Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Get ‘Em While They’re Young

Reactionary children’s books take their awful place in the wall-to-wall right-wing media lineup…

Whatever misdeed I committed in a previous life must have been a doozy indeed, because a certain cruel editor of a particular leftist magazine, let’s call it Contemporary Episodes, has once more sent me a fever dream in a box. On my desk is a package containing copies of the Heroes of Liberty library, a series of right-wing books for kids 7-12 years of age. I have a children’s book on Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, one on conservative pundit Thomas Sowell, and finally U.S. president Ronald Reagan.

The box of books is on my desk because of a very slightly critical review I wrote in 2020 for this magazine of a publishing project called The Tuttle Twins, which is a series of kids’ books that teach a variety of libertarian lessons, like that some workers are more valuable than others and that governments suppress free markets. My review of this political propaganda for kids of pre-critical thinking age was extremely gently critical, concluding that the series was “a hideous fraud and an ugly twisted farce.” My good-natured ribbing led to it being covered by some of the big, well-funded libertarian propaganda entities and right-wing think tanks, including the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the CATO Institute. This coverage largely consisted of gloating that the mean review made for good ad copy and that more copies of the books had been sold as a result. Typical for the right, the response was to brag about their economic power rather than respond to any of the substantive arguments I made.

I am now, then, this magazine’s designated book reviewer for the niche but apparently burgeoning subgenre of reactionary children’s literature. And so let us proceed to the present offering: Heroes of Liberty. These new books have the characteristic giant size and conspicuous thinness of books for kids still learning how to read and enjoy it. They’re sturdy, with pretty colors and pleasing art design.

parodies of the “Heroes of Liberty” series by Jesse Rubenfeld

They are also the dark bile of the infected toe of the Devil himself. Lacking even the dark sincerity that came from the dedication of the writer of the dreadful Tuttle Twins series, these books are pure synthetic propaganda made to appease the demand of a Sheldon Adelson or a Charles Koch that the children get more naked conservative propaganda in their diets. So let’s have a look at the effort to make some really young Republicans.


ReactionarYA

Let’s start with Justice Barrett. Barrett, of course, is most popularly known for her recent receptiveness to striking down major portions of the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion for the first trimester of pregnancy. Striking down the ruling would activate various “trigger laws” and related acts enacted in a majority of U.S. states that ban the practice, drastically restricting access to family planning and reproductive health care for millions of women—especially women without the money to travel to a blue state for the procedure. Access to abortion remains widely popular in the U.S., but our limited level of democracy means this need not shape policy.

The Heroes of Liberty book does not trouble its juvenile reader with such unpleasantness. We learn that Barrett works in the Supreme Court, “in a big, white, majestic building,” and “Amy has a very sharp mind. She also has a very big heart: she’s the mother of seven children, two of whom she adopted because they had no home of their own.” We get her life story—big Catholic family, good student, oldest kid driving the little ones around in a LeSabre. Great humanizing detail. 

The art in this book is truly abhorrent, the worst in the books I read. It’s a really weird watercolor-y software-generated look with Munchian flowing colors next to photorealistic renderings of people’s faces. The artist credit doesn’t specify a medium, but I’d guess an illustration program named MigraineSoft.

Barrett goes to Notre Dame and learns about our Constitution which gives us freedom and democratic government, with a fun Supreme Court “to make sure that our laws and our government follow the Constitution.” Barrett gets married, has kids, and adopts a Haitian child who was “very quiet and rarely got enough to eat. … She was too weak to sit up or even to cry.” This is followed by an illustration of a TV-ready moment showing her taking the child from their hellish country. The couple wanted to collect more orphans, “but they couldn’t. The government of Haiti had made everything so complicated: there were too many offices and too many officials who created so much red tape. … In the end, the government would not let him go.”

But then, great news! The catastrophic Haitian earthquake of 2010 strikes, and the government has a change of heart. “Amy’s eyes welled with tears.” Notably, the orphanage where the Barretts’ adoptee, John Peter, lived was “typical of many in Haiti,” as the New York Times observed, as “many weren’t literal orphans—their parents simply couldn’t afford to care for them.” Notably, the U.S. overthrew the government of Haiti three times in the 20th century. 

