An authoritarian drive to ban books and punish teachers

The Constitution of Iowa is on display in Secretary of State Paul Pate’s office in the Iowa Statehouse. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Next year, don’t be surprised if you receive a mailing from a Republican legislator or GOP candidate espousing their support for public schools. We’ve seen them in recent years, with cheerful photos of politicians posing in schools, talking to teachers. Heart warming.

But they will probably omit the part about wanting to leave out teachers and administrators in prison.

At least that’s the idea being pushed by GOP Senate President Jake Chapman. At a recent meeting of a book review committee in the Johnston school district and on social media, Chapman stressed that some of the books offered in the high school library are obscene. He wants a bill that would create a crime for educators who allow the distribution of this obscene material.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Zaun is also on board.

“My warning to all teachers and administrators is that you will end up in jail. Because this is spreading pornography. And I will do my very best and it will become law,” Zaun told the committee, according to conservative website The Iowa Standard.

Some of the books in question are by LGBTQ authors who share their difficult life experiences, hoping to help LGBTQ children live their own lives. And yes, there are parts that are about sex. Their target audience does not include middle-aged white men serving under the Golden Dome of Wisdom.

Books in question in three central Iowa school districts include “Lawn Boy,” a novel, “All Boys Are’t Blue,” a memoir, and “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel and memoir. Conservatives are also demanding the removal of Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give” and Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

Chapman and his crusaders have plucked short bits from this much broader literature as evidence that they are obscene.

Never mind that Iowa’s law of obscenity says material is obscene when “the material as a whole has no serious literary, scientific, political, or artistic value.” That is clearly not the case with these books.

Iowa’s obscenity law also exempts public libraries and educational institutions.

Legislators shocked, horrified by things that offend them, is not new. In 1993, lawmakers and government leader Terry Branstad dealt a blow when they discovered a “homorotic” German film was being shown at the University of Iowa. UI administrators tried to ban the film amid the outcry, but the Iowa Attorney General’s office claimed a ban would violate the First Amendment.

Sadly, banning books is as American as racism and demonizing immigrants.

But this new salvo in the culture wars is different. It is hateful, vindictive and authoritarian. These lawmakers are essentially demanding that educators adopt their rigid worldview and ancient understanding of human sexuality or perhaps go to jail.

This sounds more like the World War I proclamation threatening to throw Iowans in jail for speaking German, one of the darkest chapters in Iowa history.

But it ticks two boxes on the national Red State Trailblazer to-do list.

It gives conservative lawmakers a chance to continue to vandalize LGBTQ Iowans, especially transgender children. Lawmakers have already banned state-funded health insurance from paying for the medical needs of transgender Iowans. They have also introduced numerous anti-transgender laws, including legislation that bans transgender girls from playing sports, prevents discussion of gender identity in the classroom, and removes gender identity as a protected class in the Civil Rights Code.

So far, under pressure from state business that knows it’s bad for business to make Iowa an LGBTQ pariah state, Republicans have delayed the approval of these bills. But in 2022, with elections approaching, even the big business may not be able to curb the passion of lawmakers to recklessly ridicule their fellow Iowans for political gain.

Second, they may continue to smear the public education system.

Teachers apparently made too much money, had good benefits and, worst of all, they tend to support Democrats. So the Republicans fragmented their ability to bargain collectively.

Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republican lawmakers ripped local authority from schools to deal with the pandemic and refused federal money for testing. They favored legislation limiting the content of the diversity curriculum, hoping to scare educators into avoiding lessons about the systemic racism that still plagues our nation and the history of slavery and discrimination that has shaped our nation.

Reynolds called “failing schools” when she called for state-funded vouchers to be given to parents who want to leave public schools. She is the first governor in decades with no agenda for improving public schools.

Republicans have pressured college professors to follow the political line or potentially face legislation eliminating terms in office. Professors who are too outspoken can anger lawmakers. Ames school officials were called before the House Oversight Committee, where outraged Republicans demanded that they explain a week-long Black Lives Matter curriculum.

The times conservatives have accused schools of “indoctrination” are too numerous to count.

Banning books, threatening to jail teachers, using state power to punish a minority group, and undermining the public education system are not the kinds of actions you would expect from democratic institutions. Instead, our institutions are being used to impose one unyielding political and cultural perspective through worthless laws, disinformation and intimidation.

Do not you like it? Leave. Or maybe to jail.

The Iowa I’ve known all my life is in a deep coma. We need to wake up.

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