Paul D. Wilke
Moms for Liberty Makes Book Banning Great Again
Introduction: The Book Banning Wars Return
“Those who don't build must burn.” Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Book banning is back. The American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) revealed that the number of books targeted for censorship has surged in recent years. In 2022, 2,571 made the list; in 2021 it was 1,858. The numbers fluctuated between 190-378 per year in the twenty years before that. Something's changed.
Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada, president of ALA, lamented: "Now we're seeing organized attempts by groups to censor multiple titles throughout the country without actually having read many of these books." The rise of so-called parental rights organizations like Moms for Liberty (MFL), a grassroots nonprofit formed in 2021, highlights this new phenomenon. MFL is now one of America's fastest-growing parental rights advocacy groups, with over 275 chapters in 45 states and over a hundred thousand members.
Consider this another legacy of the pandemic. The COVID years eroded the vital bond between parents, children, and the schools they attend. Many of these movements were birthed out of frustration with how schools handled the pandemic.
Though the pandemic faded and schools reopened, trust did not return. Sensing that educators shouldn't be given a blank check anymore, the focus shifted from fighting mask mandates to policing school libraries in an effort to fight back against the perceived infiltration of far-left CRT and LGBTQ ideologies.
Social media platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook helped MFL explode in popularity. Certain books are now routinely targeted as inappropriate for minors, most of which deal with racial or LGBTQ issues. Indeed, a glance at 2022's top thirteen list of most challenged titles shows this current censorship wave is focused on LGBTQ-themed content.
As a bibliophile, I wanted to find out more. The morality police have always been with us, of course, and probably always will be, but I believed (somewhat naively, it seems) we were living in an age where this would not be possible. I was wrong.
Where I Stand on Book Banning
My own starting position - to lay my cards on the table up front - is that a free and democratic society doesn't ban or censor books. People should be trusted to read what they want without interference from outside authorities. More controversially, I would extend this freedom to young people to the extent that books are tools that will help them develop into well-adjusted, responsible adults. That includes exposure to frank but healthy discussions on sex, and a balanced accounting of our history that doesn't whitewash the evils of racism and segregation.
Moreover, I believe the symbol of a thriving democracy is a public library that offers books on every topic imaginable, available for free and open to all. Knowledge should be free.This is non-negotiable for me, a core principle in my definition of a free, open, and informed society. I don't want to live in a country where a few moralizing zealots decide what everyone else gets to read.
All that said, perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe I'm the zealot.
Steelmanning the Book Banners
On that note, I'm going to challenge my view by steelmanning the other side. Is there a case for banning at least some books? Are obscene titles really flooding our school libraries? What gets defined as obscene? In the following paragraphs, I'll express the parental rights worldview as I've come to understand it from spending the last three weeks immersed in that fever-dream info silo.
While I'm interested in the more disciplined messaging that comes from the leadership of groups like Moms for Liberty, I found the comments of rank-and-file supporters on social media and at school board meetings to be more revealing by being less polished. Raw emotions like anger and outrage dampen the filters and show what's behind the smiley-glad social masks people wear. What follows is a condensed version of that worldview as charitably described as I can manage.
Though the progressive left has its own checkered track record of canceling books it finds "problematic," often classics that haven't aged well when viewed through our generation's unforgiving social justice lens, today's book banners come mainly from the Christian conservative right.
They are mortified at what they believe is the moral decline of America caused by out-of-touch educators more concerned with advancing radical social engineering agendas rather than teaching kids basic skills like math and reading.
Parental rights advocates see themselves fighting for parental rights against radical gender and racial ideologies that are infiltrating our schools and corrupting young minds. Protecting children is the top priority. Defending parents' rights to control the content of their child's education is another. Less overt but ever present is a desire to safeguard traditional Christian values from far-left attacks. A frequent refrain is that educators should educate, not indoctrinate. While CRT remains a popular target for censorship, however ill-defined that term has become in the discourse, it's sex and gender that fire up supporters in 2023.
To be clear, MFL insists it doesn't ban books. What it does is "fight to protect children from pornography in school." And who wouldn't? But this is a conservative definition of pornography that distrusts anything related to sex and kids, especially titles with LGBTQ themes. A simple and logical equation guides the MFL mindset when it comes to books: Sex + LGBTQ = Porn. Porn is obscene, and thus inappropriate for minors. A book that fits into this equation is pornographic filth and should be removed at once.
