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20 September 2023. Books | Utopianism
The politics of banning books. // The utopian history of London.
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The current edition of Harper’s Bazaar has a special report on the current American fashion for banning books. As well as an introductory article which I’m going to draw on here, it includes a list of every book currently banned in America, by state, and some reflections by authors who have had a book banned.
The introductory article is by Kaitlin Greenidge, and it starts with the observation that in Iowa, a school district is deploying ChatGPT to advise it on which books it needs to ban.
Greenidge says that this sounds like something out of 1984, but for me it read like one of those futures warm-up exercises where you give people some trends cards and ask them to “clash them” to create a little futures vignette.
(Painting by (C) Jonathan Wolstenholme. More information here)
The story of why they’re doing this is interesting though, because of the conjunction of trends it does reveal: the school district is
forced to comply with a new law that requires books in school libraries to be “age appropriate” (the law does not define this term) and “devoid of description or visual descriptions of sex.”
But it is not well enough funded to afford the necessary work, and so has turned to ChatGPT to do the work for it.
The book banning wave in the US is well documented by now. But it doesn’t generally poll well, as NPR discovered. Even 50% of Republicans oppose book bans:
The drive to ban books comes mostly from select special-interest groups who are systematically targeting school-board elections and public-library boards to wield power.
Greenidge is willing to go big on what these apparently local campaigns signify. She argues that the transition from a second to a third century is where long term political projects like the United States either calcify and fail, or transform themselves and develop. She doesn’t offer data on this, which is a shame, but it might be that she’s been reading Peter Turchin’s Secular Cycles, which argues that political cycles run for 100-300 years, depending on the way elite replacement works. Anyway:
True knowledge and learning, true change, is impossible without encountering the unfamiliar, the things that trouble us. That’s what I think of when I hear the old, hoary arguments that asking white children to learn about Black history will make them ashamed, that asking children to read about gender and difference will leave them confused. Shame, confusion, hurt—these are all part of the human experience and, importantly, part of an education.
Just below this she includes a memorable quote from the great black American writer James Baldwin:
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.
She notes that book bans have surfaced from time to time in American history, and that the current wave of bans is being promoted by people who have a “deep and real” fear of change.
Greenidge locates the current books banning project as part of a wider assault on America’s public institutions—those places that represent shared public spaces:
(T)he current rush to ban books is part of a larger project to make the public institutions that have served as incubators for American innovation and imagination—our schools, our libraries, our recreational centers, our town meetings—into places that are either so toxic or contentious that most people will avoid them.
In the piece she connects this cultural attack on books and the institutions that house them with a political and economic attack:
There is a push to underfund public institutions to the point that they do not function, or privatize them so that only a select few can access them in any meaningful way. Those who ban books know that it’s in community... that resistance to authoritarianism and the nihilism of current political rhetoric lies.
The state-by-state list of banned books is interesting, and not just in a Fahrenheit 451 sort of a way, partly because it is important to document these moments of censorship. It was produced by PEN America.
Obviously the list from Florida goes on for ever, and a lot of them are about gender and identity, and some about racial identity and America’s racial history (The 1619 Project also appears). But it is still a surprise when Toni Morrison’s Beloved scrolls past, or Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, another classic, is also here.
It’s not coincidence that Florida is experiencing one of its worst teacher shortages—why would you want to teach in an environment like that if you can teach elsewhere?—although the official story seems to be about this being a post-pandemic problem.
Missouri has a long list, which includes Macbeth: The Graphic Novel, Magritte: The Human Condition, and Munch: The Scream, along with a lot more art books than I expected—Renoir, Rembrandt, Rubens, the list goes on—which is a reminder that these campaigns are also an attack on cultural knowledge.
South Carolina, also the home of another long list, isn’t fond of the civil rights movement. A book about the decisive Brown vs the Board of Education case is here, along with a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt that links her to the civil rights movement, a biography of Martin Luther King, and a history of D-Day (as in World War II D-Day). The politics here, in a former Confererate state, is visibly clear.
