THURSDAY: How beloved are fairness and balance?


Experts predict the end: Is the American experiment, such as it has been and such as it is, possibly nearing its end?

Is the experiment already over? Have an array of "silent secessions" already taken place?

Based on interviews with major experts, we'd be inclined to say yes, yes and yes.

Regarding our broken public discourse, we'd also be inclined to say this: "It's all tribal Storyline now." 

Regarding the role of mandated narrative within our own highly self-assured tribe, we'd say the current pseudo-discussion concerning the award-winning novel, Beloved, is a striking case in point.

At times like these, is our highly self-impressed tribe able to be fair and balanced concerning major points of debate? 

We'd be strongly inclined to say no. Disconsolate experts glumly insist that this unfortunate state of affairs stems from one of the deeply flawed ways our human brains are wired. This dates to the war of all against all, way back in prehistory!

If want to be marginally fair, we liberals should perhaps acknowledge one basic point. The pseudo-discussion about Beloved doesn't seem to involve anyone's view concerning its literary merit.

At its base, the pseudo-discussion doesn't involve anyone's judgment concerning that point. At its base, the pseudo-discussion concerns these different questions:

Is Beloved an appropriate choice for a high school literature class? 

Much more specifically, should parents be notified about Beloved's contents before the book is taught? Also, should parents be permitted to have their children opt out of instruction concerning the award-winning book?

As we noted yesterday, the roots of the current pseudo-discussion track back to 2012. At that time, a parent in Fairfax County, Virginia objected to the inclusion of Beloved in her son's high school literature curriculum.

Six months later, the Washington Post published a news report about the ongoing dispute. The news report started as shown below. 

Warning! The opening sentence in this news report may have been perhaps a bit misleading:

SHAPIRO (2/7/13): The book Laura Murphy wants removed from Fairfax County classrooms is considered a modern American classic. It is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a masterpiece of fiction whose author’s 1993 Nobel Prize in literature citation said that she, “in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

But Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Murphy said, depicts scenes of bestiality, gang rape and an infant’s gruesome murder, content she believes could be too intense for teenage readers.

“It’s not about the author or the awards,” said Murphy, a mother of four whose eldest son had nightmares after reading “Beloved” for his senior-year Advanced Placement English class. “It’s about the content.”

The Fairfax County School Board voted Thursday against hearing Murphy’s challenge, but she vowed to continue her quest. She said she plans to take her complaint to the Virginia Board of Education, where she will lobby for policies that will give parents more control over what their children read in class.

It's true! Without any question, Beloved is "considered a modern American classic." And not only that:

Beloved did win the Pulitzer Prize (in 1988). In 1993, its author was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

That said, did Laura Murphy, the parent in question, really "want [Beloved] removed from Fairfax County classrooms?" 

In a sense, but not as such! As T. Rees Shapiro explained later on in his report, Murphy's actual request was a bit more limited.

What was Murphy actually seeking? According to Shapiro's report, Murphy was actually "seeking to have Beloved banned until new policies are adopted for books assigned for class that might have objectionable material." 

What new policies did Murphy have in mind? At the very end of his full-length report, Shapiro finally  explained:

SHAPIRO: Murphy’s challenge reached the school board in late December. In a 6-2 vote announced Thursday, the board decided against hearing Murphy’s case and upheld Superintendent Jack D. Dale’s decision to retain “Beloved” in the AP English curriculum.

Currently, students can opt out of books assigned in class that they find uncomfortable to read. But the policy should be stricter for books with mature themes, Murphy argues.

She said she contacted the state Board of Education and is pursuing a policy similar to what is in place for the state’s Family Life Education curriculum, in which topics such as rape and molestation are discussed. In those classes, state policy allows for parents to receive notice of certain class topics. Parents also can remove their children from the program.

“School policies related to sensitive topics should be the same,” regardless of the class subject, Murphy said. “Clearly a double standard exists, and it should be consistent across all academic disciplines.”

That was the end of the news report. Readers were finally allowed to know what Murphy was recommending. 

