By: Jamie LaRue
Apostasy: the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief.
A cautionary tale
For almost a quarter of a century, I was the public library director in a very conservative, Republican-dominated county. Our library got a lot of challenges, and at first, they reflected a distinct conservative bias. One time, a couple of active Republican mothers called for the removal of a juvenile non-fiction book just because the author apparently approved of Democrats. Most of the challenges sought to suppress any positive portrayal of gay people.
Eventually, the challenges broadened. They came from both conservatives and liberals. What they shared was parental over-protectiveness, the desire to preserve the innocence—some might say privilege—of their children.
But something else was happening. From about 1992 on, the Republican party leadership in my county lurched to the Right. They vowed to, and did, destroy the local teacher’s union. They succeeded, for a time, in funneling public education money into private religious schools through vouchers. They passed ordinances permitting people to open carry guns in parks and town council meetings. They put “In God We Trust” over the town hall entry, while quietly whisking away public art that featured naked humans. (People don’t have to be afraid of guns, but art…) Successful tax votes mostly built jails.
The GOP style of politics, based on lots of fear, lots of Fox News name-calling and outrage, is clearly energizing to some. But to others, it was and is a turn-off. The truth is that many local activists got into politics to make their communities better, to “give back.” They didn’t love partisan brawls. They didn’t appreciate having their speech and attitudes policed and witheringly attacked if they strayed from the increasingly extreme party line, either. So they disengaged.
That left the party to the pushy. And the Republicans’ scorched earth, say-anything-about-your-enemies practices worked. In my county, they soon had near-total control over every single taxing entity, even though, combined, there were far more Democrats and Unaffiliated registered voters.
In much the same way, conservatives over the past decade racked up a majority in the U.S. Senate, in the governorships, and of course the Presidency. Thanks to the latter, they got the Supreme Court, too.
A shift in the wind?
Now there is a subtle change. Nationally, Republicans still mostly win elections where they used to. But the margins are narrowing. At this writing, the key spokesperson of the party, President Trump, seems profoundly at-odds with the shifting political attitudes of Americans. Insisting on “law and order” and defending Confederate monuments built to intimidate Black citizens is wildly out of step with peaceful protests precipitated by outrageous police violence against people of color.
None of these Trumpian stands is new. They represent a consistent and rigid response to a rapidly changing environment. The voices of internal dissent have been silenced.
The result might well be a repudiation of the Republican party for a generation.
Most Americans don’t understand how far to the right our country has moved over the past thirty years. A shift in the other direction is long overdue. But the drive for ideological purity, within a religion, a political party, or a profession, is dangerous. It seeds its own destruction.
On July 7, 2020, an open letter was published in Harper’s Magazine, signed by an impressive list of writers.
Thomas Chatterton Williams, a columnist for Harper’s and contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, was the author. Among the 100+ signers were Salmon Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, and J.K. Rowling.
The letter begins by noting that “Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.”
Is anyone surprised that many progressive voices attacked the letter and its signers?
Free speech and the idea of “liberalism” — open debate in a framework of law that applies to everyone — have long been linked. But the pushback to the letter illustrated precisely the point it articulated: we see in the Left the same kind of ideological self-policing and punishment that ossified the Right.
In the short run, angry criticisms and attempts to silence internationally known authors present neither a threat to the republic, nor to literature. Atwood and Rowling won’t have trouble finding publishers for their next books.
Short-term versus long-term thinking
But what about the long run?
In the short run, race-baiting campaigning may win a contested election. But longer term, it is corrosive. It emboldens racist behavior and drives away a more thoughtful constituency.
Likewise, the so-called “cancel culture” (calling out speakers for their past statements or behavior, then seeking to deny them public platforms or their jobs) in the short run brings long overdue attention to voices that have been marginalized, and may now represent a new kind of majority. That looks like the beginning of deep cultural change.
Librarians and others have been saying for a long time that we need more diverse books. We still don’t have enough of them. Expanding our collections and conversations is a positive step, an acknowledgement of the fundamental value of all human experience.
Nevertheless, writers are right to extrapolate from current trends.
There is something profoundly self-contradictory about those who claim the high moral ground, but heap humiliation and personal attacks on anyone who doesn’t parrot the exact language of the talking points.
In the long run, a concern for social justice has to be more than an attempt to enforce linguistic compliance and mental conformity. Some kinds of language, like the call for law and order, like the insistence that there is only one way to think or talk about trans women, define acceptable positions in such a way that they actually encourage intolerance for dissent. Like the internal lockdowns of the Republican party in my old county, such stances will squash a more nuanced understanding of complex issues.
That’s fine as the new order attacks and seeks to displace the old. (See Mark Twain’s blistering critique of James Fenimore Cooper, although by then Twain was himself an established writer.) Swapping compassion for condemnation can be addictive. That adrenalin!
But how will the rising generation of progressives deal with its own apostasies?
Jamie LaRue is a former public library administrator, former director of the Freedom to Read Foundation and ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and a current consultant and speaker.