Members Only | December 28, 2022 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Book bans and why liberals win the argument but lose the fight

The rightwing target is what progressivism does to education.

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The thing about us liberals is that we can sometimes be our own worst enemies. When faced with the most preposterous claims, we don’t reject them, as we should. We keep an open mind, consider the facts and come to reasonable conclusions. This is how we put liberal values into practice. This is also how we get played over and over. 

Book bans, for instance, should collapse on themselves, because they are transparently suppressive. They stand against the acquisition of knowledge and individual flourishing. But liberals delay that collapse by debating why books about LGBT-plus issues shouldn’t be banned. 

In the case of book bans, the illiberal goal is not protecting children. That’s clear from the sloganeering about “parents rights.” The goal is preventing children from learning to think for themselves. It’s protecting the status quo. It’s grooming future adults who will obey.

A focus on a book’s content instead of the book itself gives illiberals the space they need to stir up even more hysteria about the book’s content, and why it necessitates censorship. While we liberals pat ourselves on the back for winning the argument, we lose the fight. 

Over and over.

Undermining education
The answer isn’t to be illiberal. 

The answer is expanding and deepening our perspective to be more mindful of illiberal goals and illiberal means of achieving them. We can’t do that with arguments, only with an equal and opposite claim – to the right of individuals, especially kids, to discover themselves.

In the case of book bans, the illiberal goal is not protecting children. That’s clear from the sloganeering about “parents rights.” The goal is preventing children from learning to think for themselves. It’s protecting the status quo. It’s grooming future adults who will obey.

That, of course, is how illiberals characterize us liberals – as totalitarian figures of authority, in the form of public school teachers, for instance, who impose their “woke” dogma on innocent children in order to manufacture compliant drones whose speech is “correct.” 


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Christopher Rufo, that Nazi, said as much. 

The “woke agenda,” he said, aims to “soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of ‘repression,’ ‘whiteness,’ or ‘internalized racism,’ and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of leftwing ideology.”

That’s the opposite of what liberals want. 

But we should expect as much. 

The more liberals succeed in flattening the hierarchies of power that constitute the status quo (precisely, the white-power status quo), the more it may appear that liberals are what illiberals say we are. 

Obviously, we shouldn’t back off. But we also shouldn’t narrow our perspectives in ways that are amenable to illiberal goals. While we’re dithering with arguments over a book’s content, and responding to each and every salacious claim, they’re undermining education itself.

We should say so.

Too risky
We usually don’t.

Even EJ Dionne – the liberal’s liberal – doesn’t quite get there in a recent piece on book bans. The Post columnist was right in saying that illiberals only win with “the most lurid, over-the-top arguments.”

But he’s unfortunately wrong about “the movement’s real objectives,” which is a “wholesale war on anything that smacks of ‘progressivism,’ with a particular animus directed against LGBTQ people.” 

No, the real objective is not progressivism. 

The real objective is what progressivism does to education.

Instead of teaching children to replicate their parents’ lives, and thus perpetuate the hierarchies of power that made them, a progressive education teaches children to risk their parents’ disapproval by looking inside themselves for what they believe to be true about themselves, and about the world around them, as they experience it.


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There’s only one response to this “wholesale war,” wrote historian Rick Perlstein in Forum (where I found the Rufo quote above). 

The only response, Perlstein said, is “an answer that can never be negotiated away: Assert with pride that the purpose of public education in our republic is to make us free, self-determining individuals.” 

That, of course, is the problem. 

Illiberals do not want that. Neither do they want children to develop “an identity that is freely chosen,” as Perlstein wrote later, that will “always be stronger than one that’s produced under compulsion.” 

No, no. Too risky. 

“Free, self-determining individuals” with identities freely chosen rather than compelled might realize that polite-white society is built on violence and blood. Worse, they might do something about it. 

Illiberals obviously can’t say they prefer imposing illiberal dogma on innocent children in order to manufacture compliant drones whose speech is “correct.” That would make them seem illiberal! 

So they reach for one preposterous claim after another, in order to appear as if banning books and knowledge is reasonable and right. 

And we liberals keep falling for it.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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