WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 27, 2021
Or it might turn on what the public thinks about Us: We've never read Beloved. Kevin Drum claims that he has.
Yesterday, Kevin offered this summary of the award-winning novel, which has kinda sorta become a part of the Virginia gubernatorial campaign:
DRUM (10/26/21): Times sure have changed. It's been many years since I read Beloved, but I remember distinctly that it's chock full of gang rape, sexual abuse, and sexual humiliation—including its famous scene of Black slaves in a chain gang being forced to perform oral sex on their overseers. Even if it were a book with nothing but white characters, it would be a very adult read.
Kevin didn't mention the apparently famous scenes involving bestiality, which are mentioned in many other capsule reviews of the Pulitzer prize-winning book.
Should this celebrated book be assigned to high school students? Due to a campaign ad by Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, this question has kinda sorta come center stage in the Virginia race. Because we haven't read the book, we have no particular answer to that question.
But as such "censorship" discussions almost always do, the discussion of this particular topic has highlighted basic features of the way our nation's warring tribes tend to regard each other. Even worse:
Anthropologists claim that these highly tribalized pseudo-debates showcase one of the unhelpful ways our human brains are wired.
Should Beloved be assigned to high school students? As he continued his brief discussion, Kevin took a non-dogmatic stand. He didn't call anyone names. Amazingly, he seemed to be able to understand more than one point of view:
DRUM (continuing directly): But I guess high school seniors are pretty close to being adults, and there's no guarantee that any book will be 100% trigger free. Complaints about the book from students seem to be pretty rare.
Still, it's easy to see why some older parents would be sort of shocked. This kind of stuff just wasn't assigned back when people our age were impressionable youths. But it's a different world today, even if lots of people continue to resist the idea.
Kevin has read the book; we haven't. He seems to think, on balance, that it's OK to assign this "very adult" book.
Is it true that high school seniors are really "pretty close to being adults?"
In a sense, but not as such! As liberals, we tend to adopt this stance in matters like this. We tend to reject it when it comes to criminal penalties assessed on teenage offenders whose brains are not yet fully formed.
Is it true that "there's no guarantee that any book will be 100% trigger free?"
In a sense, but not as such! Unless we're asserting that there could never be a book which was too "adult" for assignment in high school, Kevin is ducking the actual question here. The actual question is this:
Does Beloved, whatever its overall merit might be, possibly cross over a line which other books do not?
In the current episode, Youngkin has aired a campaign ad featuring a parent, Laura Murphy, who challenged the assignment of Beloved to her son when he was a high school senior back in 2012.
At that time, Murphy didn't exactly want the book to be "banned." According to this real-time report in the Washington Post, she wanted the book "banned until new policies are adopted for books assigned for class that might have objectionable material."
What specific policies did she have in mind? It hardly matters at this point, but in the interest of full disclosure and minimal fairness, along with minor respect for nuance, we might want to consider this:
SHAPIRO (2/7/13): 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.
Written permission had to be sought for movies; there was no such need in the case of books. From these facts, we can draw the following conclusions:
The school district agreed that parents should have some say about the materials their children would be exposed to. At the same time, the school district's policies in this general area may not have been wholly consistent.
Some people may feel that parents should never have any say in any such matters. In the end, whatever the merits, we'll have to assume that that would be a minority view. In this case, the school district didn't agree with that view when it came to the viewing of films.
The school district agreed that parents should hve some say when it come to films. But uh-oh! In the final hubernatorial debate in Virginia, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe issued one of the all-time political gaffes, saying this during a discussion of a related matter:
MCAULIFFE (9/29/21): I’m not going to let parents come into schools and take books out and make their own decision. I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.
"I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach?" Whatever McAuliffe may have meant by that, it qualifies as a world-class political gaffe. In the end, very few voters will agree with the attitude that statement seems to convey.
Everyone makes dumb remarks at some point in the course of running for office. But if McAuliffe ends up losing this race by a narrow margin, that one absurdly ill-shaped remark will quite possibly have provided the margin of his defeat.
Youngkin's ad has produced fully predictable feedback from the liberal base. Consider:
Drum adopted a moderate, understanding view of parental objections in the excerpt we've posted. In comments, though, readers swung into action, sometimes authoring the kinds of arrogant, stupid remarks which get Republicans elected.
There's certainly nothing new about this. For perfectly understandable reasons, our admittedly superior liberal tribe has tended to behave this way roughly since forever.