Barrett’s career takes off as she becomes a federal judge. “She would get up early in the morning to work quietly at her desk while everyone else was still asleep. This way, she would have time to spend with her family later in the day.” We learn the criminal justice system will “put criminals in jail” yet gives “everyone a chance to try and prove his innocence.” Barrett clerks for a jolly-looking man with impish eyes, a “Justice Scalia” who believes “our laws should follow the Constitution precisely.” “Amy liked Justice Scalia a lot. She loved his big rolling laugh and his sense of humor.” And his boyish charm while upholding sodomy laws and overturning the main part of the Voting Rights Act!

Barrett gets confirmed, and everyone is impressed that she’s speaking without notes at her hearing. Barrett learned that “as a justice … she would have to put aside her own feelings. … This is called being impartial. … When you are a judge, your job is not to impose your own thoughts or views on someone else. It is to make sure that the law is followed and the Constitution is upheld.”

The book concludes that “her children are lucky to have her as a mother, and we are lucky to have her as a Supreme Court justice.” Great kids’ stuff here, no way Star Wars can compete with this. Just a story about a lady who is smart and nice and becomes powerful and it’s our lucky day. Bet your life that one day a kid will read this book without realizing they exist because Barrett helped take away their mom’s ability to pick a family size.


Self-Made Black Lives Matter

Next, Thomas Sowell: A Self-Made Man. Readers familiar with the nonstop nightmare hellscape of U.S. media may recognize Sowell as a prominent Black conservative pundit, a libertarian with Ivy League credentials, an economics PhD from the conservative stronghold of the University of Chicago, dozens of books, and a nationally syndicated opinion column. He spent decades at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a conservative think tank where he was the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy (readers will be familiar with my intergalactically best-selling book Capitalism vs. Freedom on the Friedmans and their bad ideas). Sowell was as regular a guest on Rush Limbaugh and Fox News as the phrase “Black conservative intellectual” makes you think he would be.

Thomas Sowell started out in life at a huge disadvantage. He was raised by his great aunt in a poor town in the South. Growing up, he never got the chance to know his mother and father. And he often had no money for new shoes or even for bus fare. But Thomas Sowell succeeded because wherever he went, and whatever he did, he never accepted anything he didn’t think he deserved. He wanted nothing unearned and asked for nobody’s pity. Thomas Sowell was determined to make it on his own. And he did.

Get it? Black people who don’t take welfare succeed! Meaning they become nationally-known minority supporters of taking away income support and benefits from poor people, often disproportionately minorities. This is the real dark message of the whole reactionary kids’ publishing project: Take it from me, kid with no critical thinking skills, if you don’t ask or expect anything like welfare or healthcare from the rich and powerful of society, and instead get a degree in defending them and then work in what is basically a parallel unaccredited university system of think thanks, you can be rich and go on big-time right-wing media and, as a nonwhite person, speak utterly conventional conservative platitudes and be a stupendous smash hit that brings down the house every time. Sure, the working class will slow-glide into misery and fascism while the ice caps melt, but by then you’ve had quite the career!

We get many pages on Sowell’s humble beginnings, with no water or power, in “the days of Jim Crow laws in the South. These laws separated Americans based on color. It was unfair.” There is no suggestion that this condition had anything to do with right-wing conservatism. (The book does not, for instance, mention that the leading conservative intellectual of the 20th century, William F. Buckley, spent these years defending Southern segregationism.) Sowell learns to read at a young age. His aunt’s partner takes him to church and presents him to the congregation, where the partner declares he is stepping down from his church duties to help raise Sowell, illustrated with a glowing scene before a gigantic cross.

