Book Burning And The Power Of Bad Faith

Book Burning And The Power Of Bad Faith

In what could very well be a deleted scene from 2006’s Idiocracy, but what is instead a real clip from our increasingly dumb and dangerous political landscape, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Missouri recently used a flamethrower to set books aflame as giddy supporters cheered on.

This scene could have also been ripped from Fahrenheit 451, or any number of literary or cinematic warnings about the rise of fascism and the right’s inherent hatred of knowledge and enlightenment. One would think the question would arise: Are we the baddies? But one would be naive to believe in such self awareness.

Bill Eigel, who serves as state senator in a Missouri legislature that is among the most openly corrupt, authoritarian, anti-democratic governing body in the United States, held a campaign even last week in which he used a flamethrower straight of the Alien franchise to burn boxes of books he had deemed “pornographic” in nature (Eigel later explained the boxes were empty, but that he would not hesitate to burn books on the lawn of the governor’s mansion if elected next fall).

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This red-pilled freak of nature is a veritable fountain of bad-faith politics – a perfect amalgamation of all the absurd arguments conservatives have put forward to justify wide-ranging censorship regimes designed to stigmatize marginalized groups and make life generally unsafe for LGBTQ folks and people of color.

Eigel on his campaign site vows to “eliminate hate-based ideologies such as Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, and other ‘woke’ programs in public schools.” Only in the overactive and fevered right-wing imagination can critical race theory – learning American political and cultural life through the lens of race – be deemed hateful (this, of course, is purely white supremacist projection, like everything on the right). But CRC and other efforts to teach young people about the history of racism in the United States must be “hate based” or there is no reason to ban them from public life.

Stand back and behold the power of bad faith in all its glory.

Banning books was an all-too-natural step for the American right in its radicalization and its flouting of democratic and civilizational norms. They’re done with all that. The right has fully embraced autocracy, and in autocracy, books about the history of marginalized groups and books written from the perspective of those despised by the authoritarian right will be removed. We’re seeing this in states dominated by Republican lawmakers; in Idaho, a state begging for federal intervention, librarians are fleeing that state as Q-brained Republicans take the levers of power and remove books that offend their white supremacist sensibilities.

According to a newly released report from PEN America, a free speech group, and the American Library Association, 3,362 books were removed from public school libraries in the US during the 2022-23 school year, a 33 percent increase over the previous school year. More than 1,550 individual titles were targeted. That conservatives want to ban books is nothing new. That they have been so wildly successful – with the help of radicalized politicians like Ron DeSantis – is the real story.

All this book banning has been done in the name of children, whom the American right pretends to care about. Kids, after all, are the best possible political cover. Who opposes kids? No one. So the right wing invents scenarios in which children are forced to read “LGBTQ porn” and “anti-white” propaganda. They then propose a solution to this problem: Remove any and all books that could fall into these categories, including important historical books documenting the institution of slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Right movement, and the political persecution of queer people in the United States. If anyone questions their motives, conservatives have a stock reply: We’re doing it for the children. It reeks of the right’s feigning concern for human trafficking, most clearly seen in the fascist propaganda of Sound of Freedom.

The effectiveness of bad faith politics is rarely this clear. One must first craft a reality, then push a solution to cure the invented problem. The right is able to get away with this bad-faith reality-making largely because the media is not equipped to cover it and analyze it and call it out for what it is: Bullshit. Generations of the right wing whipping mainstream media outlets into submission – working the refs, if you will – has created outlets bound and determined to both-sides every issue, no matter how absurd. More than anything, they fear accusations of bias.

In this book-banning saga – the clearest sign yet of a rising fascist tide both nationally and locally – media outlets have presented a warped story that goes like this: Some progressive policy makers have questioned whether books written hundreds of years ago that use racial slurs and other offensive language should be read by young children. Meanwhile, conservative activists and lawmakers have stripped libraries bare of books they deem offensive. This, according to mainstream media, is the same thing. One side says this, the other says that. Who’s to say who is right or wrong? Utterly defanged, the media is unable to hold the right to account. It's a game, and the right plays it well.

