North NJ DSA

by Karl S.

Red states like Florida and Missouri have been all over the news for their ongoing assault on public and school libraries, banning books, and curtailing curricula. Unfortunately, deep blue New Jersey is not immune from the right-wing assault on these beloved public institutions. So called “parents rights” groups in towns and school districts across the state have been making life a living hell for librarians and depriving children of a fulfilling education by attempting to ban books with LGBT and racial justice themes.

This past winter, hundreds of residents in Glen Ridge turned out to defend their public library when the ironically named group Citizens Defending Education at- tempted to have six books with LGBT characters removed from the shelves. Running on a parents rights platform, a recently elected school board slate in predominantly Republican Sparta called ‘Students First’ banned a book from a middle school library where the main character is a lesbian after a small number of organized parents spoke out at a school board meeting. A school librarian in Roxbury, a conservative leaning town in Morris County, was so viciously smeared as a “groomer” by a group of parents that she is suing them for defamation.

It’s hard to know if these parent groups are legitimate expressions of grassroots discontent, but extensive reporting in the NY Times has revealed that many of these organizations, which have popped up in school districts in New Jersey from Sussex to Cape May County, are being funded by outside conservative networks with deep pockets.

The most notorious of these groups, ‘Moms for Liberty’, whose members regularly threaten school workers with violence, claims to have 260 chapters across the country, six of which are based in New Jersey. In addition to advocating for book bans and lobbying for laws so extreme that librarians could be imprisoned for ordering the wrong books, Moms for Liberty has been a major force in bringing parents who were upset about school closures and mask mandates into a neo-fascist movement.

It’s worth asking why this moral panic around libraries is happening now. I went to Rutgers for a degree in library science right before the Republican Party’s embrace of Qanon, election denial, and anti-vax conspiracy theories. As a young librarian, I never expected book bans to be something I had to be particularly worried about as they seemed like relics from a less enlightened time period, but I couldn’t have imagined the delusional direction conservative politics was heading.

These moral panics around books are not new. New Jersey writers like Judy Blume and Philip Roth, who are now embraced as cultural icons, were highly controversial figures throughout their careers for writing about taboo topics like teenage sexuality. The current wave of book bannings has many similarities with the attempts five decades ago to censor Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Portnoy’s Complaint, but I believe that if we only focus on the lewd nature of the books being targeted, as much of the media has done when discussing frequently banned titles like Gender Queer and All Boys Aren’t Blue, we are missing out on the greater picture of what the right is trying to accomplish with these books bans.

There are two dominant ideologies among the right in America: extremist libertarians who do not believe in any form of taxation or public services and Christian nationalists, who view all of our democratic institutions as corrupted beyond repair by secular liberal values. These groups are more than happy to see public libraries disappear from our communities entirely. By attacking librarians as “groomers’’ and peddlers of pornography, the right is attempting to build support for the complete elimination of public libraries. If this agenda sounds extreme, it is, and it’s already happening in Missouri, where the House of Representatives has attempted to reduce state funding of libraries to $0.

The movement to ban books should not be seen as only concerned parents who have been worked into a moral panic. These parents may be the most visible culture warriors on the front lines of local battles and the easiest to mock, but the driving force behind groups like Moms for Liberty and other “parents rights” groups are innocuously named conservative think tanks like The Council for National Policy and The Leadership Institute which have pumped millions of dollars into the movement. These groups are invested in creating a moral panic around libraries in order to destroy a secular and publicly funded institution which they see as a threat to their Christo-fascist, ultra libertarian worldview.

Public libraries are worth defending. Throughout my career, I have worked in public libraries that offer free services such as English and GED classes, free lunches, appointments with social workers, expungement clinics, and overdose prevention tools.

In many communities, the library is the single most important provider of. In many communities, the library is the single most important provider of social services and the only free indoor space people have access to, making them especially vital institutions in poor and working class communities.

The parents rights movement has some wins against public and school libraries under their belt, but their agenda is deeply unpopular, even in many conservative communities. Because they are well organized and highly funded, they have been able to hold schools and libraries hostage with a small and vocal minority of supporters. These groups have successfully turned the phrase “parents rights” into an agenda that opposes public health measures, the basic human rights of LGBT people, and classroom instruction that honestly portrays the history of racism in America, but in communities across the US there are millions of working class parents who disagree with the fascist politics of this movement and are looking for an alternative. The parents rights movement is fundamentally reactionary and deprives children of their agency.

At a time when red state legislatures are loosening child labor laws, the parents rights movement is surprisingly silent on the very question of whether children should be stripped of their childhoods and forced into the marketplace. Rather than asking what rights parents have to dominate and exploit their children, socialists can fight this pernicious movement by focusing on the basic rights children should have but are so regularly denied.

We believe children should have the right to attend schools with universal free lunches, clean drinking water, and air-conditioned classrooms. Children should be able to express their gender identity however they choose to and receive the proper healthcare when necessary.

Why don’t our children have the right to live in a society where climate change won’t destroy their future and mass shootings aren’t accepted as inevitable? Why are children so regularly denied access to books that accurately depict the racist history of the United States? The only way to fight back against the parents rights movement is with a robust movement for the rights of children.

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