Three weeks ago, state senators Jake Chapman and Brad Zaun crashed a standing-room-only school board committee meeting in Johnston, where they issued an alarming threat to teachers who dare run afoul of the Iowa GOP’s whitewashed standards of educational decency: Felony pornography charges may soon follow.
The meeting was reportedly convened in response to a single complaint, which came from a couple who joined the chorus of conservative killjoys across the country objecting to two critically acclaimed, too-woke teen novels: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give.
“I can tell you, if this material was in my school, I’d be going to law enforcement,” a gesticulating Chapman raved, without explaining what, exactly, it was he found so objectionable. “I would be asking for a criminal investigation, and I would be asking for every single teacher who disseminated that information to be held criminally responsible.
“And if we need to, as the state of Iowa,” Chapman continued, tapping his fingers against his chest, “provide deeper clarity when it comes to that and enhance those penalties, I. Will. Do that. I will do everything I can within my power, within the responsibility I have as the president of the Senate, to protect our children.”
“My warning to all the teachers and the administrators is you’re going to be in jail, because this is distributing pornography.”
To support his position, Chapman posted a run-on sentence to Facebook citing a section of the Iowa Code that repeatedly contradicts his position. He added a photo of a group of teachers at the meeting, whom he smeared by suggesting they were present to defend those who wished to distribute porn to kids.
“Our schools should be one of the safest environments, it’s for that reason I have legislation being drafted to create a new felony offense under Iowa Code 728,” he wrote. “There will also be additional mechanisms to force prosecutions or allow civil remedies. #ReadyForSessionToBegin #ProtectOurKids #ItsACrime.”
Section 728 currently just makes it a misdemeanor to disseminate “any material depicting or describing the genitals, sex acts, masturbation, excretory functions or sadomasochistic abuse which the average person, taking the material as a whole and applying contemporary community standards with respect to what is suitable material for minors, would find appeals to the prurient interest and is patently offensive” — but only if “the material, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, scientific, political or artistic value.” It also explicitly exempts “the use of appropriate material for educational purposes in any accredited school, or any public library, or in any educational program in which the minor is participating.”
Even if Republicans were to completely gut Section 728’s allowances, it’s hard to see how it would make any difference in the end. The descriptions and exceptions regarding obscene material are the same long-accepted free-speech standards from Miller v. California, a 1973 US Supreme Court case. Nine years later, in Island Trees School District v. Pico, a split decision from the high court established lasting precedent that the First Amendment also limits the ability of school districts to remove books from their libraries.
More to the point, neither of the novels at issue that evening even contains any pornographic content — images or writing created for the express purpose of sexual arousal. There are some sexual themes in The Hate U Give, like implied intercourse between adults, a character who’s a sex worker, and teenagers discussing sex and condom use. A PG-13-rated film adaptation is even tamer.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has some sexual innuendos, and a brief passage in the 230-page book in which its semi-autobiographical protagonist — a 14-year-old boy — journals boastfully of his masturbatory prowess in a way that’s easy to imagine of someone his age. (“I spend hours in the bathroom with a magazine that has one thousand pictures of naked movie stars: Naked woman + right hand = happy happy joy joy,” it reads in part, adding a few strokes later, “And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs.”)
These obvious facts didn’t stop Brad Zaun, at an initial Johnston school board committee meeting on the subject a week earlier, from vowing to push Chapman’s felony proposal through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. According to an article headlined “SICK TO HIS STOMACH” on The Iowa Standard, a far-right news site that’s long been amplifying hysterical misinformation about the public education culture wars, Zaun even claimed he’d read both of the books. Still, he fulminated: “My warning to all the teachers and the administrators is you’re going to be in jail, because this is distributing pornography. And I will work my tail end off and it will become law.”
The way that humorless parents and Republican lawmakers have been foaming at the mouth about it lately, you’d think George Soros suddenly conjured the ghost of Larry Flynt back to Earth to deliver unto their children a bundle of smut hot off the press of Hell. But they’re years late to the game. There’s a reason for that: Jumping on the bandwagon of a ginned-up controversy over cherry-picked book excerpts is a convenient way now for them to pursue their actual policy aims of suppressing progressive reforms and undermining the public education system.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was first published in September 2007 and recently named the most banned and challenged book of the past decade by the American Library Association. (For the top spot, it edged out the popular children’s series Captain Underpants, which spawned a faithful movie adaptation rated PG for its “mild rude humor throughout.”) It’s still legal for anyone to purchase at their local bookstore, despite Chapman’s ludicrous contention that he received assurances from Dallas County Sheriff Chad Leonard that “if I gave that to a kid across the street, I guarantee you law enforcement would be knocking at my door talking to me about obscene material.”
The Hate U Give was published in early 2017 and became one of the most challenged books of that and the following year, according to the ALA. At the time it came out, Iowa Republicans were preoccupied with other signature legislation like massive tax cuts, a defiantly unconstitutional bill to ban abortion, and a cynical show of bullying supposed “sanctuary cities” into narcing on undocumented immigrants.
