The Rogue Party and Carnage

“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.”

– Thomas Jefferson

It started for me, as with millions of American kids, in first grade: Reading.

It was the mid-1940s, and letters spelling “see Dick run, see Jane run” opened a new universe for me – putting together words with my eyes. They could speak to me, tell me stories about nearby and faraway places, teach me about who I was and explain yesterday and today so I can imagine what will come tomorrow and know where I fit in the world.

Reading — and I learned it rapidly — took me as far as journalism courses in graduate school and a career covering and writing about the news. I learned to write because I learned to read — about different lands, different people, different ideas from mine. But I stunk in math and still can’t tell you what is a polynomial. But I can look it up because I can read.

Now something wicked this way comes: the banning of books by adults who don’t like them for children. It stops kids from learning who they are and who are the Other, who may not be just like them. The idea of some books is to foster understanding, compassion and empathy among people beyond who they are, who they pretend to be and who they want to emulate.

Those demanding the removal of books from school and public libraries and classrooms generally have little or no expertise about how children’s minds work, about teaching and about sex and gender differences. They are trapped in their own ignorance because of misaligned ideological notions. It’s been this way through history.

And it’s happening again now in states run by a rogue political party that used to be known and respected as Republican.  Its members tumbled into the black hole of an alternative universe that bears little resemblance to reality. Sadly, it’s not fringe politics but at the level of governors and legislatures and school boards that choose what to teach our kids and grandkids.

They are doing with books and education what they have done in many cases with politics — suppressing freedom. That includes the racist restricting of the votes of Blacks who generally favor Democrats in the polling booths and putting partisans into positions to potentially control the outcome of elections.

GOP states have been running amok in their race to deny full rights to people in a variety of culture battles that have extended to restrictions affecting not only voting but abortion, LGBTQ and transgender people and what’s studied in classrooms.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is up for reelection in November, recently signed legislation blocking classroom discussion and instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation from kindergarten to third grade. Parents may sue school districts who don’t approve of what’s being taught. Opponents have tagged it the “Don’t Say Gay” law. President Joe Biden slammed it as “hateful,” which it is.

“DeSantis is attempting to censor and exclude an entire community of people from our public schools for his own political gain,” state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando, told The New York Times. “This law doesn’t solve any problem that exists.”

Of course, it doesn’t. The culture scare wars are designed to whip up support for the Republican Party, like dangling raw meat in front of a tiger. The Rogues don’t have any policies to attract enough voters – say, universal health care, a favorite idea of President Harry S. Truman — so they resort to bullying about gender differences, abortion and banning books like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as happened recently in a Seattle school. They know those issues will be embraced by their largely white conservative constituency, much of it rural, as if they were matters of life and death.

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law legislation prohibiting surgery for minors who want to change their physical sexual characteristics to coincide with their gender identity. It also forbids transgender girls from playing on women’s and girls’ sports teams. And it bans abortion after 15 weeks, if the Supreme Court approves it.

In Oklahoma, the House overwhelming approved a Senate-passed bill that makes performing an abortion illegal, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. The legislation also will depend on the high court’s ruling on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban.

The current wave of draconian laws arguably started with Trump’s first election campaign, which he kicked off cursing Mexicans, and accelerated after he lost the 2020 contest. His 2016 victory congealed a disparate but big group of far-right extremists, white nationalists and some far-out Republican politicians, some of whom want to be president. They seem determined in their increasingly autocratic ways to change the shape and direction of America to their liking, with their expected help of the conservative Supreme Court.

They’re destroying the achingly slow progress America has made in promoting and instituting basic human rights to fulfill the goals set out in our founding documents, a work in progress for more than two centuries.

They unashamedly even root for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin instead of a democracy in his brutal war against Ukraine, endorsing his arguments as justification for his invasion. I wonder what these “loyal” Americans think of the Russians slaughtering hundreds of Ukrainians in Bucha and elsewhere in acts that Volodymyr Zelensky, the president, branded “genocide.”

It’s an outgrowth of an outlier political party led by a pioneer in “the destruction of the administrative state,” a twice impeached president. Federal Judge David O. Carter of the Central District of California ruled that Trump and lawyer John Eastman acted illegally Jan. 6, 2021 in what amounted to “a coup in search of a legal theory” to void Biden’s 2020 election victory.

Censoring books in schools and libraries – such classics as “Huckleberry Finn,” “1984”and “The Catcher in the Rye” – has become so widespread that concerned librarians in Lancaster and Lebanon counties in Pennsylvania have started removing books even before they are challenged, according to The Washington Post.

Parents at a Lancaster high school – a high school, mind you – asked for two books to be removed: “Gender Queer,” a memoir about being nonbinary, and “Lawn Boy,” a young adult novel that includes a sexual encounter between two boys, the Post said.

“Gender Queer” was the most challenged book nationwide in 2021, according to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. Nonbinary refers to individuals who may experience gender identity that is neither man nor woman.

From September to November 2021, the Post quoted the OIF as recording, there were 330 incidents of book censorship, the highest rate since the ALA started tracking the issue in 1990. Most of the banned books are about LGBTQ people race and racism, it said.

How will kids learn if books affecting them are forbidden?

Maybe these Republican rogues should read about the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. That Western cultural and intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th centuries focused on reasoning and freedom of thought instead of superstition and on science over blind faith.

Richard C. Gross, a correspondent, bureau chief and foreign editor of United Press International at home and abroad, retired as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.