As it turned out, Murphy was recommending that parents should be notified about the contents of certain novels, and that they should be allowed to remove their children from instruction in some such books. 

You might agree with that proposal, or then again you might not. But in those days, readers were at least allowed to know what Murphy was proposing, even if they had to read all the way to the end of a news report which may have misled then a tad in its opening sentence.

Was there something crazy about Murphy's proposal? We'd say the answer is no. Others may disagree.

That said, the Fairfax County school board could hardly say that Murphy's  proposal was crazy, nuts, cuckoo or daft. Earlier in his report, Shapiro had noted this:

SHAPIRO: Fairfax County schools in certain cases have limited books for distribution only to older students, but it has never banned a book outright. According to records, the School Board has reviewed just 19 books since 1983.

If teachers wish to show excerpts from an R-rated movie in class, such as the 1998 film adaptation of “Beloved,” starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, they must notify families two weeks ahead and receive written permission from parents. The school system uses content filters to monitor what students can access on the Internet. But for books, teachers don’t need to give notice.

Intentionally or otherwise, was Shapiro still floating the idea that Murphy wanted to "ban the book outright?" We've reported, you can decide!

At any rate, according to the school board's rules, parents had to be notified before a teacher showed the film Beloved, but no such rule obtained for the book. 

Perhaps there should be no such rules at all. But on its face, Murphy was simply proposing that the board adopt a uniform policy regarding movies and books.

In our view, we don't think there was anything crazy about what Murphy proposed. (As we noted yesterday, we have no view about the suitability of Beloved for a high school literature class, in large part because we've never read it.)

Having said these things, we'll say one thing more. 

We think parents of public school students should be treated with respect. We hold that view even if the parents are Others or are believed to belong to the lesser breed!

We taught fifth graders for seven years in the Baltimore City Schools (with two more years teaching junior high math). Not being completely stupid at that early date, we understood a basic fact:

The delightful children in our classes were connected to their parents, their grandparents and their guardians in a way they weren't connected to us. In our view, that basic fact should be respected and understood, even if the parent in question turns out to be one of Them!

In this highly tribalized time, our tribe has moved beyond such time-honored understandings. Tomorrow, we'll show you what we mean by that. Today, we note one additional point:

In Shapiro's report, he seemed to indicate the source of Murphy's concern about Beloved. He mentioned Beloved's "scenes of bestiality" in his own opening paragraph. Later, he quoted Murphy:

SHAPIRO: School officials point out that AP English is a college-level class that often involves discussions of adult topics.

“To me, mature references means slavery or the Holocaust,” Laura Murphy said. “I’m not thinking my kid is going to be reading a book with bestiality.”

Just for the record, those scenes seemed to be the focal point of this parent's complaint. Many members of our tribe are currently fudging this point, moving instead toward highly preferable tribal Storyline.

As this tribal behavior unfolds, anthropologists keen and wail. Some even tear at their hair. In our experience, these mournful experts simply cannot be consoled.

Tomorrow: Lerer, Charles, Bump, Blow and Petri oh my! According to despondent experts, the experiment is nearing its end


  1. "Is the experiment already over?"

    It's not, dear Bob. In our opinion it's just run into a temporary dead-end.

    Once your liberal-hitlerian cult is placed where it belongs -- the dustbin of history -- the experiment will continue. Don't worry too much, dear Bob.

  2. This is how much Republicans care about kids, even Republican family kids:

    "Appearing before the United States Senate, Schmidt detailed the violent threats he has received ever since Trump lost the state of Pennsylvania in 2020.

    "I am a Republican and I believe that counting votes in a democracy is a sacred responsibility," he said. "For doing my job counting votes, I'd like to share with you some of the messages sent to me and my family: 'Tell the truth or your three kids will be fatally shot.'"

    Schmidt emphasized that this threat also included the names of his children as well as his family's home address, and also a photo of their house."

  3. "Disconsolate experts glumly insist that this unfortunate state of affairs stems from one of the deeply flawed ways our human brains are wired. "

    If our brains were wired this way, election of someone like Trump and the fanatical beliefs of his supporters wouldn't have become dramatically worse after the advent of Fox News. These are different times, but brain wiring doesn't evolve (or devolve) that quickly.

