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Moms for Liberty’s Bonfire of the Vanities
Banning books shackles minds
This past weekend, CBS Sunday Morning featured an extended segment on Moms for Liberty, a right-wing advocacy group that sprang up during the pandemic to argue against Covid restrictions and mask mandates in schools and that has since gone on to lead the charge on overhauling curriculum and removing certain books from classrooms and school libraries.
Moms For A Little Liberty, As A Treat
What, exactly, does Moms for Liberty want to see removed when it comes to the books and other content in America’s schools?
In truth, the group has objected to works like The Story of Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King Jr. and the March to Washington, And Tango Makes Three, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. The group has drawn heavy criticism from artists, librarian associations, and even the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, whose founder and CEO expressed dismay at Moms for Liberty’s insinuation “that a teacher who teaches [Slaughterhouse-Five] is somehow connected with nefarious activities that put children in harm’s way.”
Harm is paramount in all of this. Moms for Liberty claims that all of their advocacy for curriculum changes and book bans, as well as their opposition to things like gender-affirming bathroom policies, is about harm prevention. They want to prevent children from being indoctrinated with far-left ideas about sexuality and economics. They want to keep them from feeling upset or conflicted because of their racial or socio-economic privileges. They want to stop them from being groomed.
As I’ve written before here at Arc, this kind of concern for children and insistence on parents’ rights tends to run in one direction. And it tends to be highly exclusionary. Little thought is given to what other parents might want for the schools in their communities. And children are treated as nearly totally without agency, as clay to be molded however their parents see fit or as vulnerable prey for stalking Marxists and sexual perverts. But I want to focus briefly on a somewhat different aspect of Mom for Liberty’s rhetoric and thinking.
Girolamo Savonarola’s period of dominance in Renaissance Florence has long stood as a striking example of the impulses that can be released when religious fervor and populist political spirit meet in combustible conditions. Savonarola’s bonfire in the Piazza della Signoria consisted of a great seven-tiered pyramid, one for each of the seven deadly sins.
While he condemned all sin, flesh dominated Savonarola’s concerns. Paul Strathern notes how Savonarola sought to root out all those things that brought harm and disgrace to the body, including a deep preoccupation with sodomy.
On September 21, 1494, as the army of the French King Charles VIII menaced Florence, he delivered one of this most famous sermons. In it, he suggested that the sinful city was facing the wrath of a vengeful God and turned to a quotation from Genesis: “For Behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is on the earth will die.”
It wasn’t only precious items and heretical works of literature and philosophy that Savonarola and his followers rounded up for burning. As Strathern writes
Just as sought-after were musical instruments of all kinds, as well as statues and paintings that did not depict religious scenes—such as popular figurine copies of Donatello’s suggestive hermaphroditic statues, as well as paintings of the naked female form. Even paintings of religious subjects were not immune, in particular those ‘which are painted in such a shameful fashion as to make the Virgin Mary look like a prostitute’.
Moms for Liberty is indeed obsessed with flesh. In the wake of Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich’s appearance on CBS Sunday Morning, the organization has complained that the network had failed to show “the porn images” in some of the books they have called for removing. This kind of talk is common. Talk of sex or gender, especially that which doesn’t conform with conservative Christian norms, is regularly presented as being pornographic, pedophilic, and abusive. And, of course, this bleeds onto the teachers and librarians making such works available to the students.
The obsession with gender conformity is no different. Here in Arkansas, Moms for Liberty member Ginny Dowden testified before the House in support of a bill to restrict trans youth from using school bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity. Dowden told the House, “CRT and gender identity ideology are already the tools of entry into our educational institutions with the goal of fundamentally transforming schools.” There is a recurring obsession with sex, gender, and the body here as a focus point for how contamination spreads.
There is a long theological and political history here, and an immense body of scholarship covering it all. And I don’t intend in this brief essay to take up anything like a summary of what’s been said on the matter. But I wanted to draw attention to this today, the day the American Libraries Association has designated Right to Read Monday, because I think this link between the bodily preoccupations of Moms for Liberty and the intellectual freedoms and expressions they threaten are utterly linked.
When asked on CBS Sunday Morning just what sorts of books ought to be used and taught in schools, Tiffany Justice responded, “Books that don’t have pornography in them, let’s start there. Let’s just put the bar really, really low—books that don’t have incest, pedophilia, rape.”
They repeatedly conflate the content and ideas with which they disagree with the most profane of sexual improprieties and go on to label the people they see as spreading them as perverts and predators. This is not incidental to their formula. It is central.
Setting Minds Free
I want to turn again to Strathern and another devout Florentine of the time period: Michaelangelo.
The great artist decamped to Rome in 1496, working for a number of patrons, and during this time produced one of his most famous works: The Madonna della Pietà. As Strathern argues:
Michelangelo’s profound belief in God may have been attuned to that of Savonarola, but only by escaping from his influence was Michelangelo capable of fulfilling the genius that had first been recognised in him by Lorenzo the Magnificent. Only amidst the corruption of Rome would this most religious of artists be able to carry forward the promise of the Renaissance and realise his own leading role in its promulgation.
The point of this quotation is not to argue for “corruption” or vice, but rather to note that freedom nurtures art. And that those seeking to build cities of God often mean only to limit and constrain their fellow citizens and that we are all poorer for it.
How many young minds, like forms locked in marble, are waiting to be set free one hammer blow at a time by a good book?