APPLYING FASCIST POLICY WITHOUT STRAPPING ON THE JACK-BOOTS
I say that you cannot administer a wicked law impartially. You can only destroy, you can only punish. And I warn you, that a wicked law, like cholera, destroys everyone it touches. Its upholders as well as its defiers.Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edward Lee
Note: This Post Was Originally Published at the Mad Sociologist Blog
In 1963, philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term “Banality of Evil.” It’s been a source of debate ever since. Her thesis was that the kind of evil perpetrated by national regimes, in her case the Nazi Party of Germany, often relied on innocuous bureaucrats like Adolf Eichmann to institute and do the actual work of evil in the normal course of their jobs. For Arendt, the ordinariness of Eichmann despite the evil role he played in genocide was evidence of a different kind of evil. An evil that resides in individuals who, without moral reflection, enact evil policy despite lacking evil intent. Modern society values the worker who wants only to do his job competently, follow the rules, and go about his life. For Eichmann, that accepted moral virtue involved executing Hitler’s Final Solution to exterminate Jews.
One can argue the nuances of this particular case. Just how “ordinary” and “non-reflexive” was Eichmann? Arendt’s point remains apt. For evil to persist at the societal level, it must do so with the consent of those actually doing the work of evil. Maybe some such people are true believers, actively willing to perpetuate the evil of the state. Many others, however, are just people who want to do their jobs and live their lives without conflict.
When authoritarians seize the vehicles of the state, as they have in the Free State of Florida, they exercise that power by passing authoritarian laws. Every law, however, must be instituted through policy at the local level. This is where the real evil takes place. This is where authoritarianism is imposed. It’s fair to say that not everyone involved in instituted authoritarian policy is, themselves, an authoritarian. More often than not, they are simply petty bureaucrats doing their jobs, trying to impartially administer the law to the best of their ability.
Of course, laws are never impartially administered. If a law is oppressive, or wicked, then the administration will be likewise oppressive or wicked.
Here in my local school district we are witnessing Arendt’s Banality of Evil in action. The authoritarian Republican Party controlling the state government has instituted book bans at the school level. It is now up to individual districts to figure out how to administer these bans. The media is currently awash with reports of book banning throughout the state, with some school districts taking more radical steps than others.
My county has just released its policy, introduced to the public via YouTube.
Here we see the banality of book banning (whether or not you want to define this as evil). According to the video, this is really no big deal. You just have to scan the books from your classroom library into a database and then download the information from that database into an Excel Sheet, then download that data to a centralized folder where the titles can be reviewed by a trained media specialist.
In the video, Dr. Bernier states, “we are not asking you to remove any books…” That’s the public facing policy on YouTube. It’s not a lie. At this point, the district is not asking teachers to remove any books from their classroom libraries. However, the non-public facing information can be found in the directions teachers received in the same email in which this video was shared. Books are being reviewed for a reason. Books that are not approved must be removed. In this case, the books must be approved by August 10th or they must be removed.
When I inquired on the discrepancy between what Dr. Bernier said in the video and directions given in the email, I was informed that the district wants teachers to go through the process rather than just saying “screw it” and eliminating their classroom libraries.
For many years the district was dedicated to creating “reading rich” environments in the classroom and encouraged classroom libraries that included books set aside just for pleasure reading and student interest regardless of the course content. The district, quite rightly, wants to preserve these reading rich environments just, to quote my administrator, “….within the legal parameters.” In other words, we must impartially administer this wicked law.
I tried to explain to my administrator the weight of the moral compromises teachers are being asked to make in participating in a process that will result in banned books. Once these datasets are downloaded, they become public record in our state. Parents are empowered to sue teachers if they suspect indoctrination. It’s understandable that teachers might say, “to hell with it” and just empty their libraries. This was a subject of an earlier blog post.
My administrator did not understand. The issue was framed in terms of protecting teachers. If a book is vetted, then a parent cannot complain about the book being in the class library. This, however, is not true. A parent can complain and have any book reviewed and removed regardless of whether it’s been vetted. And our district will defer to the “parents’ rights.” My administrator also stated that if a teacher thinks a book might be “inappropriate” then it shouldn’t be made available to students anyway.
See. This is all about protecting teachers. Big brother will protect you…even from yourself.
It’s a ridiculous proposition. It’s not like teachers are debating whether it is appropriate or not to keep Fifty Shades of Grey on their shelves. This is about teachers wondering if their jobs are on the line if a parent complains about A People’s History or The 1619 Project. Books are not subject to being banned because of content inappropriate to the student’s age. They are subject to removal based on perspectives of race and gender that do not align with the authoritarian ideology.
This policy bans books in multiple ways.
The first is manifest in the policy itself. Someone, we know not who, can decide that I must remove a particular book from my classroom. As it stands, there is no appeal process by which the decision to remove a book can be challenged. At least nobody seems to know if there is such a process.
Then there are the latent consequences of the policy. In this case, teachers will self-censor. Many will just eliminate books from their classrooms entirely because it is not worth the effort to scan and submit every book. I have over seven hundred books in my library. It has taken me about ten hours to scan each title. That’s a daunting increase in a teacher’s workload…especially at the end of the year.
Teachers may also self-center based on the level of surveillance now instituted. Realistically, I could have The 1619 Project on my shelf with nobody at the administrative or district level knowing or caring unless a parent complained. And parents would likely not complain because they almost certainly wouldn’t know unless their child told them. Not likely. Now, I have to submit all of my books to scrutiny. I might be inclined to mitigate the risk by removing the potentially offensive book.
Furthermore, I know that having Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead or any of Dinesh D’Souza’s blather on my shelf will not be a problem. Consequently, the only critical analysis offered students will be from the approved ideology.
That’s called indoctrination.
A further claim offered by the authoritarians is that this policy does not constitute a “book ban” because students can always get any of these books from the public library or from the books store. This is a weak claim. For many students, classroom libraries are the only access that students have to books, especially when it comes to critical points of view. Students will not seek out books from libraries or bookstores or Amazon.com that they do not know exist. It’s in the classroom that students often get their first access to critical knowledge.
As it stands, many of my peers are taking the path of least resistance. They have mortgages and car payments. They have children going to college. They can’t afford to sacrifice their jobs for a cause. So, they are taking their books home. History teachers are are stripping their classroom libraries of anything that might smack of Critical Race Theory or Diversity and Inclusion. Literature teachers are expunging anything that smacks of Gender, Racial, or Ethnic Diversity. Art teachers are getting rid of anything that might be interpreted as sexually explicit.
As I explained to my administrator, teachers are now in a position in which they must make moral decisions based on their conscience as well as their circumstances. Obviously, some of us feel more dedicated to resisting wicked policy than others. Some teachers may wholeheartedly agree with the policy. Most, however, must make their way through this moral quagmire in the best way they can for themselves and their own children. These are not easy decisions.
What is being imposed is an environment of fear. Fear is the driving force of authoritarianism and fascism. Perpetuating fear is in many ways a banal act of people just doing their jobs by impartially administering the law.