Ari Armstrong, Exclusives, Politics, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Would-be Colorado book banners are the ‘baddies’

There’s an episode of the British sketch comedy That Mitchell and Webb Look in which one confused Nazi finally says to another, “Are we the baddies?” Part of me hates to tag Godwin’s Law out of the gate. On the other hand, book bans genuinely are Naziesque. So is state-backed bigotry against LGBTQ people. In addition to their many other horrific crimes, Nazis burned gay-themed books, outlawed gay sex, and imprisoned and murdered gay people. As Mike Godwin himself pointed out, sometimes comparisons to Nazis are appropriate.

When a group of Colorado conservative activists declare they want to forcibly ban “obscene” books—and by “obscene” they largely mean books that depict gay sex, but also sex in general—then yes, they are the baddies. As a general rule of thumb, if what you’re preaching would fit right in with Nazi culture, you should probably think long and hard about what in the hell it is that you think you are doing.

Please note that I am not saying that these conservatives are literal Nazis or in all respects like Nazis; I’m saying that, in calling to ban books, they are in some ways acting like Nazis. I am also not saying that most conservatives are like the would-be book-banners; thankfully, most are not.

We are not just talking about conservatives wanting to get certain books removed from the shelves of public schools libraries or of local tax-funded community libraries. Generally I’m against those kinds of delimited book “bans” too. Not only conservatives pay taxes to help fund those libraries, and people who appreciate books that conservatives don’t like have just as much right as conservatives to stock library shelves with their preferred books. (We could talk about privatizing libraries to avoid such political conflicts, but, as everyone seems to know, that’s crazy talk.)

Instead, we’re talking about conservatives who want to literally ban books by sending government prosecutors after people to enforce criminal statutes regarding allegedly “obscene” books. The letter in question—signed by the El Paso County Republican Party; Moms for Liberty, El Paso County; Take Back Our Schools; Pastor Jeff Anderson, a “Senior Advisor” to Rep. Doug Lamborn; and other organizations and individuals—is addressed to the District Attorney for the Fourth Judicial District, Michael Allen. The letter specifically calls for felony prosecutions carrying penalties of up to 18 months in prison and $100,000 fines.

Those who actually care about the First Amendment will see this letter as an abomination. The cluelessness of the liberty-assaulting signers is indicated by the names of a couple of the signing groups: “Task Force Freedom” and “Restore Liberty.” They spit on the Bill of Rights even as they claim to champion freedom and liberty. What a despicable yet sad farce.

The letter from these conservatives also treats novels written for a teen audience that depict sex or other physical romantic acts among teens as though they were the equivalent of child porn. Not only do such comparisons demonize literary works, they make light of actual child pornography, a serious crime and a serious violation of the rights of affected minors.

Reading a book from the ‘Naughty List’

The letter lists by title literally dozens of books that these conservatives wish to ban. I don’t have time to review all those works. I will take, then, the first book listed among the “sample of books in El Paso County schools” allegedly showing “sexual lewdness.”  It is a novel titled “Darius the Great Deserves Better” by Adib Khorram, who describes himself as “a queer Iranian-American author.”

Although part of me does not wish to draw attention to one particular title, looking at an example is the best way to cut through these conservatives’ bullshit. I downloaded the 352-page book via Jefferson County libraries.

Here is the out-of-context line reproduced by the letter that supposedly is so bad: “I wondered what it was that made me imagine Landon touching me when I masturbated, but cringe when he reached below my waist in real life.”

As you might surmise from this, the story is about a gay high school student. Darius, who narrates the story, starts off with him getting a haircut. Then he remembers his first kiss with Landon: “His lips were warm and soft, and he let them linger against mine . . . [T]he kissing got even better once we started using our tongues.” Then Landon calls him beautiful.

I can see how this story might not be to the taste of those conservatives who imagine that gay relationships are an affront to God and worthy of eternal torture in Hell. But to normal people who see responsible, consensual romantic engagements as a perfectly natural and normal part of life, this is pretty tame stuff. I personally never would have read this book but for the controversy surrounding it (I’m not the target audience), but I enjoyed it. At times, I cried along with Darius. If eventually my son asks to read this novel, I’ll be happy to get it for him.

So Darius and Landon are walking down the street, fingers interlaced, when they come across a couple other guys. The one from Darius’s varsity soccer team already knows he’s gay. The other guy, Trent, does not. Trent, Darius reflects, “was the meanest guy I knew” and had picked “on me since elementary school.” So how would this meeting go? Things seem to be going okay, but then Trent says, “Later, Dairy Queen.” An anti-gay slur: ugh. That takes us to the end of the first chapter.

Basically, this is a story of growing up and young love, complicated by the residual anti-gay bigotry in our culture. Which the conservatives who signed the letter demonizing the story of Darius exhibit in all its nastiness. I’m already wondering if Trent eventually will ask himself, “Am I the baddie?”

Chapter Two brings the boys to the tea shop run by Landon’s father, where the boys work part-time. Then the boys head to Darius’s house, where Landon volunteers to do dishes. Darius and Landon kiss in Darius’s room, then Darius’s father pops his head in—awkward! But the dads are cool. Landon, an “awesome cook,” makes chicken noodle soup for the family. “Every Persian mother wants her son to marry someone who can cook,” Darius reflects (his family is from Iran)—not that he’s remotely ready for marriage yet!

Chapter Three starts off with Darius’s father awkwardly offering him advice about dating and relationships, which, he emphasizes, “need communication.” He says, “I know this isn’t fun to talk about with your dad. But I want you to be healthy and safe and happy.” He tells Darius that it’s perfectly appropriate to tell someone you’re dating that you want to wait to move beyond kissing. When Darius worries that his haircut makes his ears look big, his dad assures him, “You’re perfect just the way you are.” In all seriousness it’s a great family-values story.

We learn that Darius’s grandfather in Iran is having health problems and headed into hospice care. “That made me want to cry. I knew Babou wasn’t going to get better,” Darius reflects. His friend ends a call by saying “Ghorbanat beram.” The chapter ends beautifully: “Gorbanet beram is one of those perfect Farsi phrases you can’t quite translate into English. The closest thing is: I would give my life for yours. Sometimes it was just hyperbole. But for Sohrab, it was literal. And it was literal for me too. That is what it means to have a best friend.”

Back to school. One of Darius’s friends warns him, “You know Trent’s going around telling people he saw you with a guy last night?” After a brief exchange, his friend assures him, “We got your back.”

I could go on with my book review, but you get the point. For the conservatives in question to damn Khorram’s lovely book as “obscene” is, well, obscene. It is also exceedingly stupid. It is also defamatory. My message to Khorram through this nonsense is this: We got your back. Maybe if those conservatives actually would read the book they could learn some empathy and common decency.

Clueless Crusaders

The conservative letter actually recognizes that people might liken them to Nazis for wanting to ban books. The letter summarizes the position against them, “These people ban books just like the Nazis did. They are on the wrong side of history.”

What is the letter’s argument against this? Well, you see, some random leftist professor somewhere Tweeted that some books should be burned. Also, some other leftist “encouraged” public libraries “to block the reading of Christian children’s books.” You see! Some people on the left also want to ban books! Of course that is not actually a defense of banning books. “We’re just like the worst leftists” is a rather strange conservative take.

Godwin urges us to “recognize specious comparisons to Nazism—but also, by contrast, to recognize comparisons that aren’t.” He continues, “And sometimes the comparisons can spot the earliest symptoms of horrific ‘attitudes, actions and language’ well before our society falls prey to the full-blown disease.”

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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