Why Americans can’t keep nice things

Across the United States, the Republican fascists and the larger white right are imposing Orwellian thought crime laws restricting free speech, freedom of thought, freedom of association and other fundamental civil and human rights. In practice, this means censoring books written by Black and brown people, women, members of the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups. Books and other knowledge that are deemed “un-patriotic” or “divisive” i.e., that tell the complex truth about American society in ways that challenge the powerful, are being removed. Teachers, librarians, and other educators who refuse to comply will be surveilled, harassed, threatened with violence, and removed from their jobs.

The right’s thought crime regime is not a “culture war,” as too many in the mainstream media and political class uncritically continue to describe it. In reality, the “culture war” is part of a much larger fascist revolutionary strategy to end multiracial pluralistic democracy by taking away the fundamental human and civil rights of those individuals and groups targeted as some type of enemy.

Thought crimes are an attempt to take away people’s capacity to correctly understand how power negatively impacts them and their future. Thought crimes also attempt to rob people of the capacity to resist and to even conceive of other possibilities for a better and more humane and just American democracy and society.

The Republican assault on public libraries, schools, and other such spaces is an attempt to destroy the very idea of “the commons,” meaning spaces, resources, and opportunities for participation, community and relationship-building that should be available to all people regardless of their ability to pay. This is part of a much longer campaign by the neoliberal gangster capitalists and the right-wing and conservative movement to financialize and profit-maximize all areas of private and public life to the detriment of human well-being, happiness, and survival. The right has targeted public libraries and other places of learning because they know that those spaces are critical for a healthy democracy.

Social theorist and author Henry Girioux, makes this intervention in a recent essay at TruthOut:

It’s clear that the far right GOP has deemed education to be the most powerful tool for creating a public that is neither informed nor willing to struggle to keep a democracy alive. This is particularly evident in the right-wing war on education, which aims at replacing public education with charter schools, fashioning public and higher education into centers of far right indoctrination, and destroying higher education as a democratic public good. Central to such an attack is a war on critical thinking, troubling knowledge, historical memory and any form of education that address social problems. Extremists in the GOP fully embrace both white nationalism and white supremacy while simultaneously supporting a culture and society in which the distinction between lies and the truth disappear. What they would also like to see disappear in their reign of domestic terrorism are the educators, institutions, and other public spaces that resist this ongoing tsunami of authoritarian ideas, acts of repression, and war on critical intellectuals, dissidents and educators.

Historian Barbara Ransby focuses on the example of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis:

In this way, DeSantis and his allies uphold the kind of indoctrination he claims to oppose. He stands in the tradition of the Nazis who burned books for fear that their antisemitic lies would be challenged in print. He stands in the tradition of the 1976-1983 Argentinian dictatorship that jailed and exiled dissident professors and killed their students. He stands in the tradition of Turkey’s dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has purged, jailed or exiled over 100,000 educators and intellectuals because they wrote and taught ideas he saw as a political threat. DeSantis’s dangerous actions are textbook proto-fascist measures. His militant opposition to any teaching of the Black freedom struggle is also reminiscent of the South African apartheid regime’s book banning and curricular and speaker censorship, which limited the circulation of ideas that could undermine the legitimacy of an unjust system.

In failing democracies and other societies in crisis, intellectual violence and physical violence work in tandem. It is not a coincidence that the Age of Trump is typified by fascist violence including a coup attempt, mass shootings that have targeted gays and lesbians and transgendered people, white supremacist terrorist attacks on Black and brown people in places such as Buffalo and El Paso, and white supremacist and other right-wing paramilitaries rampaging in places like Charlottesville and occupying public spaces like libraries with increasing impunity.

As the Jewish poet Heinrich Heine so prophetically and tragically warned, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”

Thought crimes are an attempt to take away people’s capacity to correctly understand how power negatively impacts them and their future.

