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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The sleazy distortions of political porn are poisoning minds

Nampa School District student Elizabeth Weitzel, 14, reads “13 Reasons Why” by Jay Asher at a demonstration outside of the school district office as the board meeting discussed the disposal of its banned books.  (Sarah A. Miller)
Nampa School District student Elizabeth Weitzel, 14, reads “13 Reasons Why” by Jay Asher at a demonstration outside of the school district office as the board meeting discussed the disposal of its banned books. (Sarah A. Miller)

All pornographers have similar aims, whether they’re selling you sex or bad politics.

Titillate. Capture attention. Sink a hook into your prefrontal cortex, give you a blast of dopamine, turn off the executive functions of the brain.

We are awash in both kinds of porn. Neither is good for us, but at least there’s something honest in the skin trade – no one mistakes it for truth. Political pornographers, on the other hand, sell a facsimile of the world that is meant to engage, distort and persuade, all while being no more truthful than a comic book.

Last week, Idaho’s premier political pornographers, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, dug to new lows with a false report that the state’s schools were teaching “porn literacy” to young children.

Naturally, the lie aired, unfiltered and unchecked, on Fox News’ Laura Ingraham show almost immediately and it’s still pinging around the chambers of the internet where political porn is the coin of the realm. The wingnut Libs of TikTok account, for example, was just one of the many places on social media boosting the claim that 8-year-olds in Idaho schools were being sexualized with porn literacy lessons.

Everyone who checked this story found it false. IFF got the curriculum wrong, got the age level of Idaho’s actual non-porn-teaching, optional sex ed curriculum wrong, got the questions of authority in who determines what to teach and how wrong …. got it all very wrong.

Still, this political porn will live on as a vivid, titillating “reality” in the minds of some people with unhinged ideas about what’s happening in schools. It would not be at all surprising to see legislation in the next session tied to it, given the fact that a depressingly large number of Idaho lawmakers are addicted to IFF porn.

In case you missed it, the foundation published a story – authored by its “education policy director,” Anna K. Miller, and Boise State professor Scott Yenor, who became famous last year for a speech about how “medicated, meddlesome and quarrelsome” women should not be encouraged to go into the sciences – that stated flatly and without qualification that Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare had purchased a curriculum to implement in schools that included a requirement for porn literacy.

The piece would not have passed factual muster at an elementary-school newspaper. IFF got the curriculum entirely wrong – mixing up an abstinence-only curriculum that is offered as an option to state schools with a different curriculum, sold by the same company but not purchased by Idaho, that includes exercises in how adults can respond to questions from kids about porn.

It also exhibited basic ignorance about how education in the state even works, claiming the health department was implementing curriculum, when that agency has no such authority. It lacked even a single instance of this plague that it claimed it happening.

Because it’s not.

Imagine thinking that Idaho’s school districts were teaching kids how to be literate in porn. Imagine thinking that Idaho’s educators are talking to 8-year-olds about their kinks. Imagine believing in a world where the teachers and principals and school board of Idaho’s public schools – those devoted to educating kids in Coeur d’Alene and Kuna and Riggins and Nampa and Twin Falls – are teaching third-graders how to hide their browsing histories from their parents, and that it’s all just been a big government secret, until the intrepid IFF discovered the truth.

It’s not just that it’s not true. It’s that it takes an absolute divorce from reality to even think it could be true.

This is the danger of political porn, and it’s a danger that reaches far beyond the trolls at IFF. Whenever you see some push to ban a book or corral a curriculum, what you find lurking underneath is usually some red-hot political porn. Claims that teachers are telling boys to be girls. Assertions that instructors are identifying as furries and using litter boxes in classrooms. Freakouts about Marxists and pedophilic groomers in every classroom. On and on.

All of this is adding up to historic levels of censorship – often accompanied with harassing, threatening behavior from those rising up to “protect” children – in our schools and libraries, targeting curricula and banning books.

A new report from Pen America, “Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools,” tracks the growing frequency of book bans in this country’s schools – as well as the frequency with which groups like the IFF are behind them, twisting the truth.

The report indexed 2,532 instances of books being banned in schools from the summer of 2021 to 2022, including 1,648 unique titles. Most of these titles involve LGBTQ characters or themes – many simply acknowledge the existence of queer people or treat them as normal human beings – or people of color.

These bans often are accompanied by political porn claiming that schools are sexualizing and “grooming” children, and they tend to use any whisper of diversity to gin up a whole set of false beliefs about the dastardly schools. The report calls out the IFF in particular, for its distortions regarding diversity programs that it used to push for slashing library budgets.

Most adults understand the difference between pornography and reality. But too many seem unable to recognize that the peddlers of political porn are producing something every bit as false – and every bit as sleazy.

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