Texas’ most aggressive censorship as GOP rejects literature

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Writers and publishers make their money by exchanging ideas and information, with the number of copies or subscriptions sold being an indicator of our success.

We also believe that freedom of expression creates informed citizenship, joyful entertainment, critical insight and life-affirming comfort. Suffice it to say that those of us who work in the business of ideas and information are not supporters of censorship.

A vocal minority in our community believes that their taste for books and other art forms should determine what is accessible to everyone. Every few years, politicians who need a problem to demagogue mobilize censors with mock indignation for things that most of us find either clever or inert.

“Think of the children!” is an unfortunately effective battle cry that is currently echoing in libraries and halls of power across Texas.

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

Last year, 277 writers, scholars 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 bills to limit what teachers can say in the classroom in 2021 and 2022, and Texas passed one of 19 bills signed into law. Almost all of these ordinances limit what a teacher can say about race, gender, or LGBTQ issues.

On a personal note, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick last year ordered the Bullock State History Museum to cancel a talk where Bryan Burrough and I were to discuss our book “Forget the Alamo.” Using the power of elected office to stop someone from speaking violates the First Amendment, but hey, that’s Texas.

Across the country, our fellow Americans have attempted 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 of the targets were about race, gender or LGBTQ issues.

Right-wing activists are still pushing school boards to ban more books from schools and public libraries. My colleagues Hannah Dellinger and Alejandro Serrano proved that far from being an uprising by angry parents, all of the bans came from state Rep. Matt Krause and Republican officials seeking the vote.

Krause attacks historically marginalized groups in Texas because he appeals to the GOP base. The 850 titles he targeted mostly 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 of all these prohibitions, which can lead to violence.

Last week I attended the PEN America symposium, “Words on Fire: Writing, Freedom and the Future”. The event was held under tight security as a few weeks earlier an assailant stabbed Salman Rushdie, a scheduled speaker who missed the event as he remains hospitalized.

The alleged attacker reportedly confessed to attacking Rushdie for his criticism of Islam in the bestselling novel ‘The Satanic Verses’.

Filling a New York scene with writers who had 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 couldn’t find any literature reflecting her teenage experience. Her 13 books have helped millions of readers understand transgender people. Fanatics are trying to ban his young adult books.

The threat does not only come from the right. Adichie rightly wondered if an editor would touch “The Satanic Verses” today because it satirizes a major world religion. In the name of sensitivity, leftists 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 deny requests to have books removed.

A teacher at McMeans Junior High in Katy deleted all young adult books to avoid controversy.

People have the right to decide what they want to read, but they don’t have the right to deny others access to what they reject. I bet this censorship spree dies after the election, but if it doesn’t, the fight for freedom and liberty will continue.

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

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