SAY WHAT? - Earlier this month, the United States was for the first time demoted to the status of a "backsliding" democracy by global think tank International IDEA, which cited a “visible deterioration” of our civil liberties and checks on government indicating "serious problems with the fundamentals of democracy.” (Thanks Josh Hawley, right-wing media, MAGA insanity, all the perpetrators of hoax claims and all the blithe defenders of creeping fascism.) Amidst that bleak progression, the wingnut war on (alas, often unlovely) reality goes on apace. These days, its frenzied battles are increasingly fought in schools - all those wee malleable minds to shape! - where right-wing targets have morphed from masks and mandates to (imaginary) CRT to, in fine totalitarian tradition, books, ranging from "pornographic" (queer) to "divisive" (historical) to "communist" (whatever makes right-wingers uncomfortable).
This year, the American Library Association says it's seen more calls to ban books than in the last two decades as terrified GOP governors, lawmakers and school boards rush to stop time and America's changing demographic by banning an array of books - by or about women, people of color, the LGBTQ community - in a move that will only eliminate a primary "safe space" for students "who desperately want and need books that reflect their lives." It's happening in Texas, Ohio, New Jersey, South Carolina, where Gov. Henry McMaster demanded the award-winning Gender Queer: A Memoir be pulled from school shelves, vowing in all his malignant idiocy that, “We’re going to remove things that cause harm to our children or put obstacles in their path as they grow up." In Virginia, where a county school board voted 6-0 to begin removing "sexually explicit" books from shelves, a couple of members went one better and urged they be burned to ensure "we are eradicating this bad stuff."
Unsurprisingly, Florida is right there with them, especially after a school board member sparked outrage by taking a bunch of kids on a field trip to - gasp - a local LGBTQ-friendly bar and grill for lunch. The state is the birthplace of Moms For Liberty, begun last year by three right-wing moms and "joyful warriors" to fight against mask mandates, now on "a mission to stoke the fires of liberty" by passing on parents' unholy ignorance to their kids. Its reported 60,000 members in 33 states start meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer, read from the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, attend school board meetings to rage against masks, and wear t-shirts boasting, "We do not co-parent with the government." With masks now banned in schools - thanks DeathSantis - they've moved on to force schools to pull Gender Queer (again) and 100 other "pornographic" books from library shelves, along with "neo-Marxist garbage" from BrianPOP, an educational website that offers lessons about BLM, Che Guevara and dreaded communism. While they portray themselves as a Tea-Party-like grassroots movement - a GOP strategist calls them "an unstoppable wildfire of pissed-off moms" - they've gotten broad support from a similarly "liberty-minded" Florida GOP, who are often their husbands; they've appeared with Limbaugh and DeSantis, worked with a Proud Boys-affiliated political operative, and declared themselves "open to any big donor." Democrats say they represent a well-coordinated effort to influence the mid-terms and "keep the Trump train engaged." "If you want to show up in a clown suit and spew nonsense about how masks cause UTIs, that's free speech, that's democracy," says one. "Does that mean they have a right to have policy enacted (based on) their viewpoints? No."
The invidious Moms are also busy in Tennessee, one of at least 15 GOP-run states to pass bans on CRT that isn't taught in their schools anyway. The law bars teaching of any history the GOP don't like - that one race is "inherently privileged, racist, or oppressive," anyone "bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race" or "should feel discomfort, guilt or (other) psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race," or the U.S. is "fundamentally racist" - in a state where former slave plantations draw tourists and a county seat features a Confederate monument on the site of a former slave market. In Williamson County, where mid-pandemic yahoos threatened doctors advocating masks in schools, the Moms brought an 11-page complaint under the new law charging that schools' "narrow and slanted obsession on (sic) historical mistakes" creates "a heavily biased agenda" that makes kids "hate their country, each other and/or themselves." Citing 2nd-grade books about MLK, Ruby Bridges, the march on Washington, civil rights protests - photos show white and colored water fountains ("Which of these fountains looks nicer to you?") and white firemen blasting black children "who met hate every day" with hoses "bruising their bodies" - the complaint alleges such "anti-American" stories have "traumatized" kids by focusing on "very dark and divisive slivers of American history" without "highlighting positive achievements," like "the overall improvement of the country." Worse, they imply people of color continue to be oppressed by an "angry, vicious, scary, mean, loud, violent white population" and "the racial injustice of the 1960s exists today." The state just rejected the complaint, but on technicalities: It doesn't fit the law's timeline, and the head Mom is ineligible to complain; to avoid mask mandates, she sends her child to private school.
Finally, there's live-free-or-die New Hampshire, where "Americans are doing a speedrun at this whole fascism thing." The state GOP not only passed another of these unworkably vague don't-tell us-any-history-we-don't-wanna-know-about laws - the Right to Freedom From Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education - causing most of Gov. Chris Sununu's diversity council to quit; the state's Department of Education created a website for parents to file complaints against teachers who break the new rules and teach actual history of America. Then Moms For Liberty - who in a state facing a drastic shortage of teachers, many suggest, should change their name to "Moms For Schools Without Teachers," also maybe "Snitches 'R Us" - upped the crazy ante by offering a $500 bounty to anyone who "catches" a teacher saying anything about the nasty rumored racism in America's noble past. "We've got $500 for the person that first successfully catches a public school teacher breaking this law," they tweeted of their psychotic new liberty-as-targeted-harassment-and-dystopian-bounty-hunting campaign. "Students, parents, teachers, school staff... We want to know! We will pledge anonymity if you want!" Whew. Many were not amused by "this fake-ass, AstroTurf, racist bullshit," also "Taliban witch hunt," "liberty as racist vigilantism," "putting up a bounty for (checks notes) free speech" and "stotastic terrorism - all they got left is to burn America to the ground." "Y'all really out here snitchin?" asked one patriot. Also, "Being mommy versions of Tucker Carlson isn't a great look" and "A bounty! Very cool, you guys. Normal and not at all fascistic." Teachers tried to turn themselves in for the bounty by admitting they'd taught "history"; many offered bounties if some Moms would define liberty, define CRT, find a school where it's taught, or substitute for a week at a public school where beleaguered teachers are so busy they don't have time to pee or eat lunch never mind indoctrinate anyone and make 35 middle school kids listen to them. Others speculated, "I bet this is because you're sad you couldn't burn witches in the 1600s," mourned Arthur Miller's rolling in his grave, or offered one final alluring snitch for the demented times: "I saw Goody Proctor teaching CRT."
(Abby Zimet has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues.)