But this year, with the exploitable target of the Black Lives Matter movement in clear view, the Iowa GOP shifted gears to the moral panic over critical race theory by enacting a law to prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts” like the notion that Iowans may have implicit racial biases — a real thing that’s worth learning about because it has a clear harmful impact on the lives of the state’s non-white residents.
“President Trump did far more for minority populations than any other president.”
All you’ve got to do is ask them to find out how. But encouraging students to do so would risk betraying the mind-numbing conservative fantasy about a reductively dichotomous world in which there are no hard truths about the nature of human existence — certainly none worth thinking critically about, or exploring through the catharsis of artistic expression.
It’s irrelevant that none of the arguments made by Chapman or Zaun hold up to the slightest amount of scrutiny, and that the committee in Johnston ultimately chose not to ban either book, and that these books are rarely if ever assigned as required reading in classrooms. Their arguments are only academic in the most superficial and literal senses of the word and — as a parent pointed out at a similar meeting in Urbandale — could just as easily be applied to the Bible, a book that’s inextricable from the moralizing public personas of Republicans like them who govern with their fingers ever on the pulse of the most opportunistic culture-war contrivance.
What really matters is that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was written by a Native American man and The Hate U Give by a Black woman. The former tackles heavy themes involving racial discrimination and the difficulties of life on a reservation. Its heartfelt portrayal won it the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, among numerous other accolades.
The latter — also widely praised — was written in response to the police shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California. Its protagonist is a 16-year-old Black girl grappling with the racial and class struggles of attending a predominantly white high school who witnesses a cop kill her childhood friend. Iowa Republicans are targeting the book for the same reason they passed laws this year to ramp up criminal penalties against racial justice protesters, give a legal out for motorists who mow them over, and excuse even more police abuses.
It’s like Chapman told Fox News around the time the divisive concepts bill was signed in June, “We have segments of our educational institutions who are indoctrinating students” — and thus undermining the progress made by Donald J. Trump toward forging a more perfect union. “‘Make America Great Again’ is a belief that all Americans and Iowans can fulfill the American dream,” the starstruck state senator said, and “President Trump did far more for minority populations than any other president.” These, he added of the man who paved his way to political success by stoking conspiracy theories about Barack Obama being a foreign-born Muslim, were “indisputable facts.”
What also doesn’t matter to Chapman and Zaun is that when they ranted about pornography in the Johnston school district, they were conflating the content of the two books under scrutiny with that of entirely different ones they’ve spoken out about elsewhere — and just as vaguely and dishonestly.
The day after Chapman attended the second Johnston school board committee meeting in November, he posted a link on Facebook to an Iowa Standard article replete with unchallenged falsehoods from two Ankeny mothers calling for the removal of “pornographic” material from the school library. “Yet another example!” he screeched. “These books are being pushed to our children, it is inexcusable and indefensible!”
The mothers were Emily Peterson and Kimberly Reicks, the so-called “Mama Bears” who rose to bizarre prominence after confronting the school district with lies about the supposed trauma its pandemic mask mandate caused their children. Ever since, they have been traveling throughout the country to QAnon conspiracy conferences with the blessing of Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to bluster about how they chose “freedom over fear.”
But at the school board meeting, both moms acted pretty worried about two LGBTQ-themed coming-of-age memoirs from which they read out-of-context passages to argue the award-winning books would pervert the minds of children who attend school every day carrying smartphones capable of accessing virtually anything on the internet.
Her voice quivering, Peterson read an excerpt from All Boys Aren’t Blue in which the author, George M. Johnson, recounts losing their virginity during a consensual encounter in college with another adult. “What I’ve just read to you is grooming material and sexualizing our kids,” she claimed. “It’s normalizing pedophilia and it needs to stop.”
Reicks showed the board illustrations from Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer including one shown in this article depicting the author, consensually with another adult, experimenting with receiving simulated oral sex with a strap-on. “I think you guys need to look hard at what is in our schools and what is being distributed to our kids because this is child pornography,” she alleged, adding that it had “triggered” her own memories of suffering abuse as a child. She also falsely claimed that the district prohibits students from bringing Bibles to school.
Responding to a critical comment on his post, Chapman revealed the inevitable next step of shifting blame from teachers to his political foes. “Hopefully we will get a vote here real soon to see which Senate Democrats support kids having access to pornographic books containing pedophilia, incest, and other obscene material!” he wrote. “#VotersDeserveToKnow.”
At a “state legislative leadership breakfast” hosted Wednesday by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a Chamber of Commerce-styled business organization, Zaun immediately used his turn during a panel discussion to launch into a rant that echoed several of the QAnon moms’ and Chapman’s lies.
“There’s so much misinformation out there,” he said, without a hint of irony. “It was brought to my attention by several parents some of the garbage that is being taught to our kids. It is not appropriate, and I ask everyone in this room to go to The Iowa Standard dot com and look and see what they are teaching our kids. They are teaching our kids — there’s situations in several books that they have out there that it is appropriate for adults to have a sexual relationship with a child. I don’t know if there’s anybody in here that thinks that’s healthy for our children. There are situations where cousins are together — fourth grade! — doing things that I can’t tell ya.” What Zaun couldn’t tell ya about was another passage in All Boys Aren’t Blue describing sexual abuse the author suffered at the hands of their older cousin.
