What does it mean to be “banned” in the year 2023?
Before the Civil War, southern states banned abolitionist literature. That ban meant that postmasters (illegally!) searched the mail, seized anti-slavery tracts, and burned them. And it meant that people caught with abolitionist pamphlets faced the likelihood of arrest. The District of Columbia considered a ban, then didn’t pass the thing, but Reben Crandall was still arrested and tried for seditious libel in 1833 when he was caught with abolitionist literature. He was acquitted, then died of illness from brutal pre-trial detention. Seizure, destruction, arrest: Abolitionist literature was banned.
The Soviet writer Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote a 1924 novel, We, depicting a world in which an all-powerful government minutely controlled every aspect of life for an enervated population, finding as an endpoint for their ideological project a surgery that destroyed the centers of the brain that allowed ordinary people to have will and imagination. The Soviet government banned Zamyatin’s work: They seized and destroyed all known copies, told editors and publishers the author was no longer allowed to publish, and sent Zamyatin into exile, where he died without ever seeing his own country again. Seizure, destruction, exile: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s work was banned.
During World War I, the federal government banned literature that discouraged military service, including tracts that criticized conscription. Subsequently, “socialists Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer distributed leaflets declaring that the draft violated the 13th Amendment prohibition against involuntary servitude.” They were arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction. Anti-conscription literature was banned: It was seized and destroyed, and people caught distributing it were sent to prison.
In 2023, the tedious midwit poet Amanda Gorman posted on Twitter that she was “gutted” — the standard emotion for tedious midwits — to discover that one of her poems had been “banned” by a school in Florida. The media raced to proclaim that Florida schools are banning books, the leading edge of the Ron DeSantis fascist wave.
As others have already said, Gorman’s boring poem was moved from an elementary school library shelf to a middle school library shelf, without leaving the library:
Staff members on the school’s materials review committee ultimately decided four of the five books would be “more appropriate” for middle school-aged children and thus moved the books to the middle-school section of the library. A fifth book that also underwent review, Countries in the News: Cuba, was found to be “balanced and age appropriate” and was kept in place.
Minutes from a meeting of the review committee show the panel found the vocabulary used in Gorman’s poem was “determined to be of value for middle school students.”
A spokesperson for Miami-Dade County Public Schools told CNN that “no literature (books or poem) has been banned or removed.”
“It was determined at the school that ‘The Hill We Climb’ is better suited for middle school students and, it was shelved in the middle school section of the media center. The book remains available in the media center.”
When the media use a trigger word, a loaded term that evokes Nazis on the march or innocents being slaughtered in the street — Daniel Penny is a vigilante! — look for the historical understanding of the term. We’re living through a Soviet-level redefinition of language.
Ask what the word you’re seeing, like “banned,” was known to mean 10 years ago, or 50, and compare it to the way it’s being used now. One day soon we’ll talk about the curious evolution behind “trans rights,” but later. Words have had meaning. They can again.
This article was originally published at the author’s Substack, “Tell Me How This Ends.”