McCarthyism is on the march in the United States of America circa 2023. If you’re skeptical, look no further than Montana, where the State Library Commission just voted to withdraw from the American Library Association (ALA) due to the Marxist politics of the latter’s new president.
Last April, City University of New York critical pedagogy librarian Emily Drabinski was elected to the position on a platform of fighting for public reinvestment, a Green New Deal for libraries, and international collaboration — and almost immediately triggered a right-wing meltdown when, in the excitement of celebrating her victory, she publicly declared her political leanings and sexual orientation.
“I just cannot believe that a Marxist lesbian who believes that collective power is possible to build and can be wielded for a better world is the president-elect of @ALALibrary,” Drabinski wrote in a now-deleted tweet. “And my mom is SO PROUD I love you mom.”
Fast-forward a year and three months, and the collection of state library commissioners appointed by right-wing Montana governor Greg Gianforte — maybe best known for physically assaulting a reporter in 2016, then lying to the police about it — has decided that this innocuous tweet is cause for cutting ties with the ALA.
On Tuesday of this week, the commission — six of whose seven members were appointed by Gianforte, three of them just in the past month — voted five to one to one for the motion to withdraw, after an hour of public comments that were overwhelmingly hostile to the organization.
The public hearing on the matter neatly illustrated how little things have advanced since racists protested civil rights advancements in the Jim Crow era, nonsensically declaring that “race mixing is communism” in placards that are roundly mocked today. Commissioner Tom Burnett kicked off the farce by declaring that “our oath of office and resulting duty to the constitution forbids association with an organization led by a Marxist.”
Of course, as Burnett made clear by reading out the oath soon after, and as a public commenter later pointed out, neither the oath nor the US Constitution contains any mention of Marxism whatsoever — not surprising, given that the document was first written and ratified roughly thirty years before Karl Marx was an infant child. What it does have is an explicit prohibition on “abridging the freedom of speech” in the First Amendment, one of the world’s most robust protections of people’s right to think and speak as they like free of government coercion — something the commission’s vote skirts dangerously close to violating, if not outright crossing that line.
Interestingly, much of the objection to the Montana State Library’s membership in the ALA seemed less focused on the “Marxist” part of Drabinski’s tweet than the “lesbian” part. Granted, an expatriate of the Soviet Union rattled off the various crimes of Stalinism in her support of the motion, while one commissioner, Carmen Cuthbertson, offered the absurd reasoning that the fact that Drabinski “worked very hard to become president” suggested that she was pursuing a sinister “agenda” that should be opposed.
But overwhelmingly, public commenters speaking out in favor of the motion were fixated on and driven by the bizarre, homophobic “groomer” hysteria that has taken over the American right in recent years: the idea that by occasionally hosting drag queens, housing books that talk about homosexuality and the wider LGBTQ community, or simply allowing access to books with the mildest bit of sexual content, American libraries are rampantly feeding children “pornography” and “sexualizing” minors — “a literal ‘porn-for-kids’ agenda,” in the words of one written submission.
“Starting in 2016 and 2017, [the ALA] started training their activist librarians to collude with activist authors, publishers, and book vendors to begin pushing sexually explicit books for all ages,” one commenter darkly warned.
This sex-obsessed paranoia was occasionally mixed in by commenters with incoherent warnings about Marxism, which — in line with the nonsense peddled by some of today’s leading right-wing “thinkers” and political figures — they understood to be a kind of amped-up Democratic Party liberalism.
Responding to objections that the ALA president is a ceremonial, spokesperson role, one commenter charged that Drabinski’s presence had already shifted things at the organization. He noted that “one of the primary focuses of the ALA is now listed as diversity” and pointed to the creation of the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services, with its pledge to take on “privilege” and “microaggressions” and to “use a social justice framework,” as evidence — even though the ALA has called diversity a “fundamental value” going back to 2012, while the office in question has existed since at least as far back as 2017, if not technically even longer.
“The fact that the ALA is led by a Marxist is absolutely important, because the ALA is using tenets of Marxism and the sexualization and radicalization of children, thus breaking down America’s families,” one commenter professed.
Several of the commenters belonged to Moms for Liberty, the censorious, segregationist “parental rights” group that has links to extremist groups like the Proud Boys. “Marxism always promotes division among groups,” a member of the group’s Yellowstone County chapter told the commission. “The best way to divide kids from their parents is to confuse them. And sex is the perfect tool.”
With their fervent beliefs in sexual communist conspiracies and warnings about “ideologies,” this cohort of conservatives has clearly not come very far from the days of anti-communist cartoons and when Stanley Kubrick parodied cold warriors convinced that secret communists were responsible for their sexual troubles.
But as comical as all this might seem, the commission’s vote will have very real consequences for the Montana State Library. At both the public hearing and in written submissions, librarians made clear the vital role that the ALA plays for libraries and their workers across the country, from providing them with funding, resources, training, and professional development, to giving institutions at smaller states a voice in Washington lobbying and helping libraries obtain cheaper broadband. Matt Beckstrom, the Montana Library Association ALA representative, feared it would start a domino effect.
“Disassociating the State Library from ALA tells the other libraries in the State the State Library does not trust or believe in the Association,” he wrote.
Beckstrom told Jacobin that he viewed the vote as part of a wider Republican assault on libraries and other public institutions in the state. That effort has seen Gianforte and the GOP-controlled state legislature ban drag readings at libraries and support a privatization-by-stealth program sold as “school choice,” as well as a push to water down accreditation standards and slash staff numbers at schools and libraries.
There’s one other particularly disturbing element to the saga. What liberal objections there were to the motion failed to defend Drabinski’s core First Amendment right not to face state retribution for her political beliefs, stressing that this was just “one individual’s politics,” or even joining in disapproval of her tweet. Just as in the 1950s Red Scare, the safer option for liberals fearing a right-wing attack on their values seems not to stand in solidarity with leftists, but to signal their, at minimum, tacit approval of this kind of reactionary hostility to anti-capitalist politics. Just last month, Oklahoma City Pride organizers barred the state’s Communist Party from having a presence at the festival using a blatantly unconstitutional law passed in the heyday of McCarthyism.
But if history hasn’t shown the folly of this approach, then the commission hearing should have. Though supporters of the motion to withdraw from the ALA may have nominally been railing against “Marxism,” what they were really objecting to and working to undermine was run-of-the-mill liberalism, its prioritizing of diversity, and tolerance and inclusion for marginalized groups. It should be a stark reminder that any right-wing assault on the socialist left will not stop there, but will end up ensnaring liberals and the things they care about, too.
There have been disturbing signs these past few years that Donald Trump and the GOP he’s reshaped in his image plan a renewed assault on the radical left — a Left that Trump and right-wing commentators have made very clear they view as synonymous with ordinary liberals, Democrats, and progressives. If and when they take back power, will liberals stand with the socialist left? Or will they repeat the tragic mistakes they made during the original era of McCarthyism?