis and his fascist comrades out of office.

Run ads using that word, not shying away from it for fear of upsetting people who are every day forced to listen to the fascists slander Democrats, and accuse them of being all the things which the Republicans actually are, and with a power that the Democrats never had, to implement their tyranny over the minds and education of adults and children. It takes a long time to write a book, it takes only a few second to burn it. The same with a democracy.