Commentary

Burning books is the first step toward totalitarianism

January 15, 2022 6:31 am

Book burning illustration (Photo by Alan Levine via Wikimedia | CC-BY-SA 2.0).

As history as shown, one of the first thing totalitarian regimes target whether it’s right-wing fascists, totalitarian leftists, or theocracies, is literature and art.

Great art, after all, can contextualize the struggles and humanity of individuals we may not understand and combat stereotypical narratives, challenging the status quo by virtue of its creation. If we end up empathizing and connecting with individuals, it dilutes culture war narratives seeking to dehumanize already marginalized people branded as mere pawns and enemies in culture wars.

In Montana, a nationwide anti-art narrative has been illustrated in full bloom as two ImagineIF library directors in Kalispell resigned within a span of six months due to the extreme pressures of targeted culture war political narratives cheered on by the conservative board of directors in what’s become a microcosm of sustained attacks on the LGBTQ community in red states.

The heart of this stems from nationwide controversies targeting the award-winning works of Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel memoir, “Gender Queer,” and Jonathan Evison’s semi-autobiographical novel “Lawn Boy” which deal with growing up with coming to terms with being LGBTQ.

Are some books probably too mature for teaching students in schools? Maybe. But while one claim they’re all about “protecting the children” from literature as is oft the primary excuse to ban art, this is beside the point as these books were in the adult section of a public library.

Let that sink in.

If these people’s self-righteous, “moral” guidelines and reasoning for banning books were consistently followed in public libraries, figure Stephen King, George Martin, thousands of books would have to be banned. But see, those books don’t fit a targeted political pattern. In Texas, figure, of the first 100 books on a list of more than 850 books targeted for banning in schools, 97 were by LGBTQ, Black, and women authors, and 62% of the 850 were LGBTQ based. How is that for targeted erasure?

In their anti-art crusades, Nazi Germany branded anything they considered sexually “deviant,” non-traditional, and anything not conservative within the arts “Cultural Bolshevism.” (A directly correlating catch-all conservative term oft espoused today used to describe anything considered progressive or secular is “Cultural Marxism.”)

Hitler took power on Jan. 30, 1933 and by May 10 of that same year infamous nationwide book burnings took place in Berlin, where Joseph Goebbels proclaimed, “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state!”

What is forgotten is the literal fuel and the spark of these book burnings were kicked off a few days earlier when, on May 6, Nazis ransacked 20,000 books from the Institute of Sexology in Berlin which strongly advocated for LGBTQ rights. Present at the institute was the first trans woman to undergo gender affirmation surgery, Dorchen Richter.

She was never seen or heard from again.

Among the titles burned on May 10 was Heinrich Heine’s 1823 work,Almansor,” which prophetically included the passage, “That was only a prelude, where you burn books, you burn people in the end.”

An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 LGBTQ folks were sent to concentration camps were they “were among the most abused groups in the camps,” according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Reich Chamber of Culture would be formed in September of 1933 to combat “degenerate art” and within it “the Literary Chamber quickly established ‘black lists’ to facilitate the removal of ‘unacceptable’ books from public libraries.”

The American Library Association, which champions that “Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction,” came under heavy attack from conservatives at the Kalispell public library.

Imagine IF director Douglass McAdams called the American Librar Association’s a philosophy a “radical leftist agenda,” and aims to mirror The Reich Chamber of Culture’s ideals and “completely rewrite policy accordingly.” Montana GOP Representative John Fuller outright said, “I’m concerned in the name of freedom of speech where our country and culture are going.”

Fuller, it must be noted, sponsored three anti-trans bills in the 2021 legislative session while ironically voting for two campus free speech bills.

The cowardly silence regarding book banning screams volumes from “free speech warrior” conservatives, but their selective defense is not surprising. As transgender YouTuber Natalie Wynn noted in The Economist, “The people complaining the loudest about threats to free speech on college campuses often have quite a sinister agenda. The reason they’re complaining about freedom of speech is because they’re complaining about really oppressive ideas being suppressed.”

In his stated reason for bringing forth the campus free speech bills, Republican Mike Hopkins cited concern about the University of Montana’s Journalism school not wanting to host Professor Mike Adams. Adams became widely known in academia for frequently targeting LGBTQ people for harassment, including a 17-year-old female freshman while also constantly espousing homophobic statements on social media like, “Gay couples do not deserve equal benefits because they do not equally benefit society.”

In justifying his beliefs for banning books, Douglass Adams stated, “The fact of the matter is, change is hard, but political winds blow and they blow in different directions.”

This is spoken like a person with zero idea and interest in how literature is created. As a fellow Blackfeet fiction and essayist writer friend of mine says, “Art isn’t here to placate your latest political demands.”

Perhaps the political winds Adams champions is better embodied by Virginia conservative school board members who literally advocated burning books with one stating, “I think we should throw those books in a fire.” Instead of objecting, a fellow board member reiterated his suggestion, saying they needed to “see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”

The only thing art needs protecting from is political indoctrination mirroring Third Reich policies we fought an entire World War against.

I think about my own safety as a Native American transgender journalist and fiction writer, penning these words in defense of two library directors I’ve never met, forced to resign due to “Make America Great Again” politics in a town in northwest Montana.

Later, I’ll grind away creating fictional characters late at night as I bleed out my own insecurities and complexities on the page. I now consider the fact people like Adams and Fuller and other conservatives might want to ban my “degenerate art” book when it’s released.

I’m not explicitly aiming to be political as I create my art, but my existence has become politicized by those who want to create a 21st Century Reich Ministry of Culture where conservatives now feel comfortable enough to suggest burning books.

Nevertheless, I persist, with the hopes perhaps an audience may discover in my writing characters whose lives as queer characters may seem a world away in red state America, but whose existence they can empathize with, and such is the essence and resilience of art itself.

Adrian L. Jawort is a Northern Cheyenne journalist and fiction writer based in Billings, Montana. She is also the Political Director of Indigenous Transilience.

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