Gov. Ron DeSantis is fond of boasting “Florida is where woke goes to die.” Blinded by presidential ambitions, he is working to bury woke awareness of social and racial justice by waging culture wars and stoking racist, homophobic, misogynist, antisemitic and anti-scientific biases.
Some critics say DeSantis is simply acting as a better educated but less colorful Donald Trump. Others look past the governor parroting Trumpist demonizing of the “legacy media” and recognize how closely DeSantis is following the playbook of Hungary’s Victor Orban, right down to the authoritarian prime minister’s takeover of the nation’s educational system and his targeting of liberal philanthropist George Soros.
It’s easy to track many parallels between DeSantis and both Trump and Orban. But at the same time one can see that Gov. DeSantis has been successful at bringing back the ghost of Anthony Comstock and his campaign of overzealous moralizing.
Florida’s book bans recall to me the post-Civil War days when Anthony Comstock and his supporters, all members of the Committee for the Suppression of Vice, persuaded Congress to pass the Comstock Act of 1873. At Comstock’s urging, Congress made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd or lascivious, immoral or indecent publications through the mail” or to sell, give away or process an obscene book, pamphlet, picture, drawing, or advertisement. The Comstock Act also strengthened punishments and widened definitions of obscenity adding abortion and contraception to the list.
After passage of the law, Comstock received a commission as a special agent of the U. S. Post Office, granting him authority to enforce the law and arrest violators. Comstock conducted raids on publishers, harassed art gallery owners who put nude paintings on display, and suppressed the mailing of thousands of books. Before he died in 1915, Comstock netted 4,000 convictions and destroyed 15 tons of books and 4 million pictures and paintings. He barred anatomy books from being sent by mail as well as works by James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Theodore Dresser, Tolstoy, and Balzac.
When Comstock notified the New York police that George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” was obscene, the playwright struck back, terming the campaign “comstockery” and “a standing joke at the expense of the United States.” Comstock’s lengthy campaign inspired states to adopt their own moralistic laws, often outdoing the original congressional ordinance.
Doing his part to revive comstockery, Ron DeSantis has signed a series of statutes passed by the GOP-dominated Florida legislature that he essentially controls. The Florida laws allow parents and members of the public to select books they would like school districts to remove. All that’s needed to challenge a book is for just one parent to say it made their child uncomfortable.
Books no longer can be used or even made available in schools until they’ve been approved by a school media specialist. Florida’s vaguely-worded laws have inspired such uncertainty and chaos that teachers — faced with possible third-degree felony charges — have simply removed books, leaving shelves bare. It’s a frightening time to be a teacher in Florida. Not surprisingly many teachers have left the state, leaving some 5,000 vacancies and some classes without a full-time teacher.
One recent outrage was in St. Petersburg where, in response to a lone parent’s complaint, a school stopped showing a 1998 Disney movie about Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old Black girl who endured the trauma of integrating a New Orleans school in 1960. The parent contended the film would teach children that white people hate Black people. Also last month, a Tallahasee principal was ousted after the school’s children were shown Michelangelo’s nude statue of David without advanced warning. That led three parents to charge that the Renaissance masterpiece is obscene. One called it “pornographic.”
Although not yet a declared candidate, DeSantis is keenly focused on his campaign to win the GOP presidential nomination. On book tours to promote his political memoir, The Courage To Be Free — allegedly a 282-page bore — he can now brag that Florida is number two in the nation. The Sunshine State is bested in banning books only by Texas.
Thank you, Ms. Godden. Scary stuff. I remember that you were a friend of my very close pal, Charles Ehlert. I miss him.
How Comstock got himself appointed as America’s Vice Squad leader is a sort of Horatio Alger story, wherein an ambitious nobody becomes a pernicious somebody as the government’s morality enforcer.
Though there is much to criticize about Gov. De Santis and the law he has championed, there is more to the story of the Florida parent’s objection to showing “Ruby Bridges”, which depicted racially-motivated violence and racist epithets. She thought the treatment of such powerfully emotive subject matter was too advanced for her daughter’s (and other 4th graders’) comprehension, and that the movie would be more suited to older grade levels. Reportedly, she was upset that the school decided not to show the film at all rather than risk getting in trouble with DeSantis’ “thought police.”
Thanks to you, Michael Fox, for the mention of your pal Charles Ehlert, remembered and much missed.
DeSantis and his comstockery ilk demonstrate the power of words. From Nazi book burning to the spreading plague of book banning, we see again and again how words are so feared. It makes you wonder how far DeSantis and others will go to block free speech. When the founding fathers (probably spurred on by women) of this nation encoded free speech and a free press in the First Amendment, could they have envisioned what’s happening today in Florida and across the nation?
Growing up in our little rural school in Snohomish, dedicated teachers & librarians urged us to reach up….to get books a little beyond our understanding. Tellingly, the Fla. book censors are not asking kids, even high schoolers and middle schoolers, to voice their opinions. If asked, very few kids would disapprove of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” or “The Diary of Anne Frank” both beloved by young readers, and both banned (though, I am not sure if Anne Frank’s diary is banned in Fla. Other states have removed it because of its “depressing” nature and because of poor, doomed Anne’s ruminations about her budding body).
Ron De Santis knows the power of words, all right — he frequently invokes woke-ness as a reason for his war on reading. But he clams up on one subject: his refusing to sign up Florida for Medicaid expansion, available under the Affordable Care Act. His actions, or rather, inactions speak loudly, though — according to Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families, Florida could end up with 1,700,000 uninsured. It’s very hard to be uninsured in Florida, especially for children and women, and especially for those in rural areas. Some clinics and hospitals will have a tough time just staying open.