For a while there, the GOP was trying very hard to rebrand as the pro–free speech party. After spending decades crying “immoral” entertainment in public media and justifying the rollback of civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism while wagging their fingers at Americans about what they could say, do, post, and enjoy, Republican politicians suddenly were up in arms about college campus protests, cancel culture, and tech censorship (though, strangely, only when it affected the particular speech they care about).
Yet with every passing month of the party’s renewed crusade against LGBTQ people, it seems clearer and clearer that the GOP is resetting to the censorious and often sex-obsessed morality police it was known as for most of the last century. As proof, look no further than what now seems a national campaign by ultraconservative state-level Republicans against the American Library Association (ALA) and its new president.
The opening salvo came two weeks ago, when appointees made to the Montana State Library Commission by Gov. Greg Gianforte — a homophobic tech billionaire who thinks retirement doesn’t make sense because the Bible says Noah was six hundred years old — voted to withdraw the state library from the ALA.
The ostensible reason was a tweet that its current president, City University of New York critical pedagogy librarian Emily Drabinski, sent after winning her election, proclaiming herself “a Marxist lesbian who believes that collective power is possible to build” (while also shouting out her proud mom). The commission claimed, “Our oath of office and resulting duty to the Constitution forbids association with an organization led by a Marxist,” even though neither make any mention of Marx, while the latter does explicitly mention that free speech can’t be curtailed by the government.
Two weeks later, a host of state-level Republican Freedom Caucuses — typically the party’s most militant, ultraconservative factions — have called on their state governments to do the same. As of the time of writing, the count has reached at least nine, ranging from deep red Southern states like South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, to the more purplish Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, and even true-blue Illinois. A lawmaker in Texas has also called for his state to follow suit.
Of course, just because a handful of lawmakers call on the state government to do something doesn’t mean it’s actually going to happen. But these mounting calls are part of an escalation of the GOP’s long-running assault on not just free speech and LGBTQ people, but libraries themselves, and are meant to send a signal that there will be political costs if liberal-leaning institutions like the ALA make common cause with the Left.
It will be tempting for some who believe in the ALA’s mission and institutions like it to take away from this episode that they should shut out and ostracize figures with radical politics like Drabinski, carrying out a kind of soft, preemptive McCarthyism meant as a defensive maneuver. After all, if it’s going to bring negative attention to or even undermine the work of an institution by fueling a right-wing overreaction like this, surely it’s better to just avoid any such controversy in the first place.
But this would be a mistake. As I pointed out, in the Montana State Library Commission vote, while Montanans in favor of pulling out of the ALA were nominally railing against “Marxism,” what they were really triggered by were run-of-the-mill liberal concepts of diversity, tolerance, and LGBTQ rights and visibility, with Drabinski and her tweet providing the thinnest of excuses to launch an assault on these principles. As long as the ALA continues to believe in and advocate for these things, it’s going to be a right-wing target no matter what the politics of its president.
This is undeniable when you read the various Freedom Caucus statements. While all of them denounce Marxism, they make no reference to anything typically associated with the philosophy, like democracy in the workplace, redistributing wealth and power to those without either, or treating health care or housing as basic human rights. Instead, they all conflate “Marxism” with having LGBTQ-friendly books in libraries, trans rights, and general “wokeness” — things they cynically misconstrue as promoting the “sexualization of children” and “assisting minors in accessing pornography.”
Warning that Drabinski would use her position to “advocate for her extreme ideology,” the Illinois Freedom Caucus charged that her presidency would lead the ALA to “become even more radicalized.” What would that mean? “We will see even more sexualized content readily available to small children and even more inappropriate programs at libraries,” its statement warns, comparing drag queens reading books to male strippers dancing.
“No decent American should tolerate the promotion of sexually explicit materials to children, yet that is just what the president-elect of the ALA, a self-proclaimed Marxist, has dedicated her career to promoting,” said the Mississippi Freedom Caucus.
“Her election raises issues regarding sexually explicit material reaching children,” said the Georgia chapter.
“No decent American should tolerate the promotion of sexually explicit materials to children — that is just what the president-elect of the ALA has dedicated her career to,” warned the Wyoming Freedom Caucus. That was the same chapter that, alongside putting forward a bill to take money out of public schools and put it into private ones, also wanted to prosecute librarians as child pornographers.
“With Drabinski comes a frightening agenda for our nation’s libraries and children — ‘queering the landscape of library publishing and scholarship,’’’ charged the Arizona Freedom Caucus as it quoted a former ALA councilmember’s description of Drabinski’s professional accomplishments, complaining that “sexually explicit materials and activities have increasingly targeted American children” in libraries. The South Carolina chapter likewise referenced her 2013 Library Quarterly article about “Queering the Catalog” as the first strike against her.
It’s an incident that calls to mind the Lavender Scare of the 1950s, a mass purging of homosexuals from the federal government that went hand in hand with the better-known Red Scare. Rather than give in to these kinds of bullying tactics, liberals should stand in solidarity with figures like Drabinski, particularly when the hard right is making it explicitly clear that it views the basic civil liberties of leftists as linked to LGBTQ rights more broadly and other liberal principles.
Commentator Danielle Gross took the right line in Pennsylvania, correctly pointing out that not only is it ironic that a group calling itself the “Freedom Caucus” is working so hard to attack basic freedoms, but that their campaign aims to “wipe out every mention of folks who are part of the LGBTQIA community” and must be stood up to.
Republican persecution against the Left will probably ramp up in the years to come, particularly the next time Republicans come to power. As in this case, it will more than likely serve as a Trojan Horse to assail liberals and what they hold dear. The attacks on Drabinski demand pushback now, from anyone who genuinely cares about values like freedom of speech and tolerance. If not, this will only be the start of something much broader and more menacing.