I asked Brett Mason, a Bad Faith Times Discord member and a librarian in Virginia, what people misunderstand about librarians’ role in this terrible political game. Mason told me about Kirk Cameron, the 80s TV star and more recently far-right activist, coming to his library to protest books that were not sufficiently conservative.

Cameron had come to the northern Virginia library branch to attack books about the LGBTQ experience, Mason said, “but our adherence to our values of equal representation allowed him the platform in our own library to freely attack our collection. … While a high proportion of librarians are liberal, our professionalism requires us to remain neutral.”

Librarians – people who have dedicated their lives to the distribution of books spanning the political and cultural spectrum – are not left-wing ideologues determined to advance a narrow agenda. They are not trying to indoctrinate children. That distinction belongs to the far-right activists who have launched smear campaigns against dedicated librarians and civil servants tasked with maintaining neutrality.

The people stocking the shelves and helping folks find books are not the bad guys. It should go without saying that the bad guys are the ones using flamethrowers to burn books with which they disagree, and threatening anyone and everyone who pushes back on censoring books.

The Book Banners Can’t Go Unchecked

The energy around what people can and can’t read is almost entirely on the right. They are seizing power at the hyper-local level. They are harassing and threatening school board members, leveraging violence as a political tool because it happens to be the most effective way to circumvent democratic institutions. Right wingers have even deployed the well-worn “groomer” and “pedophile” attacks against librarians and officials who refuse to go along with their vast censorship program. These accusations, of course, are projection.

The left, it seems, lacks the stomach for this fight, both because the left is not prone to the violent fantasies of the right and because these authoritarian book-banning regimes are most prevalent in the reddest parts of the country. Liberals, in other words, have largely not been exposed to the horrors of fascist monsters calling the shots and banning books they find objectionable.

The right’s book banning mission started in school libraries – a soft target for those who so expertly fake interest in the well being of children to achieve the right’s political goals. It was never going to end there, however.

“A year, a year and a half ago, we were told that these books didn’t belong in school libraries, and if people wanted to read them, they could go to a public library,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told The New York Times. “Now, we’re seeing those same groups come to public libraries and come after the same books, essentially depriving everyone of the ability to make the choice to read them.”

There are glimmers of hope though – reasons to believe the American left recognizes the threat of conservatives implementing vast censorship programs designed to deprive young people of messaging that might force them to think. In Vermont, Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman is touring the state hosting book readings from banned books at local bookstores and libraries, highlighting the literature the right wing has tried to censor.  

“Around the country, we have seen the proliferation of book challenges and bans by school districts and local governments. These bans often target books that feature LGBTQ+ characters; talk about gender and sexuality; highlight racial disparities; or talk about difficult issues such as substance abuse and cases of police violence,” Zuckeman said in a statement. “Students, teachers, and curious minds should be able to access materials that spark critical thinking, cover difficult topics, and appeal to diverse interests without fear of government interference.”

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has told schools that any effort to remove books from public school libraries could result in an investigation from the state’s attorney general. California lawmakers are working to pass legislation that would require a supermajority of school board members to ban a book from school libraries. This, in effect, could stop a slim majority of censorious right-wing school board members from implementing book bans.

Nine Democratic governors signed a letter to textbook publishers last month saying they were “deeply troubled” by reports of publishers “yielding to the unreasonable demands of certain government representatives calling for the censorship of school educational materials." Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey and Illinois have passed bills that would slash funding for libraries that ban books. That kind of good-faith legislation should probably come with funding for security to protect librarians against the book banners and all their implied violence (see: using flamethrowers to burn books).

The right’s attack on books is not going unnoticed. That’s good. But more should be done to support librarians and library officials at the front lines of a war against fascism. That’s what this is: An evil tide, rising steadily, chipping away at institutions and norms we have taken for granted. If you want to know what comes after book banning, crack open a history book and feel your spine turn to ice.

Follow Denny Carter on X and Threads at @CDCarter13. He's on BlueSky at