WEDNESDAY: "Virginia race may hinge on what you think of Beloved!"


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.

That said:

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!


  1. TLDR. As long as there is no word 'nigger' in it, and no one is depicted lighting a cigarette, the book is fine, dear Bob. Obviously. As if you didn't know.

  2. "Because we haven't read the book, we have no particular answer to that question. "

    Is it too much to ask that Somerby read the book before writing a column about it and similar novels?

    1. Read the book, for a blog post?

      How about the empty talking heads on TV start by reading the book by the author they are interviewing?

    2. Part and parcel of Somerby's worldview of casually tossing aide the notion of experts and expertise. Why should he read a book, he's got a vanity blog with fanboys; leave the reading to liberals and progressives who are apparently setting about destroying the country with their justice and wokeness.

    3. Rationalist, the good ones do.

  3. "Anthropologists claim that these highly tribalized pseudo-debates showcase one of the unhelpful ways our human brains are wired."

    This is pure bunk. Anthropologists are not concerned with "how our brains are wired" but rather with discovering universals of human behavior across cultures. Those who study how the brain is wired are called cognitive neuroscientists. Those who study the relationship between brain and behavior are called cognitive psychologists. None of them were involved in the writing of this column and most likely not involved either in the formation of Somerby's ideas. Note that Somerby never mentions any anthropologist by name. Note also how nonspecific he is about discussing brain wiring, and how he never uses any appropriate terminology to discuss this topic.

    In short, he is full of shit.

    1. Holy crap these comments!

      It's tongue-in-cheek.

    2. Also, maybe look up Neuroanthropology.

      "In short, he is full of shit." Not quite as well-founded a conclusion, eh?

    3. Except not really. The "anthropologist" part is, it is one of his recurring dumb jokes. but the rest is sincere, so the comment is appropriate in it's methodology. We can play coy and be excessively literal too!

    4. 1:20

      Either you are playing the game now too, or it went over your head.

    5. I regret every time I interact with you.

      Yes, consider it a win please.

    6. When has Somerby ever mention neuroanthropology?

      "Neuroanthropology was created to encourage exchanges among anthropology, philosophy, social theory, and the brain sciences."

      Somerby never talks about any of this stuff. He only uses his imaginary anthropologists to justify calling political parties tribes, a term used primarily by conservatives to talk about liberals in a negative way. He is emphatically not referencing neuroanthropology with anything he says here.

    7. This may be a dumb joke or game to Somerby, but it is also how he denigrates expertise, appropriating the tone of authority without the knowledge. He is demonstrating that anyone can claim an anthropologist expert to back up his bullshit without having to know anything at all. It is destructive of the notion of reality, truth, facts, expertise and knowledge. These must be torn down so that conservative lies can replace them. I don't find that process much of a joke at all.

  4. "In a sense, but not as such! As liberals, we tend to adopt this stance in matters like this."

    These high schoolers are legally allowed to marry (with parental permission or emancipation). Many will marry following their graduation from high school (those not going to college). They will be deemed old enough to not only engage in sex but also raise kids, take out loans, join the military, and many other decisions because they will be legally adults in a matter of months.

    Infantilizing teens when it is convenient to do so is not only inconsistent but an abuse of the kids for political purposes.

    It is true that the frontal lobes are not fully developed, but they won't be until age 25. Criminal defenses based on impulse control are true, but there appear to be no other protections of young adults when it comes to other major life decisions. No forgiveness of debt for foolish purchases, no do-overs if you join the military and don't like it there, nothing but divorce as a remedy for a poor choice of life-mate. Kids learn by doing after high school.

    A book that might better prepare kids for their subsequent lives by teaching them why black people are upset about racism and what slavery was like, seems like a good idea to me. But Somerby's greater concern about logical consistency seems to outweigh any thoughts he might have about the value of such books to the kids involved.

    In fact, I don't see anyone really concerned about the kids, other than as pawns in a political game in which the South continues to deny its guilt and Republicans want to control the thoughts and minds of everyone when it comes to racial atrocities in the South.

    Somerby and I are both of the age when the murders of three freedom riders were current events. They were deeply shocking, as was the realization that there would be no justice for their deaths because the South closed ranks to protect their killer(s). Today's kids saw what Kyle Rittenhouse did. How is that not deeply shocking? But reading a book that puts such acts into perspective is harmful? That makes no sense at all.

    That make kids read about Anne Frank in middle school. Bambi's mother dies in elementary school. So does Old Yeller. Follow My Leader is a book about guide dogs, for a kid who lost his vision playing with fireworks. There is death in Harry Potter books, along with child abuse and sadism. What exactly are kids being protected from, with this proposed banning of a book written by a black author?

    The book Black Boy, the autobiography of Richard Wright, was banned too:

    "1972 - Michigan - After parents objected to sexual overtones and claimed it was unsuitable for teens, it was removed from classrooms. Louisiana - East Baton Rouge schools retained the book after it was challenged for "obscenity, filth, and pornography."

    The grounds are obscenity, but the real reasons have to do with the mistreatment of black people in our society, and parental desires to hide such truths from their kids. And if they are ashamed of their acts, they should consider why that is so and instead address the racism that motivated the mistreatment of black people.

    The Autobiography of Malcolm X was assigned in my high school in the 60s. I read Wright's book Native Son around the same time. It involves inter-racial sex and there is a murder at the end. I found it deeply shocking but it also provided a perspective on race and that was not only formative but important to growing up.

