Columnist Gene Lyons: Moms for Liberty waging war on libraries

Here we go again. What we have here is a classic moral panic, a repeating theme in American public life. Remember the McMartin preschool trial in Los Angeles back in the 1980s? Bizarre allegations of satanic sexual abuse were made against a family-run day care center in Manhattan Beach.

Replete with sensational media coverage, the investigation and two criminal trials ended up lasting for seven years and costing almost $15 million the longest criminal trial in U.S. history. A total of seven day care workers were charged with 321 counts of sexual abuse involving some four dozen children.

Prompted by true believers using anatomically correct dolls, little kids too young for kindergarten told fantastic tales involving flying witches, hot air balloons, dinosaurs and secret tunnels that children accessed by being flushed down the toilet before being abused by famous movie stars.

In the end, not a single episode of child molestation was ever proved, and there were no convictions, although some of those accused spent years in jail. All charges were eventually dropped. In the end, the mother whose accusations prompted the original probe was diagnosed with acute paranoid schizophrenia and died of alcohol poisoning.

Lawrence Wright’s terrific book “Remembering Satan” tells a similarly horrific tale of “recovered memory syndrome” that convulsed Olympia, Washington, around the same time. Father-daughter incest, orgies, unholy rites and mass infanticide under the right circumstances, it appears, suggestible individuals can be persuaded to confess to almost anything.

If all that sounds reminiscent of the QAnon cult belief that Hillary Clinton conducts murderous satanic rituals in the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant (that has no basement), then you must be paying attention. Exactly why Americans are so prone to these repeated episodes of collective hallucination is hard to say. But fundamentalist Christianity appears to be the common denominator.

Which brings us to Moms for Liberty and their impassioned crusade against, yes, public librarians. Exactly what these women think the word “liberty” means is not clear. They are censors and book-banners of great passion and determination. Rather like the Junior Anti-Sex League in George Orwell’s “1984.”

In Arkansas, near Little Rock, the Saline County Republican Women have even erected billboards declaring war on “X-RATED LIBRARY BOOKS.” Judging from the examples cited on the related website, most are R-rated at best. They’re largely earnest tomes such as “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human.” It is shelved in the “Young Adult” section of the library.

“The opinion/instruction in this book directly and continuously opposes Christianity and the Word of God,” readers are told. The group accuses the county library staff of pushing “the LGBTQ agenda” and sneers that they should instead serve “the people of Saline County, not the interests of people in California.”

California, which gave the nation Ronald Reagan, is now synonymous with Sodom and Gomorrah among the GOP elect.

How many young women in Saline County become pregnant during high school for lack of understanding of what used to be called “the facts of life,” I can’t tell you. But I can assure you they learn more about sex in pickup trucks than in the public library.

Seriously, how many libertine librarians have you known? A less subversive cohort would be hard to imagine.

Even granting that the institution known as “Drag Queen Story Hour” has got to be the dumbest example of liberal folly since “Defund the Police,” the notion that junior high librarians of all people have dedicated their careers to “grooming” children for sexual purposes ... well, it’s just too silly to talk about.

Besides, if you follow the news, it’s in the churches, not the libraries, where all the action is. Scarcely a week passes around here without some preacher being busted for sexual misconduct.

Well, coaches and English teachers, too.

During my own long-ago youth, the naughtiest book I read was “Peyton Place,” the scandalous 1950s bestseller that lifted the lid off a small New England town. I certainly didn’t borrow it from the library. Paperback copies were everywhere.

The novel portrayed sexuality as fascinating, yes also intoxicating, ubiquitous and dangerous. Kind of scary, actually. If anything, the women were worse than the men. After the lights went down, hardly anybody in Peyton Place, it seemed, was who they pretended to be.

That’s why Jeannie C. Riley referenced the novel in her classic country song “Harper Valley PTA”: “This is just a little Peyton Place/And you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites.”

I can’t help but start humming the tune whenever the Moms for Liberty take the platform.

Anyway, I could tell you what I think these pious crusaders do when they get back home after reading aloud naughty passages from library books to audiences of fellow Holy Housewives. (Assuming they do go home, instead of checking in at the No-Tell Motel for a couple of hours.) But never mind. Imagine it yourselves. I’m sure you can.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at [email protected].