MFL bristles at the book banner label, countering that removing a handful of pornographic titles from a catalog of thousands is far from book banning. Instead, it wants to curate content for the appropriate audience: kids. As a recent MFL Facebook post put it: "Making sure books are age appropriate is NOT Book Banning." It's what responsible adults do.
Do you want to read Gender Queer or Flamer? Fine, they'll say. Go to Barnes and Noble or Amazon and buy a copy on your own dime and on your own time. You are free to do so. But it shouldn't be in the public school library funded by tax-payers.
Schools should be safe spaces for learning, not indoctrination. Childhood is supposed to be a time of purity and innocence. A parent's job is to guard the most vulnerable from those who would corrupt and confuse them about basic biological facts. And, make no mistake, influential people want to do exactly that. Therefore, the mission to protect children has become a cosmic struggle between darkness and light, vice and virtue, pitting perverted LGBTQ groomers against decent, humble Christian parents.
The nightmare vision that keeps parental rights advocates up at night goes kind of like this. Imagine a socialist future that is unpatriotic and utterly debauched, something resembling a never-ending Roman orgy, a world both godless by design and genderqueer for all, where boys are girls and girls are boys, or neither, or both, or whatever they feel like at that moment as gender boundaries forever fluctuate depending on the mood: on Tuesday, nonbinary, on Friday, pansexual, and Sunday, anyone's guess. Who can say? Gender is but a malleable construct, after all.
This is an existential threat that must be countered. Cultural Marxists with mentally-aberrant social justice agendas have infiltrated the education system intending to demolish traditional values and silence critics. They preach an alphabet soup of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ orthodoxies to impressionable young minds whose parents are either too busy or indifferent to pay attention to how intolerant and narrow that vision of diversity is.
"They are coming for your kids" is another common refrain from parental rights supporters on social media. "They" in this case are the "Woke Mob," the groomers, and the pedophiles out to sexualize your children as a prelude to a radical transformation of society.
In this dark queer future, God is dead and forgotten, and moral relativism reigns supreme over a licentious empire of selfish hedonists. The traditional family will be extinct. Society will resemble something like the spiritually bankrupt pleasure-seekers in Huxley's Brave New World: medicated, promiscuous, and shallow. Masculinity will be effeminized into the blurry androgyny of "men" like Harry Stiles.
Trans athletes will overrun women's sports. Pre-adolescent teens will decide whether they are to be chemically transitioned and surgically mutilated into the gender of their confused, momentary, and irresponsible inclination. Parents won't have any say in it. In fact, schools won't even tell them their child is transitioning. They know what's best.
This is progress as progressives view it, but only in an Orwellian sense; in truth, it's rigidly authoritarian to the core and intolerant by design. Only bigots and fascists and Christian nationalists would dare disagree with this vision of diversity.
You aren't one of those, are you? We hope not. But make no mistake, these rainbow-colored bulldozers intend to tear the whole thing down and erect something completely alien to human nature and even more totalitarian, if not worse, than anything that's come before.
And everyone will embrace this new orthodoxy.
You get the idea.
Moms for Liberty Has a Strategy and It’s Not Bad
Enter Moms for Liberty to head off this dark queer future. They have a plan. A shrewd wager they've made is that the silent majority of parents, and not only Christian conservative ones, don't want sexually explicit content in school libraries. When it comes to guaranteeing the safety and innocence of minors from obscene and over-sexualizing material, there is broad agreement. They believe most parents naturally want that. Therefore, getting the message out is critical. Out-of-touch moms and dads don't understand the full extent of where this is all headed.
If they only knew….
Well, MFL wants to make sure everyone knows.
They have several ways of doing so.
First, the ground game. This is where local chapters engage school districts head-on after identifying problematic titles in the library. Supporters mobilize and show up en masse at board meetings to press their demands for removal. If they encounter resistance, they put up candidates at the next elections with the goal of taking over the school boards. But it's not enough to have a book quietly banned. No, that will not do. The publicity of the spectacle is what matters.
Since many meetings are live-streamed, the opportunity to go viral on Youtube and TikTok is high; one just needs to deploy the MFL playbook. This involves confronting boards by reading aloud explicit passages for everyone to hear or showing graphic images for everyone to see.
You might scoff. You might dismiss this as the typical overwrought overreaction from a bunch of moralizing prigs. You might conclude that whatever they deem offensive will be laughable to most reasonable people. Often that's the case. As I will show below, the stretch to uncover offense can be astounding. But other times, this strategy of public exposure is uncomfortably spot on.