    When people are frightened, they tend to vote more conservative. That is Somerby's motive for always talking about doom and gloom here. He hopes to drive liberals toward The Other by evoking fear. That's why none of his threats make any sense -- no experts are saying the things Somerby alludes to here. No experts think we are wired for destruction when our long evolutionary history suggests otherwise and most studies show that people cooperate and work together under crisis.

  4. "This dates to the war of all against all, way back in prehistory!"

    What war was that? Somerby doesn't know, since nothing was written down in the times called "prehistory". History relies on written word and prehistory comes before the invention of writing systems. Somerby is pulling this out of his ass.

  5. If you want to ban a black book, you just call it salacious. it is part of the black stereotype that black people are more sexually decadent than white people, after all.

    Somerby is unwilling to consider the point that whatever sexual content exists in Beloved may be little different than any number of books written by white authors, also read by teens. This is a cooked up excuse to ban a black book because it is embarrassing to white people.

  6. "“It’s not about the author or the awards,” said Murphy, a mother of four whose eldest son had nightmares after reading “Beloved” for his senior-year Advanced Placement English class. “It’s about the content.”

    And yet, I'll bet his mother doesn't forbid him from seeing any number of Halloween slasher films that also evoke nightmares without any redeeming content. I'll bet Murphy's delicate flower of a son has never had a nightmare about school or sports performance or about those graphic car crash movies shown in driver ed, cause she asked for them to be removed too. What? She didn't? She is just challenging this book by a black author? How will that protect her ever so sensitive son from all unpleasantness in his life? What a horrible mother, falling down on the job like that!

    1. She's setting her kid up for a successful future career, where he calls liberals "snowflakes" for a living.

    2. Anonymouse 10:58am, the day isn't close to being over and you’ve already nailed the troll award.

    3. As if you would recognize a troll -- you are just name-calling someone you disagree with.

    4. Cecelia,
      I see Republicans remain laser focused on addressing the economic concerns of their constituents by ...checks notes... trying to ban books.
      It's impossible to be more condescending towards Republican voters than Republican politicians are.

    5. Anonymouse 6:32pm, what books are Republican leaders trying to ban?

    6. Try these for starters:

  7. "Was there something crazy about Murphy's proposal? We'd say the answer is no. Others may disagree."

    Damned right I disagree. Parents shouldn't be second-guessing the school curriculum. If they want to control what is taught, they can home school their kids. The point here is not to protect children, since there is no evidence such books are harmful to kids. The point is to exercise political control over topics such as abortion and birth control, under the guise of eliminating "upsetting" material. I would find it surprising if Murphy's son admitted to such nightmares -- it seems more likely this is made up by Murphy to justify her interference in the local public schools.

  8. "We think parents of public school students should be treated with respect. "

    What is the evidence that parents were not being treated with respect? Respect doesn't entail agreement with parental demands. I'd be more concerned about whether parents, especially The Others, are treating teachers with respect. It seems clear their expertise is being disrespected by Somerby and these conservative parents. It is a teacher's job to know what material is suitable for what age level. The FACT that this uprising didn't originate with any kids suggests this is an example of helicopter parenting at best and political activism at worst.

  9. Here is what the bestiality is about in Morrison's book:

  10. Beloved is literature, not a YA teen novel. As such, it uses symbolism and imagery. Cliff notes provides the following analysis:

    "Chapter 1 introduces a number of motifs (repeating ideas or images) that support Morrison's themes. In addition to numbers, the most significant motifs that reappear in later chapters are these:

    Bestiality, or having animal-like characteristics. This motif is demonstrated by references to the "baby's venom" and Sethe being down "on all fours." References that appear later in the novel include Sethe calling her unborn child a "little antelope" and Garner's slaves copulating with calves."

    This should be discussed in class by whoever is teaching the book. It is not literal and for a parent to take it that way demonstrates the lack of education of the parent, not the mistaken values of the teacher.

