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.