The Republican fascists and the larger white right and “conservative” movement know that their ideas and policies are unpopular with the American people as a whole. Because they cannot win in “the marketplace of ideas,” their new solution is mass censorship by defunding and shutting down public libraries and other spaces of learning. This is the raw application of naked political power to achieve one’s goals.

To that point, last week Republicans in the Missouri House of Representatives voted to defund all that state’s public libraries as a way of imposing thought crime laws that ban books on topics they deem to be “sensitive” or some other Orwellian thought crime euphemism.

PBS NewsHour reports on the real world impacts of Republicans’ move: 

Beyond internet, libraries have historically provided analog services that existed long before fiber optics, such as passport services, free concerts and assistance with voter registration. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, some branches expanded their offerings to include distribution of masks and test kits, and vaccine clinics.

Jon Karlen, a resident of St. Charles County, whose more than 400,000 residents are represented by Republican legislators, told the NewsHour that book bans and library funding cuts in the state feels like an effort to control distribution of information, which, he said, would hurt the state’s most vulnerable residents in the end….

Otter Bowman, president of the Missouri Library Association ,said beyond basic services, “the physical buildings become either a cool space or a warm space for our unhoused population, depending on the weather.”…

Gentry County, located 90 miles north of Kansas City, is home to a little over 6,000 people, many of whom, like residents in other rural parts of the state, rely heavily on their libraries for internet access, Garrett said.

In Missouri, 20 percent of the population – more than 1.26 million people — do not have high-speed internet access. Nearly 34 percent of Missouri’s population live in rural parts of the state, where this kind of access can be harder to come by. Libraries provide a lifeline to this service, among others.

One of the most important roles of libraries in a time of democratic crisis is how they provide fuel for thinking beyond mere survival by presenting alternative and better possibilities for one’s future, life, relationships, and community. As Tamara King, who lives in St. Charles County Missouri, told PBS NewsHour, “You start by taking away small things, right? And then you do that, you gain your support and then you go for the jugular, right? So that’s what they did. They took away everything. Now, where are these kids supposed to go and learn and have those activities that involve books?”

“Books create imagination.”

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The attempts by the Republican fascists and their forces to take away access to public services and public goods and other public resources and opportunities as a way of undermining and ending real democracy is not new. It is part of a much older pattern of antisocial and antidemocracy behavior in America where White Americans have historically (and to the present) opposed public programs that they thought would benefit Black and brown people and other “undeserving” groups – even if those programs also benefitted White Americans, often disproportionately.

Specifically, during the Jim and Jane Crow white terror regime in the South and across America, white communities would close public pools, public schools, and public libraries in order to prevent Black and brown people from using them. Many of those same policies would continue in the decades afterward under the justification of “law and order” and “austerity” and ending “big government” and “wasteful spending.”

In failing democracies and other societies in crisis, intellectual violence and physical violence work in tandem.

Beyond Jim and Jane Crow, white supremacy in its many contemporary forms (including colorblind racism and white racial resentment) has played an outsized role in why the United States does not have publicly funded healthcare, robust unemployment insurance, affordable housing programs, and a strong social safety net and social democracy more broadly.  

The COVID pandemic and the economic and human disaster it caused highlighted, once again, the extreme levels of wealth and income inequality in America and how tens of millions of Americans are literally one paycheck away from homelessness. Many white Americans would learn that accessing basic humanitarian aid such as food stamps, housing assistance, and affordable healthcare was very difficult if not impossible. Why? Because those same public services had, for decades, been systematically gutted by white elites (with the support of white voters) out of a fear that “lazy” Black and brown people and “illegal immigrants” and other “takers not makers” would use them.

In the end, the American people cannot have nice things because the same right-wing forces that are trying to censor books, close libraries, and harass teachers and other educators for being “unpatriotic” and “divisive” also want to keep the American public in a collective state of economic immiseration and precarity, fear, loneliness, and rage at the wrong people.

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