The family moves to New York City, where teachers are alleged to have wanted Sowell to repeat the third grade, and because it’s a right-wing indoctrination book, the teachers are depicted as a bullying crowd of sneering freaks. Fortunately the principal, who is handsome, takes young Thomas’s side after he proves he can do fourth-grade math. Thomas stands up to bullies, moves out, takes part-time jobs, and when he loses his job, the book notes that “he was sure about one thing, though: the answer wasn’t begging or asking for favors. He would solve his own problems by himself, thank you very much.” He cuts back on food until he gets a new job, with the clear implication: Kids, if you lose your job in some recession wave of million-person layoffs, solve the problem yourself ! Eat less! Eat day-old bread! That is literally what is depicted.

We get page after page of Sowell working with eyes downcast, and when he struggles, “He didn’t dwell on the past or blame Aunt Molly, their poverty, his teachers, or American society.” He takes night classes, attends Harvard, and teaches economics at Cornell as “an esteemed professor.” He helps a Black international student through college by tutoring her rather than giving a mercy grade, and “returned to the question of undeserved favors in his many books. … He insisted that in the long run, they just don’t help people improve their lives. … If you give people something they didn’t earn, they wouldn’t learn how to earn it themselves.”

Conspicuously, Barrett and Reagan are both portrayed as mainly responsible for their successful life trajectories, due to their hoary, clichéd conservative values of Family and Work Ethic. But it’s just part of the story, as in most Western individual narratives—only Sowell’s book foregrounds his self-madeness. Could it be because he’s the Black one and the Right has a miles-long paranoid legacy of disparaging the work ethic of the Black population originally imported for slave labor? No, it could not.

One consolation in this monumentally evil celebration of knowing your place and conforming to the system is the art. Illustrator Carl Pearce’s work here is by far the best in the books I reviewed, with really lovely composition, and incredible feeling in the faces and playful charm in the children. It’s a conservative book, so the teacher characters are evil, but their funny evil faces are fun to look at. Pearce does a ton of fine work here, especially considering the script he’s working from. Just an impressive talent. Carl, draw for Current Affairs!

The books all end with a “fun facts” section, and Sowell’s includes this: “He’s known for his witty observations. He once said: ‘It’s amazing how much panic one honest man can spread among a multitude of hypocrites.’” Hope you weren’t eating while reading that cheeky zinger, ho ho!

For his years of valuable service to the U.S. right wing, Sowell had his brushes with real power, too. He was offered the position of Secretary of Labor and, later, Education—terrible things to contemplate— by president Ronald Reagan. His book is my last to read on this parade of disgrace.


Champion of Tyranny

Finally, Ronald Reagan. Leftist writers are known to have a habit of trying to be cool and neutral when discussing his administration and legacy, only to eventually crack and explode into ranty towering condemnations. I’m sure that won’t happen this time!

Ronald Reagan: It’s Morning in America is a marquee selection for the series and longer than the others, as Saint Ronald is a mainstream conservative icon, often voted the greatest U.S. president. His administration has the real legacy of moving the world’s most important country firmly into today’s “neoliberal” era of deregulated corporations, lower taxes on the rich, and crushed labor unions. Get ready, folks.

“Ronald Reagan was one of America’s toughest presidents. That is why he was able to lead the free world to victory in the Cold War. The Cold War was a contest between two visions: freedom and communism. The United States led the free world. … The fate of the world hung in the balance. … But Ronald Reagan was not afraid. He called the communist bloc an ‘Evil Empire,’ which is exactly what it was.”

But the first story is of President Reagan being “deeply moved” by the story of Reginald Andrews, an unemployed Black man who saved a blind person who fell on subway tracks. Reagan called a meatpacking plant where Andrews had recently interviewed for a job. He “put in a good word for Mr. Andrews. Mr. Andrews was overjoyed when he got the job. He had eight children to feed. It was December. Christmas was just a few days away.”

It’s an oddly-placed effort to whitewash Reagan’s racial record, which included fighting doggedly for years against sanctions on South Africa’s cruel apartheid regime. Reagan also doggedly resisted the creation of a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., resistance which continued until veto-proof Congressional majorities forced his hand.

Then it’s off to the man’s life story. Salesman father, moves a lot, blows a ball game (aw!). Daddy drinks, little Ronald has to drag him in the front door one night, and, like a lot of children of dysfunctional families, he goes to Hollywood. “Long before he became president, Americans all over the country came to know his warm and friendly voice, his big gleaming smile, and that twinkle in his eye when he delivered a punch line.” But he “worried about communism in particular. It posed a major threat to the American way of life.”

