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BANNED!

BANNED!

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Has writing become a treasonous act? Seriously? Banned books? Censored journalists?

We are fast aproaching Orwell and 1984. PEN America publishes a reading list to note Banned Books Week and to protect the freedom to learn. On it, for example, is an alert that months after the Leander Independent School District in Texas — Texas again! — made headlines for banning a slate of books and graphic novels from its secondary school curriculum, the Austin-area district released decisions on an additional set of titles in August: 13 books, most of them prize winners, that are to be removed from schools, with an additional six titles suspended until further notice. But the kicker comes from Southlake, Texas, where one Gina Petty, a school district administrator, was secretly recorded telling a teacher that a book on the Holocaust would be inadmissible unless “opposing views” were also presented. Equal time for the Nazis. The teachers expressed concern, but spokeswoman Karen Fitzgerald said the district is trying to help teachers “comply” with an updated version of the new state law that will go into effect in December.

That is Texas Senate Bill 3, the bill that also outlaws the teaching of such texts as the writings of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the Indian Removal Act, writings related to accomplishments by marginalized populations: Abigail Adams’ letter “Remember the Ladies,” the Chicano Movement, The Women’s Suffrage Movement, The Women’s Rights Movement, the works of Susan B. Anthony, the Civil Rights Movement, the American labor movement, writings by Martin Luther King, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, The Emancipation Proclamation, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Federal Voting Rights Act, and other such incendiary documents. Type in: https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/871/billtext/pdf/SB000031.pdf –and read it for yourself. It won’t allow me to copy the link into this text.

Across the United States, similar book bans and censorious threats have taken hold in schools, academia, and the public square, with books that focus on the history of racism targeted most frequently. There’s a full-scale attack on critical race theory for daring to examine the truth about institutionalized racism in this country, with The 1619 Project, exhaustively researched, pioneered, and organized by Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times, coming under special fire. Books on lesbian and gay themes and about violence against women also draw fire; many are authored by women and by people of color; they discuss racial bigotry, immigration, same-sex love relationships, mental health, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

Here’s a sampling from the banned list: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, the story of a first-year high school student and social outcast who must face having been raped by an upperclassman. The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez, the tale of a romance between two teenagers, immigrants from, respectively, Mexico and Panama. Brave Face: A Memoir, by Sean David Hutchinson, the story of growing up as a gay teenager struggling with depression and self-harm. American Street, by Ibi Zoboi, about a US-born Haitian teen who moves back to the U.S. with her non-citizen mother. Red at The Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson, a narrative about generations of a Black family in Brooklyn. And the world famous graphic novel portraying dystopian England under a fascist police state – with the human spirit’s potential to withstand it: V for Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd. These books and more all made it to Leander’s banned list. Fortunately, PEN America, one of the groups fighting such cases in the courts, recently celebrated overturning a ban targeting Black authors in York, Pennsylvania. But assaults on the freedom to read, learn, and write, are all on the rise.

The decision of The Nobel Committee to award Maria Ressa and Dimitri Muratov the The Nobel Prize this year was specifically to call attention to the dangers posed to democracies by disinformation and other false narratives presented as facts on social media and elsewhere.

Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, journalists have been imprisoned, poisoned, and assassinated (58 in the last year), and many independent news outlets have been closed or taken over by Kremlin oligarchs. Since its founding, six journalists from Novaya Gazeta, Muratov’s newspaper, have been killed, including Anna Politkovskaya, who had reported on human rights abuses in Chechnya and was shot dead outside her apartment.

In the Philippines, Maria Ressa and her news organization, Rappler, have repeatedly been targeted, banned, attacked, and trashed in campaigns of online harassment plus criminal charges politically motivated under the direct orders of President Rodrigo Duterte. Ressa was found guilty of cyber libel in June 2020, and has spent years in Philippine courts, defending herself and her organization against multiple charges: 10 arrest warrants were issued for her in less than two years, and she’s currently fighting nine separate cases. She has also emerged as a strong opponent of violence against female journalists, with Rappler doing pioneering reporting on cyber harassment, online trolls, and disinformation campaigns. In the Philippines, 87 journalists have been killed since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Ressa, 58, tiny, with an elfin grin and an unstoppable will, noted that she had spoken about Facebook’s algorithms becoming weaponized back in 2018 on “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan,” adding that they have worsened: “When we live in a world where facts are debatable, where the world’s largest distributor of news prioritizes the spread of lies laced with anger and hate and spreads it faster and further than facts, then journalism becomes activism,” Ressa said, and she described the Nobel “as a recognition of the difficulties, but also hopefully of how we’re going to win the battle for truth, the battle for facts: we hold the line.” At the height of online harassment against her, the work of paid troll farms, Ressa recorded 90 hate messages an hour sent to her on social media. Duterte who, has recently announced that he will not run for office again, claims he does not oppose the Free Press and has called Ressa “a fraud.”

The “fraud” has been a journalist for more than 30 years, serving as CNN’s lead investigative reporter on terrorism in Southeast Asia. In 2005, she took the helm of ABS-CBN news and current affairs, and for six years managed more than 1000 journalists for the largest multi-platform news operation in the Philippines. She taught courses in politics and media for her alma mater, Princeton, and the University of the Philippines, has authored a number of books, and has won multiple awards, including the 2018 Golden Pen Freedom Award and the 2018 Knight International Journalism Award. Now she can add to that The Nobel Prize.

PEN, the international organization (and PEN America) recently surveyed 230 writers and journalists targeted by online harassment: two thirds reported severe reactions to being trolled, including refraining from publishing their work, deleting social media accounts, and fears for personal safety. More than a third reported avoiding certain topics in their writing. Writers were targeted for their viewpoints, but also based on their race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation/choice. PEN America has assembled an online harassment field manual. During 2020, at least 273 writers, academics, and public intellectuals in 35 countries were in prison or unjustly held in detention in connection with their writing, their work, or their activism. This represents a sizable increase from the 238 individuals counted in the 2019 Freedom to Write Index. Eighteen journalists have been killed so far in 2021.

Every time Donald Trump still bloviates about the press being the enemy of the people, or about how Blacks Lives Matter is a terrorist organization, speech in all its forms loses another inch of freedom. The once serious Republican party has become a cult that mimics his Big Lie. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg stares blankly out at us, neither knowing nor caring that, for instance, atrocities committed due to Facebook’s misreporting against Rohingya Muslim peasants in Myanmar is now being repeated in Ethiopia, where people are being hacked to death. The other oligarchs of Big Tech who watch and mine us for information shrug and change the subject: Oh look, now we’re going into space!

But we can for the moment celebrate Maria Ressa’s Nobel Prize. And winning some ground in York, Pennsylvania. We can keep fighting. And we can develop a new habit. Please join me in noticing. Notice the name on the byline, or on the spine of the book. Notice. And offer a nod of respect.

In Maria Ressa’s words, “They hold the line.”

This blog will be off next week.

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