We're not real strong at respecting the notion that opinions will sometimes differ. The reasons for this are perfectly obvious, but we get hurt by this all the same.
How do we tend to respond to such matters? Below, you see some of the last few comments to that 2013 news report in the Post. Understandably, we liberals were showing our frustration with the lesser breed:
COMMENT: Anal-retentive Republican who wants to deny the horror and abuse of slavery existed. Is she Southern?
COMMENT: Has this book-banner read The Holy Bible, or doesn't that count as a book? Some of the events in the Old Testament would probably scare her little AP boy to tears.
COMMENT: Perhaps we shouldn't let them watch the six o'clock news either? There's some pretty intense stuff going on there as well!
COMMENT: And perhaps we ought to ban lessons of history and current events such as the Holocaust, the casualties and nightmares of war.... perhaps the symptoms and consequences of diseases.
All life except DisneyWorld should be banned then....... right?
COMMENT: It's happening faster than I thought...the pussification of America people, it's here. The next generation will be such a bunch of crybabies and momma's boys that we will stand no chance of EVER surpassing other countries in education or power.
COMMENT: I think the precious little boy had nightmares because the book took him out of the conservative comfort zone of denying and defaming black history. Instead of the knee jerk responses like "slavery was so long ago" and "why don't you get over slavery." For the first time in his life he expose to complex black characters who had endured the horrors of slavery. It was too much for his delicate conservative constitution to take.
Belittlement and name-calling mixed with specious argumentation in those thoroughly typical comments. One commenter even used the P-word, an unfortunate term previously thought to have belonged to Jon Gruden alone.
But then, you can find the same elements in Jonathan Chait's recent discussion of this matter. In his post, Chait mixes an array of factual embellishments—you can start with the headlines on the post—with the name-calling and shaky reasoning on display here:
CHAIT (10/26/21): One irony here is that Republicans are rallying around a privileged snowflake who claims a book millions of children have read caused unbearable trauma. If their principle is that parents should be able to prevent schools from assigning texts that upset their kids, what are they going to say when progressives start demanding the school excise texts by Mark Twain, Richard Wright, and other authors who have run afoul of the left for depicting racist dialogue?
To Chait, Murphy is "a privileged snowflake" rather than an "anal-retentive Republican." Meanwhile, have progressives been demanding that schools excise texts by Mark Twain (i.e., Huckleberry Finn) "for depicting racist dialogue?"
We're not sure about that. But black parents have sometimes raised concerns about the teaching of this book, citing the embarrassment and humiliation its text is said to bring upon their children in the classroom setting. Whatever your ultimate judgment may be, that isn't a stupid concern, nor is it obviously so in the case of Murphy's stated concerns about Beloved.
(In that Post report, Murphy specifically cited the parts of Beloved involving bestiality. How do those passages read? Dearest darlings, use your heads! Even as our publications ridicule Murphy for her objections, their own rules forbid the publication of such fare.)
Issues like these tend to be a godsend for Republican candidates. Loudmouth progressives march off to war, engaging in loud name-calling and displaying attitudes which average voters will tend to find unattractive.
In fairness, episodes like this pose a special challenge for those of us on our side. It's obvious why we react in these ways. The special challenge we face is this:
As a simple matter of fact, we will always be smarter and better than The Others (the lesser breed). But if we fail to disguise this obvious fact in the public statements we make, The Others will take offense.
If we call them "anal-retentive," if we mock their values and their perspectives, they will tend to get mad at us before they'll accept our instruction! This proves that they're the lesser breed—but at the polls, our candidates may get hurt!
It seems to us that topics like this expose a basic human problem. We humans tend to have a very hard time showing basic respect for the views or reactions of Others.
Experts say we're wired this way—that the wiring dates back to prehistory. Experts say that we the humans simply aren't wired for difference.
In this democracy which we're allegedly trying to save, we liberals are forced to go to the polls with the electorate we have. For us liberals, that means that we have to go to the polls with many members of the lesser breed.
The Others will never be as good or as fair or as brilliant as we are. But when we insult them and call them names, they dumbly take offense!
Drum's post bore a prescient headline. His headline went like this:
Virginia race may hinge on what you think of "Beloved"
That's one way of parsing this matter. A scarier way is this:
The Virginia race may turn on what the public thinks about Us!
At present, we're out there trying to lose this race. Experts say this has always been one of the ways we roll.
We like to call The Others names. Weirdly enough, they react by deciding to vote against us!