Here is a concrete example that might challenge your open-minded assumptions. It comes from the 2014 work, This Book is Gay, by Juno Dawson, a former gay man turned trans woman. It's a light-hearted sex-ed guide for LGBTQ teens and one of the most challenged books in America. Much of Dawson's book is a guide for non-conforming teens learning about LGBTQ norms and practices.
At least, that's what I gathered when I read it. And anyway, where else can teens turn when they have questions about this kind of stuff? Many have no one to ask, or they are too embarrassed to ask, or their parents are hostile. This is why LGBTQ-themed books are so important for teens struggling with their gender identities. Access to one of these books can be a godsend and a lifeline in an otherwise hostile world . This Book is Gay falls into that category, filling a crucial niche for certain demographics.
So far, so good, something offering relevant content for marginalized youths who have learned nothing in cis-centric sex education classes other than that a male penis goes into a female vagina and oh oh OH!!…out comes a baby. Or herpes. It depends. Wear a condom.
However, there's a controversial chapter of graphic sexual advice many find shocking. These are the passages that often get recited in front of the school boards. The book's own words end up damning it. Below is a sample from This Book is Gay. No doubt, this evening or on some evening soon to come, an indignant parent is reading these passages out loud at a board meeting. You can bet on it.
So without further ado: Here is Juno Dawson's casual advice on giving and receiving blow jobs:
"Oral sex is popping another dude's peen in your mouth or, indeed, popping yours in his. There is only one hard and fast rule when it comes to blow jobs—WATCH THE TEETH. Lips and tongue, yes; teeth, NO. As with hand jobs and breakfast eggs, all men like their blow jobs served in different ways. The term "blow job" is massively misleading, as you won't actually be blowing on his penis—it's more about sucking (although I stress you're not trying to suck his kidneys out through his urethra). It's more about sliding your mouth up and down the shaft of his cock. Letting a guy cum in your mouth is a safe sex no-no. Get away from the volcano before it erupts."
And on giving and receiving anal sex:
"It is a universal truth that many men like sticking their willies inside things. I suspect it must be biological. Well, in the absence of a vagina, gay and bi men make excellent use of the back door. Wanna know a secret? Straight people have anal sex all the time too. Another one? Straight men like stuff up their bums just as much as gay ones. Why? As mentioned before, the prostate gland (located just up your bum) feels amazing when massaged. Lots of men, gay or straight, like how this feels. Anal sex ISN'T a "gay thing."
And, finally, on giving hand jobs:
"A GOOD HANDIE is all about the wrist action. Rub the head of his cock back and forth with your hand. Try different speeds and pressures until he responds positively. A BAD HANDIE is grasping a penis and shaking it like a ketchup bottle."
Our indignant parent might pause at this point, look up, and solemnly ask, "Is this appropriate for a child? Would you read this to your kids?"
It's an effective rhetorical maneuver that challenges the lazy moral stance many of us right-side-of-history progressives have embraced which says banning books is always wrong, or that banners are always frigid Puritans who cluck and harumph and collapse on fainting couches at the mere mention of sex.
I ask, would you read this to your kids?
Put bluntly, blowjob tips for middle schoolers (WATCH THE TEETH!) don't sound so awesome when read aloud like this. Even the rebuttal that they've taken unrepresentative passages out of context falls flat after one of these readings.
MFL's co-founders Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice use a variation of this technique during media appearances. Both are polished, quick-witted communicators with their talking points down pat. They are always ready with convincing answers to the most obvious objections. Sometimes, a mainstream outlet will interview the two and walk into the trap they've set. Here's a snippet from one interview on CBS Sunday Morning that was part of a larger story hostile to MFL's anti-obscenity campaign.
Correspondent Martha Teichner: What kinds of books do you want in schools?
Tina Descovich: Books that educate children.
Teichner: That's a generalization that..that…
Tiffany Justice: Books that don't have pornography in them. Let's start there. Let's just put the bar really, really low. Books that don't have incest, pedophilia, rape….
Afterward, MFL tweeted, wondering why CBS was unwilling to show examples of what they called pornography. They had brought several samples for the producers to show, but alas, they weren't willing. Instead, we got a brief snippet of the interview between Teichner and the two MFL founders sandwiched between more critical reporting. The implication is clear: If it's inappropriate for kids to view those images on CBS Sunday Morning, why should they have access to such books at school?
Appearing on Chris Cuomo's program, Descovich and Justice waved a stack of offending books, Gender Queer among them. To make her point, Justice opened up a book and read an excerpt from My Body is Growing: A Guide for Children Four to Eight.