“I would love — and I’m getting attacked right now — to email people, but the truth of the matter is, if I tell people the actual illustrations that are being taught in these books, and I send that to someone that’s under 18 years of age, I’m distributing child pornography,” he went on, presumably referring to the images in Gender Queer. (Kiddie porn is not defined by the age of the person who views it nor how it’s disseminated, as the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee ought to know.)
In August, the state of Iowa hosted its first-ever Major League Baseball game, an homage to the nearby ballpark in Dyersville featured in the 1989 film Field of Dreams. MLB stars past and present attended the game, as did Kevin Costner, who starred in the flick as Ray Kinsella, a farmer who plows part of his cornfield to make way for the storied basefield diamond.
“What an awesome opportunity for us to show the country how cool [Iowa] is,” Governor Kim Reynolds gushed before the event. “And what an opportunity it is to live, work, and raise a family here in the state.” Capitalizing on the opportunity in the national spotlight to project the Iowa GOP as forward-thinking breakers of the glass ceiling, she attended the game with Congresswoman Ashley Hinson (who’d recently claimed that merely allowing educators to discuss critical race theory “would take our country back in time”) and Senator Joni Ernst (who won reelection last year campaigning on the delusion that systemic racism doesn’t exist here).
As giddy as the governor is about the renewed exposure that Field of Dreams has afforded the state — it appears the game will become an annual event — there was one strikingly prescient scene scripted for the film that she and her fellow Republicans are bound to perennially ignore.
Ray and his wife Annie (Amy Madigan) attend a PTA meeting at the local school library, where an Irate Mother named Beulah Kissinick rants about a novel by Terrence Mann. The author is a fictional stand-in for a litigious J. D. Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye was once the most widely censored book in the country but now heralded as one of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century.
“Fascist,” Annie mutters to Ray as Kissinick proclaims to applause that “smut and filth like this has no place in our schools.” When the principal pushes back, informing her that it’s a critically acclaimed work of historical fiction, a man in the audience blurts out, “It’s pornography!”
“Terrence Mann is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and he is widely regarded as the finest satirist of his time,” the principal tries to explain. “Yeah, well I think he’s a pervert! another man shouts. “He’s probably a communist, too!” Kissinick then details her complaints before Annie delivers her passionate rebuttal: “The novels of Terrence Mann endorse promiscuity, godlessness, the mongrelization of the races, and disrespect to high-ranking officers of the United States Army.”
Salinger was a white man, but many of the contested themes of Catcher in the Rye mirror those in the books being challenged now, like identity, alienation, youthful rebellion, mental anguish, sexual awakening.
Stirring up a moral panic over the exploration of such unavoidable aspects of the human experience is a tried and true blueprint for conservatives intent on undermining public education. Across the nation, it’s become part of a deliberate strategy led by groups like the Koch brothers-funded Heritage Foundation to defund it and divert resources to so-called “school choice” initiatives. In Iowa, despite their claims to the contrary, Republicans have chronically underfunded public schools while pushing legislation favoring reforms including voucher programs for private schools.
Already, our latest culture-war outrage has had a deleterious impact on the state’s public schools. A ninth-grade science teacher in Johnston named Neal Patel recently announced his resignation after Steven Holt, a like-minded Republican in the Iowa House, targeted him in a Facebook comment last May with a picture of a LGBTQ pride flag in his classroom. “Left-wing political activism taught through critical race theory and/or anti-racism training is inappropriate on the taxpayer’s dime,” wrote Holt, who’s had a chip on his shoulder ever since Denison High School students staged a walkout against his wife Crystal for using the N-word in a government class she teaches. “We will continue to work to stop left-wing indoctrination of our students.”
It’s doubtful that Iowa Republicans will abandon their penchant for passing legislation that flies in the face of the Constitution, or reality itself, anytime soon. The governor’s pen has a wandering eye for bills that reinforce our lesser national image as a field of racist, flag-humping yokels and are all but destined for costly legal challenges on the taxpayers’ dime.
But if said taxpayers truly care about safeguarding the feeble minds of their indoctrination-prone schoolchildren, there’s a lot more money — and literature — they ought to be happy to burn. While Republicans are narrowly focused on a small handful of objectionable books, there are surely hundreds, if not thousands more hiding in plain sight on shelves throughout the state’s public school libraries. (Just ask the governor of Texas.)
Brad Zaun could not possibly read them all. He could, however, get others to do it for him. So here’s our proposal to the upstanding senator: Convince Jake Chapman to introduce legislation establishing the Iowa Department of Public Enlightenment, which would enlist a team of employees dedicated exclusively to the task. Usher it through the Judiciary Committee and make it law. Appoint one of the QAnon moms IDOPE director, or if they’re too busy cavorting with Michael Flynn, maybe Chapman himself if he fails to win reelection next year.
It’s sure to be an onerous undertaking — but a patriotic imperative for securing our state’s boldly reimagined foundation in education.