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It’s Not About Intelligence

The Midway Plaisance at the University of Chicago. Deep, deep thoughts are thunk in those fake copies of Oxford buildings. Somebody in them might even know what a “Plaisance” is.

The seething worldwide emergency of twenty-first century fascism isn’t about “stupidity.” Yes, masses of adherents aren’t too smart and/or well educated. But some are. So if you make “Trumptard” jokes, you do so at your own peril.

Here is a personal example. I am in touch via Facebook with a woman I knew very well when I was in college at the University of Chicago, an “elite” university. This institution’s trademark is the “Common Core Curriculum” for undergraduates, a classic liberal arts education heavy on the ancient Greeks and subsequent certified Great Works of Literature, authored by what we referred to even in those Cro-Magnon days, tongue somewhat in cheek, as DWEMs (Dead White European Males). Faculty member and closeted gay man Allan Bloom had just published The Closing of the American Mind, which high-culture conservatives seized on for the culture wars, even though it was never clear that poor Professor Bloom, who went on to die of AIDS, was really onboard.

The university sure was, though. By gum, we undergrads, who trended heavily liberal, were going to learn Great DWEM Thought, whatever those “party schools” were teaching. And I will say, they were right to insist on Plato and Shakespeare and all the rest, but they really could have opened up “the canon” to, I don’t know, Virginia Woolf and W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin, for starters. It might also have helped if I’d encountered a single African American professor during my four years on the frigid Lake Michigan shore. The bitter wind that whistled down the Midway a century after the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 cleared out was not hospitable to anybody’s attempt at suppressing freedom of thought, even as George Bush the Elder was elected on a frivolous promise to ban flag burning.

Enter my woman friend, one of the most brilliant people I have ever known, who stood out as an intellectual powerhouse even in that rarified atmosphere. We had intense intellectual and emotional discussions during our time together, almost two years. Then we went our separate ways. She attained a doctorate in economics from another elite university. Already quite religious as an undergraduate, she eventually married a clergyman and settled in his home country.

She frequently makes provocative posts on the politics of the country where she lives, and U.S. politics, claiming to stake out a middle-of-the-road position. At one point in 2020, she suggested to me that I should vote for Democrats for Congress, but also for Trump to check what she regards as out-of-control leftism.

Now she claims to have made her own examination of some of the books banned from Florida school libraries and to be horrified that children might be exposed to such “outright pornography.” And so I found myself defending freedom of speech and the press and thought, to a fellow graduate of the University of Chicago’s Common Core Curriculum, and again, one of the most brilliant people I have ever met.

Here is what I told her, in bold italics and lightly edited.

American librarians are losing their jobs and facing death threats because of this hue and cry about books that you and some other people don’t approve of allegedly being available to children. Public libraries are targets, not just school libraries. Anyone who disagrees with your take on it is labeled a pedophile (“groomer”). Please think again about contributing to this hysteria.

I would much rather that kids be exposed to ideas and images that my old friend, Ron DeSantis, and all the QAnons think are harmful than start pulling books off library shelves. Nor do I want a bunch of bien-pensant progressives censoring books either. You open the door to one, you open the door to the other, and before you know it, freedom of thought is a dead letter.

My old friend accused me of not reading what she had written, but I had: she claimed the problem of censorship in the United States is mainly the fault of “the left.” I responded that yes, there is left-wing censorship, primarily in academia (and, I should have added, in publishing), but if you want to talk about who is creating “a massive climate of fear,” it’s the Trump people. They’re not just costing people their jobs, they are deluging people who oppose Trumpism with death threats and harassment. To claim that what dopey so-called progressives are doing is equivalent is incorrect.

I myself received a Nazi death threat, which also included my wife, on my home phone for standing up for Holocaust education on (pre-Musk!) Twitter.

I tried to explain to my old friend that the “parental concerns” she was citing are induced by Trumpist propaganda spread by right-wing billionaire funded groups like “Moms for Liberty.” This leads to people who don’t even live in the area showing up at school board meetings hollering that school librarians are maliciously buying books to turn kids gay and threatening all and sundry, while armed fascist paramilitaries like the Proud Boys stand in the back menacing everybody.

I met an Orthodox Jewish mother at a recent comic convention who was there with her kids (which my old friend would surely disapprove of), who worriedly told me that her local school board, just one or two counties over from where I live in Maryland, is now dominated by QAnons spouting all this same stuff. But she and I are not real parents with real concerns, apparently. Only people who want to ban books deserve that title.

And an hour south of where I live near Fredericksburg, Virginia, where my kids used to live with my ex, school board members have proposed BURNING the sort of books my friend is denouncing as “outright pornography,” along no doubt with The Handmaid’s Tale, which my old friend claims to value.

You know what Heinrich Heine said about book burning and people burning. Guess he was a “groomer” too.

As my experience demonstrates, Trumpism, or whatever the right name for this insanity is, is a spiritual virus infecting people’s minds. No amount of intelligence or learning is necessarily a defense.


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