  11. Morrison's images are integral to the point of her novel, that slaves were treated like animals.

    Somerby has been accused of being excessively literal before, so he might not understand what Morrison is doing in her novel, but when Clif Notes understands and a parent does not, the ignorance is on the parent.

    It reminds of the scene in The Music Man where the old biddies of the town sing "He left River City the library building, but he left all the books to her...Chaucer, Baudelaire, Balzac!!!" Marian the Librarian is accused of recommending dirty books to the kids of the town.

    That is what is going on here. It is not a "culture war" but a rift between those who are educated and those who are not (whom Somerby fondly refers to as The Other). Somerby should count himself among those others because he is no better than they are, despite having taught math to kids.

    1. Yes, when you're educated you change from Homo sapiens to Homo electus.

    2. That comment is really representative of Democrats these days. We are educated. We are better than you. We look down on the uneducated. If you don't agree with everything we say, we still look down on you even if you are educated.

      Ya'll be bullies!

    3. How can you not look down on someone as stupid as this Murphy woman? She is using her ignorance to make trouble for those who are just trying to educate her kids.

    4. Of course it is better to be educated than uneducated. Just look at all the progress people have made through being educated. This is a no brainer!

    5. I wouldn't look down on her until I walked a mile in her shoes. Or at least broke bread with her.

      2:57 Not that it is better "to be" educated - that educated people "are" better full stop - like it's two classes of people.

    6. I'm afraid the current Democratic party and its prevailing worldviews are in for a rather rough ride.

    7. Education is responsible for all of the progress over history, from developing agriculture to inventions to scientific discoveries. Someone who doesn't value it has a screw loose.

      People who are uneducated tend to look down on others because it makes them feel better about their own deficiencies. Somerby encourages that here. People who kick down at others are not "better people" than anyone else. They are the true bullies.

    8. Well, by that logic education is also responsible for some of the greatest tragedies and moral transgressions over history. It works both ways. Duh. But we have a commenter here who is educated and looking down on others. So people who are uneducated may tend to look down on others but this is an example of the exact opposite. The advocate of the educated is kicking down and bullying the uneducated and seems to be drawing a line and making themselves out to be "better". I think drawing such lines is a huge mistake and very very ignorant. That kind of thinking on the part of educated, left leaning people is a big mistake for a number of different reasons in addition to being simply arrogant.

    9. What transgressions do you see education as producing?

      I see a commenter here who is educated and bemoaning the ignorance of others, but not calling them bad people or looking down on them. It is the job of educated people to educate those who are ignorant. Hardly any of those people look upon ignorance as a character flaw, unless omeone is belligerant about remaining ignorant. In that case, I think it is akin to belligerantly refusing to take a vaccine or wear a mask, or refusing to take a cigarette outside, or similar anti social acts. Being uneducated is not a badge of courage. It is an unfortunate circumstance that individuals should try to remedy because it will lead to a happier life for themselves and those around them.

      Confounding education with "left-leaning" is a mistake too. The education gap between the right and the left is too small to draw such a distinction. Somerby has done a good job teaching people like @3:46 to hate those with expertise. It is one of his main purposes here, because it makes people eaiser to lead around by the nose using theories like those Trump foists onto his followers.

      Knowing things is not arrogance. Refusing to learn because you think you know it all is arrogant, in my opinion.

    10. Corby, your response is too stupid for me to engage in with further. All the best,

    11. 5:26 classic tipping of the king

    12. The troll wins again.

    13. The current Democratic party and its prevailing worldviews are in for a bit of a rough ride.

  12. "Is the American experiment, such as it has been and such as it is, possibly nearing its end?"

    I hope so, America has been a shithole country for too long, here's to late stage capitalism finally dying out.

    Somerby rambles on with a trivial complaint about Shapiro's reporting, but pointedly a sentence is left un-bolded:

    "Currently, students can opt out of books assigned in class that they find uncomfortable to read."

    Somerby offends me, he clearly thinks I'm a gullible rube. Am I really supposed to think that Murphy's alarm is over bestiality and not issues of race? Brother, please, racism is clearly the primary building block of that "tribe" of savages. Also can someone teach Murphy what "double standard" means?

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