Laugh at the outrage over ‘sexy seahorses’ – but there’s nothing funny about conservatives trying to rewrite history

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: National Sea Life Centre/PA</span>
Photograph: National Sea Life Centre/PA

Conservatives triggered by sexy seahorses

As we all know, there is nothing right-wingers love more than free speech and nothing they detest more than “cancel culture”. People should be able to say whatever they like without fear of censorship, conservatives are constantly squealing. Except, of course, if those people happen to be saying things they don’t agree with. In which case: silence them immediately and ban their books!

The latest absurd example of conservative cancel culture comes to us courtesy of Moms for Liberty, a rightwing advocacy group who are trying to dictate what books Tennessee public school kids can read. I don’t know if any of these moms own a dictionary, but they might want to look up the definition of “liberty”. And then they might want to change their name to Moms for Thought Control.

The moms have been very methodical: they’ve sent the Tennessee Department of Education a detailed spreadsheet outlining their complaints about the books being foisted on their children. It makes for unintentionally hilarious reading. A book about Galileo is “anti-church.” A book about seahorses contains too many details about the mating rituals of seahorses. A book about Native Americans is “divisive” and “paints white people in negative light.” A book about Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to integrate an all-white public elementary school, is “divisive.” (Racists love using the word “divisive”, have you noticed? How dare you bring up slavery and segregation! You’re being divisive!) A book about Greek mythology is a little too “graphic and scary”. A book about Martin Luther King contains “photographs of political violence”. The whole thing reads like the unhinged ravings of a book club from hell.

There are, of course, pushy parents everywhere. If Moms for Liberty were just a fringe group of overly-involved mothers their beef with the Tennessee Department of Education wouldn’t really matter. Alas, their attempts to rejig the Tennessee curriculum is part of a much wider effort to rewrite American history. Over the past year, US conservatives have become obsessed with “critical race theory” (CRT); Media Matters recently noted that Fox News has mentioned the phrase over 1,900 times in less than four months. None of the people raving about CRT are actually able to explain what the academic concept means; to them it just means anything that is less than complimentary about white people. Which, they reckon, they should be illegal. At least eight Republican states (including Tennessee) have introduced laws restricting how race can be taught in public schools this year; the Brookings Institute notes that nearly 20 additional states have introduced or plan to introduce similar legislation. The Moms for Liberty spreadsheet was compiled shortly after Tennessee banned teachers from teaching anything that instructs that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously” The spreadsheet points out books that the group thinks violate this law.

Far from being a kooky fringe group, Moms for Liberty are part of a very well-coordinated culture war. Whether it’s abortion or CRT, the playbook is always the same. The rightwing media whips up outrage; deliberately vague laws are passed off the back of that outrage; advocacy groups diligently weaponize these laws at a local level. “We are seeing what appear to be coordinated efforts to challenge books, not purely based on the content of the individual book, but based on the fact that they teach history from a particular viewpoint,” an executive from the National Coalition Against Censorship, told The Daily Beast. “We’re also seeing entire lists of books being challenged, as opposed to individual titles.”

So what’s the moral to this story? Essentially, it’s that you shouldn’t underestimate the right. It’s very easy to laugh at a bunch of rightwing moms clutching their pearls over sexy seahorses – but there’s nothing funny about the systemic, organised way in which conservatives are trying to rewrite history and restrict freedom of speech.

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Arwa Mahdawi’s new book, Strong Female Lead, is available for pre-order.

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