In one of the essays by authors who have had books banned, Edwidge Danticat, now living in Florida, makes a connection between the USA and Haiti, where she grew up. She argues that teachers and readers will eventually be jailed in Florida over the books they teach and read. She sees the book bannings as part of the wider Republican campaign against democracy in the United States:
Books that are banned are often ones that challenge the status quo, expose injustice and inequality, or try to build empathy and allyship... In Florida, censoring and banning books is part of a more comprehensive effort to disenfranchise Black, brown, and LGBTQ+people that includes gerrymandering, voter suppression, and a full-on assault on public education... This feels both deliberate and familiar.
2: The utopian history of London
I haven’t written about a podcast interview here recently, but I noticed that Niall Kishtainy was talking about his book The Infinite City in London this week. Unfortunately I couldn’t make his talk, but The Infinite Citypositions itself as an alternative history of London that looks at it as a place of ‘social dreaming’ and ‘social imagination’. The book’s subtitle is, “Utopian Dreams on the Streets of London”.
He talked about his book on Talk Radio Europe with Giles Brown.
Obviously the dominant narrative now of London is of its role as a financial centre, and its history over the past 200 years is often told as a version of its role for much of that time at the heart of Britain’s huge empire.
Kishtainy suggests that it was precisely because of that history that alternative narratives grew up around it. He mentions Robert Wedderburn, the son of a slave who came to London in the 18th century (a new name to me), who developed a critique of empire. Light Googling revealed that he ran a radical journal, Axe Laid to the Root, that campaigned against slavery and for land reform. And was lucky not to be hanged in the aftermath of the Cato Street conspiracy.
London also acted as an attractor. Thomas Spence, whose ideas on land influenced Wedderburn, had to leave his home town of Newcastle, but was able to open an influential radical bookshop ‘The Hive of Liberty’ on Little Turnstile, near Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Spence was the first person to deface ‘coins of the realm’ by printing political slogans on them. He also made his own coins to promote his utopian ideas.
(Radical coins. From the Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition, Defaced!. Image Andrew Curry, CC SA BY MC 4.0)
By the 20th century, some of these utopian ideas found political traction in local councils in London. In Bermondsey, then a poor working class community, Alfred and Ada Salter ran a council programme early in the 20th century that became known as the ‘Bermondsey Revolution’. They cleared slums, built council housing, and even created a small ‘garden city’ on the banks of the Thames, planting hundreds of trees in the borough.
These are just snapshots of a rich lineage that runs through the book, going back all the way to Thomas More, who lived in London and invented the word ‘utopia’ if not the concept. As as far as I can see from the reviews, the Digger Gerard Winstanley and William Morris get their due in the book as well, with many others.
Kishtainy sees these different threads as connected, at least at the level of the imagination. The histories here as available to us as sources of inspiration. And so Thomas Spence’s ideas about land reform re-emerge in the Garden City movement in the 20th century, which then becomes part of the Labour Government’s political programme after the Second World War.
But it also surfaces in different ways in the rhetoric of Reclaim The Streets and the anti-roads campaigns in London in the 1980s and the 1990s. Kishtainy also suggests that there are some moments when utopian ideas are a long way away from the political mainstream, and some when they come much closer.
There’s a moment in the interview when they talk about the 1980 British thriller The Long Good Friday as a cultural moment that marks the start of the rise of “neoliberal London”. Bob Hoskins, playing the gangster Harold Shand,
plans to buy up moribund London dockyards and redevelop them for the 1988 Olympics.
Kishtainy suggests that we’re at the end of that neoliberal cycle now, 40 years on, and that means that radical and utopian ideas are closer to the surface again.
Other writing: futures
I have an article at Business Fights Poverty—SOIF is a partner—on ‘The Decision Maker’s Toolkit’ that SOIF developed with California 100. The Toolkit helps people to use futures to improve strategic choice and action. An extract:
‘Challenge your assumptions’ is one of the five practices that [CA100 Executive Director Karthick] Ramakrishnan sees as being essential for good strategic foresight work. The others are: “Take time seriously”; “Become more skilled in sensing patterns”; “Be comfortable with complexity”; and “Get creative”. He distinguishes this from conventional forecasting work. The skill is about living with complex patterns of change until you are able to make sense of them:
“It is using judgement from all of the work that you’ve done to start sensing signals of what’s coming, to be able to differentiate something that’s a one-off from something with a pattern that you need to get prepared for.”
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