    Somerby needs to look at the political purposes behind this controversy, not excuse the parents who find the world too shocking to allow their kids to experience.

  5. "Belittlement and name-calling mixed with specious argumentation in those thoroughly typical comments."

    Everyone does this: I can't remember a Republican who doesn't do this.

    As for "Beloved," if the description is correct, then I wouldn't assign it to a H.S. student. Nor any other book with graphic sexuality. I'm not naïve. It's not that H.S. kids don't already know about the subject, but for what purpose does it serve as a school assignment? Especially when there are other books which teach about the horrors of slavery without the sex.

    1. What other purpose? Morrison serves as a role model for black achievement in a white-dominated field. The inclusion of sex motivates the students to read the other content of the book. A book that is "adult" will be better received by students, many of whom do not have a habit of reading for pleasure. The impact of the book is important whereas other treatments of slavery are dry and less vivid and thus do not communicate the horrors of slavery as effectively. Morrison's work is literature, not just a slavery narrative, and thus highly suitable for an English class that is supposed to be exposing students to the best works of literature. This book was considered the best book of its time period, holding that distinction until 2006. Young people need to be exposed to unpleasant feelings so that they can learn coping skills. Presenting such a book in an environment where it can be discussed and the experience shared is better than leaving students on their own to read it later on. It is instructive to see that black student reactions may be different than white student reactions in such a discussion. It is good for students to learn that books can be moving, not just instructive. Books provide a way for students to vicariously experience things they might never encounter elsewhere or by choice, thus giving them a chance to walk in black people's shoes for a short time, learning empathy.

      I think there are lots of reasons to assign such a book.

    2. There are terrible things that happened during the Holocaust that don’t need to be treated as curricular object lessons into the horror we are capable of inflicting on each other.

      Goodness, know these kids regularly see and hear squalid things that are centimeters away from predication and violence, sexual and otherwise, but I don’t think this should be part of a routine high school curriculum.

      As much as the motivation is to get the word out, so we can scare these budding racists straight, this can have a coarsening and hardening effect rather than heightening sensitivity.

      This material is more appropriately taught in college.

    3. "The inclusion of sex motivates the students to read the other content of the book."


    4. When I was Somerby's age, teens were all reading "Gidget." It contains a rape scene, not just surfing. Plenty of kids books these days talk about drugs, teen pregnancy, child abuse and domestic violence, gang violence, and other realities that can be triggering or traumatic.

      In high school, we read "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" which is about a man's guts spilling out of his body during war. We read "The Red Badge of Courage," which is about cowardice in war. We read "All's Quiet on the Western Front," another anti-war novel that is quite graphic. Is that stuff OK, but sex is not? Is it OK to describe war in graphic terms but not slavery? We read "The Man Without a Country" in middle school. I worried about that poor man for months, about him never being able to alight in any country because he lacked citizenship everywhere. You never know what will be traumatic to a child, but learning to cope with reality is a gradual process that takes place as the result of education and that is part of the purpose of school. Not just indoctrination and sugar coating of unpleasant truths. In elementary school, we went on a field trip to the animal shelter, where they told us two upsetting things: (1) that many animals are found in the trash where families throw them out, and (2) that animals are killed after two weeks, if no one adopts them, and most shelter animals are not adopted. Is that too upsetting for a small child? There were no protests over that field trip, which leads me to suspect that it isn't the trauma but the political motives that are behind these news articles.

  6. Parents of students should have a say in these kinds of things, but if this is all that Somerby's sweeping claims of a self destructive liberal tribe rests on, not only has he failed to make his case, but it lays bare that the primary building block of his discourse is bad faith.

    The real question is why is McAuliffe the Dem candidate? He is terrible, a neoliberal, and not a progressive.

    1. They are hoping he can win. Virginia is still part of the South.

    2. Copy that Corby. You are correct, but still, it's disappointing. Obviously any Dem is better than any Repub.

  7. Two facts that Somerby ignores: (1) The book was assigned in an AP (i.e., college level) course, not a regular HS course; and (2) the parent is a conservative activist.

  8. There can be quite a difference between a book and a movie made from that book. Consider "A Clockwork Orange". Watching horrifying events isn't the same thing as reading about them.

  9. Here is why parents are warned for films but not books.

    When you watch a film, experiences are depicted for you by actors, so you see things perhaps beyond your personal experience.

    When you read a book you visualize what is described drawing upon your own imagination, which is limited by the personal experiences you have already had in your life. If something is described for which you have no experience (such as exotic sex acts), you will be unable to form a coherent image of what is being done, what is going on, and the vagueness of such a limited image will not be traumatizing to a child. It will not go beyond what that child already knows.

    This is similar to when kids hear dirty words. A young child may recognize that repeating such words upsets parents and teachers, but he or she may have no idea what the word means, what it is referring to, because a child's experience contains no reference experiences to be named by such words. The same is true of the sex acts described in a book such as Beloved. A child with a limited experience cannot know what a lash feels like, much less 50 or 100 lashes. A child cannot know what bestiality is either. I heard about Catherine the Great having sex with horses when I was in middle school. Never having experienced any kind of sex, I had no idea what she did with those horses. The "trauma" was limited by being a child with no reference points for weird sex or even sex at all. So reading is self-limiting whereas movies are not.

  10. Here is a different take on which books should be banned in high school classrooms:

    1. They should have more cotton picking assignments in high school.

    2. Every American should be given the opportunity to punch Tom Cotton in the face.

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