In America, “our government should protect our freedom, not run our lives for us. It should be up to each person to decide what is best for him or her,” like which billionaire’s warehouse empire to work for. But the rotten Communists “think the government knows better and that it should control every aspect of people’s lives. … In communist countries, governments also think that people should believe in communism and not in God. … There are people in America who believe in communism, too, and they want the government to have more control of our lives. Reagan thought they were dangerous. He decided to enter politics to oppose them.”

This is a very healthy and even-handed portrayal of politics for young minds, and they’re right, socialists are dangerous. You’re in danger of socialists inflicting health coverage on you and negating your student loan debt. You’re in huge danger of a popular jobs program building clean energy. Look out! The real danger here is keeping kids from being seduced by our cool sexy ideas.

We see Reagan’s days as governor of California as he suppresses a hippie demonstration— which in reality was about Israel-Palestine, but in the book is just because the demonstrators won’t leave a public park. The signs in the illustration literally all say “Our Park” and “We will not surrender this park,” rather than, for example, “Israel commits crimes against humanity.” Some of the kids are even “supporters of communism,” and in the story they “erupted in riots,” attacking innocent cops. Reagan sends in the National Guard, who are shown helping the police while surrounded by mysterious clouds of something that is not commented upon.

Reagan gets elected and, “when asked what his policy on the Cold War would be, he answered like a tough guy from the movies. His policy, he said, was simple: ‘We win. They lose.’” Reagan’s speech writers did pitch at a level that feels natural in a kids’ book, I’ll say that. Then, of course, we get the failed assassination attempt, which gets page after page of dramatic portrayal, but with no twist ending, sadly.

We then get the child’s version of the end of the Cold War, because Reagan was bravely unsatisfied with the “containment” strategy that kept the USSR encircled by allies and bases, and he had “a very smart plan.” Since our free system incentivizes people to work harder and makes us “much richer than the communists were,” we could “win by means of economic power … to develop large, advanced, and expensive defense technologies” which the Soviets couldn’t afford. Ha, we out-waste-spended them! No mention of Russia also being poor because it hosted World War II. The Berlin Wall falls and the Soviet Union disintegrates.

The book concludes with Reagan shown next to Mount Rushmore, the Capitol, the Constitution, a Western landscape, a gigantic American flag, and a soaring eagle, declaring “Ronald Reagan believed in God, family, and patriotism. He believed in personal liberty, democracy, and the free market.” The government “should never try to do for people what they ought to do for themselves. … We should all be free to choose our own path in life.” It concludes: “as Ronald Reagan liked to remind us, it’s always morning in America.”

Of course, the day that dawned with the Reagan Revolution was one of increasingly powerful billionaires, giant crash-prone banks, a labor movement smashed to smithereens, active denial of AIDS for years, a drug war that incarcerated millions of people (a disproportionate number of them Black people), years of austerity cuts to school lunches and public programs, steadily rising global temperatures, and U.S. support for blood-soaked dictators from Zia-ul-Haq to Saddam Hussein. It remains to be seen whether humanity can overcome his calamitous legacy of classes, crashes, and climate change. Reagan and his supporters belong to history’s darkest pages, even if those pages are oversized and filled with pictures for kids.


The Heroes of Liberty series is growing, with a new book out this month on John Wayne, continuing the TV cowboy theme begun with Reagan, I guess. But the existing books are enough to draw the conclusion that the Heroes of Liberty series is an abhorrent enterprise to pack the minds of unsuspecting kids with excremental political brainwashing and to prejudice them against any progressive program of social uplift, from universal health care to closing the racial wealth gap. These godforsaken junior texts are the product of a leviathan of hyper-reactionary dark money and an online ad-buying conservative echo chamber striving to take the candy of social democracy away from the babies of the next generation. For years to come, in America’s bookstores, these books will be a lurking threat in the children’s section, like a creep in a raincoat.

I wash my brains of it!

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