Justice: "I could read to you out of this book. It is disgusting. It is with a man and a woman twenty years old. It is not appropriate. This is for ages four to eight, and…"
Descovich: ….[That’s] "kindergarten through third grade…"
Justice: …"it says: 'Sabrina's vagina becomes moist and warm and Marco's penis gets very stiff [Descovich scowls and nods in disgust as Justice reads]. Marco then pushes his penis into Sabrina's vagina and always in and out which feels great for both of them.' It [the book] tells you before this that they [Marco and Sabrina] are unmarried and living together and twenty years old. Is this appropriate for four to eight-year-olds? This is found in grade schools all across the country."
Such media appearances in enemy territory only need to happen occasionally to accomplish two things.
First, regarding the CBS interview, it helps them establish an Us-Them narrative that says something like, "See, the liberal media won't show you what we object to! This kind of proves our point, doesn't it? These books are filth!" This reinforces the idea that the media can't be trusted to be objective on the issue and lets its liberal bias frame the reporting. MFL then becomes the tellers of hard truths.
Second, and related, it gets the message out on their own terms, compactly framed in a soundbite that gets delivered to massive mainstream media audiences. It's free publicity. Don't underestimate the appeal of MFL's anti-obscenity message for parents desperate to protect the innocence of children in a seemingly dark and malevolent world.
Clips of these appearances are shared and spread on social media millions of times long after the interviews take place, potentially reaching people who aren't closely following the issue. Even regular, moderate parents without far-right Christian political agendas won't want their kids exposed to such content.
Still don't believe me?
Let's recap, "It's more about sliding your mouth up and down the shaft of his cock."
I ask again, would you read this to your kids?
MFL's communications strategy is effective because it punches you in the face with sexually explicit content that is straight from the sources and aimed at kids and teens. For those who weren't aware before, it's shocking. The natural impulse for most people won't be to go searching for nuance and context, but to fall back on intuition and exclaim, 'Nope, that ain't right!".
For those who were aware but in principle still support this kind of progressive approach to sex education, it's tough to defend isolated passages like these without having to resort to long-winded explanations justifying them, i.e., nuance and context. This is often an exercise in futility, living as we do in an age of shallow, quick-take soundbites that do so much to lock in beliefs.
Good luck with your nuance and context.
Book Banning Works Both Ways
All that said, I still ended up landing back at my original starting position that a free and informed society doesn't ban books. At this point, I've read several of the titles on the ALA-banned list to find out if there was more to them than the cherry-picked excerpts singled out at school board meetings. The context and nuance do matter to me.
After reading many (but not all) of these titles, I still don't believe they are porn. Once I read them cover to cover, I realized that the authors were not trying to sexually arouse and titillate, which is how porn is defined, but to inform and educate readers. That difference in the intent - education versus titillation - is crucial for me.
This puts even My Body is Growing into a different perspective. The book wasn't so traumatizing when I took in the whole thing and not just an isolated passage meant to evoke gasps of horror.
This book did not even come from America, but Germany. It teaches children about the changes their bodies will undergo during puberty, what it's like to fall in love, what gender means, body positivity, pregnancy, what consent sounds like, and how to identify and report inappropriate physical contact by adults, including relatives, early on to prevent sexual abuse from happening.
It all seemed acceptable to me as educational material, simply a healthy way of learning about gender and sexuality.
But I suspect many will disagree strongly who have only heard Ms. Justice read a passage about Sabrina and Marco's sex life. For those folks, this is porn, full stop and end of discussion. Fair enough. But if we intend to ban books from minors for content like this, we'll need a bigger bonfire.
Let's start with the Bible.
Remember Tiffany Justice on CBS? She only wants to ban books that "… don't have pornography in them. Let's start there. Let's just put the bar really, really low. Books that don't have incest, pedophilia, rape…."
Well, ok, let's start there.
Take this from Genesis 19: 30-38:
30 Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave.
31 One day the older daughter said to the younger, "Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth.
32 Let's get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father."
33 That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and slept with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.
34 The next day the older daughter said to the younger, "Last night I slept with my father. Let's get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and sleep with him so we can preserve our family line through our father."
35 So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in and slept with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.
36 So both of Lot's daughters became pregnant by their father.
37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab[a]; he is the father of the Moabites of today.
38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi[b]; he is the father of the Ammonites[c] of today.
By MFL's own standard, the Bible is pornographic and obscene and therefore inappropriate for kids. Right? Anyone wanting to defend this must resort to those two boring qualifiers, nuance and context.
Nevertheless, no need for that here. I believe the Bible should be in school libraries. Why not? The incestuous rape story about Lot and his daughters does not represent the whole, just like Marco and Sabrina's sex life isn't the main point of that book. Love it or hate it, the Bible is a critical text in Western civilization. Kids should be able to read about Jesus and Job and Marco and Sabrina and Lot's randy daughters if they want, and then make up their own minds.
"A Book is a Loaded Gun" Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
I want to make a final distinction. What is taught in a classroom and what is available in a school library are two separate discussions. Here I find some common ground with the parental rights side. In the classroom, students are a captive audience. The curriculum is not an option in the way a book in a library is.
Parents are on much more solid ground questioning the appropriateness of what is taught. That's a crucial difference for me. As much as possible, classrooms should be ideologically neutral places of education focusing on the fundamentals (math, science, history, reading, and writing). To be fair, the vast majority of schools are already doing that.
But libraries are different. Libraries are idea orchards, bearing fruit for all to consume. Let it be varied. Put God back in as an option. But put healthy, professionally curated sex ed in as well, and in all its rainbow variations. Don't shy away from violence, either. That's part of life too. So put Cormac McCarthy on the shelves. Diversity of thought and variety of experience should be the gold standard for our libraries. That includes uncomfortable experiences. Children are not the fragile little snowflakes some overprotective parents think they are. Let kids figure some things out on their own and with a little less "smotherly" love. They'll be better off for it in the long run. Books can and should be one of the ways they get exposed to the wider world beyond their direct experiences.
Also, unlike the classroom, a book is a choice not forced upon anyone. The school library is a place filled with options freely chosen or ignored. Isn't that what freedom is about? Let young people pursue more niche interests in libraries that are not covered in classrooms or might not be appropriate for classroom instruction. This doesn't hurt anyone else. The ability to choose is true liberty. A genuine lover of liberty will not try and limit it, including for intellectually and sexually curious minors.
MFL and other parental rights partisans disagree. They claim to speak for most parents. They don't. Far from it. They are a vocal minority claiming to be moral arbiters for the rest us. Diversity of viewpoint is not something they believe in. Not in practice, anyway. They claim to love liberty more than anything else. They don't. That of LBGTQ parents and kids means nothing to them. What matters is ferreting out any content they believe to be pornographic and inappropriate.
And what gets defined as pornography or inappropriate is almost laughably broad. Parents with no expertise in library curation or any sense of literature's value trawl through reading lists looking for offense. Anything that might cause even the slightest bit of discomfort risks becoming the target of these groups. I can't stand behind that. They always go too far.
Take some of the books that offended parents have challenged:
Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, a trippy sci-fi novel about the horrors of war. Why? Too violent and sexually explicit.
Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, a dystopian alternative history novel where Christian fundamentalists take over America, kill all the liberals, and force the women into sexual servitude, was banned for "vulgarity and sexual overtones."
Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, about an 11-year-old black girl stuck chasing white beauty standards, was banned for being too graphic in depicting child sexual abuse.
All Boys Aren't Blue, a collection of essays by George M. Johnson on the challenges of growing up black and queer, is frequently attacked for being too explicitly gay.
Finally, Maus, Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, was pulled from one Tennessee school district's shelves after parents and board members complained about the language and violence. As one board member mused, Maus "shows people hanging; it shows them killing kids." He added, "Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy." If there was ever a better example of missing the point of studying history, I haven't seen it yet.
I trust educators and librarians (the experts) to get it right most of the time, at least more than I trust the whims of aliterate parents with narrow ideological agendas that masquerade as "protecting the children." Let the professionals curate our libraries. They know better than you and me. Most Americans agree.
Therefore, calling the parental rights side book banners is apt. They define themselves by what they are against and by what they want removed. They are subtractors, deniers, ruthless harassers, self-appointed moral arbiters, and finger-wagging scolds quick to label anything they don't like as pornography. While claiming to fight for liberty, they only mean it for those who agree with them. Those who don't are groomers and pedophiles.
The good news is that an anti-book-banning backlash is emerging to counter Moms for Liberty. The American Library Association, PEN America, and Defense of Democracy are a few examples of the growing backlash. This is encouraging. This is necessary. This is what democracy looks like. When one side pushes an ideological agenda too far, as permitted in a free society, a countervailing force eventually emerges to ensure a multi-sided debate occurs in the public space. That's what's happening here.
Moms for Liberty will win some battles, but those wins will become harder to come by as awareness of their unpopular agenda rises. The majority of Americans are staunchly against book banning in schools. They trust librarians to curate an age appropriate and representative selection of books to meet the reading needs of their populations. Not parents.
The backlash against the backlash has just begun.