Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, apparently wants voters to think his opponent is a dead Nobel Prize-winning novelist. In the waning days of the race, Youngkin released an ad featuring a mother who tried to have Toni Morrison’s Beloved banned from her son’s 12th grade English curriculum eight years ago.
You read that right! Instead of focusing on issues that affect Virginians today — such as access to healthcare, crumbling infrastructure, and economic opportunity — Youngkin has dredged up a matter from nearly a decade ago. In the ad, the mother, Laura Murphy, complains about “some of the most explicit material you can imagine” that her son had to read.
Now, to be clear, Beloved is hard to read. It is graphic, deliberately so. Morrison’s depiction of slavery is brutal for one reason: Slavery was a brutal institution, and Morrison did not shy from portraying the ways in which slavery destroyed the souls of both the enslaved and the enslaver. Beloved contains scenes of rape and sexual perversion because rape and sexual perversion were central to the history of enslavement. According to genetic studies, the average African American genome is about a quarter European. That genetic material is mostly a product of nonconsensual relationships.
In the TV ad, Murphy said she lobbied to have the then Republican-controlled Virginia legislature pass a bill requiring schools to notify parents of “sexually explicit content” in subject matter taught to their children. The ad makes the legislation sound harmless, but as the National Coalition Against Censorship pointed out, “The bill is silent on what content would be labelled ‘sexually explicit.’” The organization suggested that the act’s vagueness might be used to ban most Shakespearean drama and such classics as Madame Bovary and The Canterbury Tales.
Youngkin’s ad does not, of course, mention that Murphy and her husband are Republican activists and that their son was a high school senior taking advanced placement English. Nor does it reveal that the son in question went on to work briefly in the White House under former President Donald Trump and is now an employee of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.
So, what does this somewhat ancient history have to do with next week’s Virginia gubernatorial election? One thing: The legislation Murphy induced the state legislature to pass was vetoed twice by then-Governor Terry McAuliffe, who, this time around, happens to be Youngkin’s opponent. Youngkin, who desperately is trying to walk a tightrope regarding his relationship with Trump — staying close enough to the disgraced former president to avoid angering ardent Trumpistas, but far enough away to not antagonize independent voters in the voter-rich D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia — needs an issue that he hopes appeals to both groups.
McAuliffe helped Youngkin find that issue when the former governor defended his vetoes by saying, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” McAuliffe’s boneheaded comment allowed Youngkin to put the Virginia election in the forefront of the heated national debate over what should be taught in schools and who gets to decide.
Critical race theory — an academic construct suggesting that racism is embedded in American institutions — has become a flashpoint in this debate, and numerous state legislatures and school boards have moved to ban its teaching. Ignored in all this is that critical race theory is not taught in schools below the college level. Also ignored is that the theory does not imply that all White people are racists. Rather, critical race theory holds that racism is pervasive in America because of the nation’s history.
Attacks on Toni Morrison’s novel and critical race theory are part of a Republican strategy to focus public ire on so-called cultural issues rather than on more substantive matters. The GOP’s attempt to wage culture wars also deflects attention from the embarrassing revelations that have arisen and likely will continue to arise regarding the role Trump and key Republican politicians played in the January 6 insurrection.
Fights over what is and is not taught in the nation’s schools are proxy battles for the larger issue centering on the enormous changes in the makeup of American society over the last half century. In the middle of the last century, the nation was nearly 90 percent White. Now, it is 60 percent White and in a few decades, people of color will be a majority. White resentment fueled the rise of political populism and lifted Trump to the presidency in 2016, and it continues to manifest itself in the culture wars that are animating the Virginia gubernatorial election.
Besides, Republican strategists and politicians have understood for decades that culture wars not only energize voters, they help raise an enormous amount of money. Terry Dolan of the National Conservative Political Action Committee admits, “The shriller you are, the better it is to raise money.” Fevered pitches centered on education but also focused on such issues as abortion, gun rights, marriage equality, transgender issues. and “cancel culture” rake in millions of dollars for rightwing politicians. As “Deep Throat” said in the 1970s in another connection, “Follow the money.”
The role of culture wars in Republican political strategy was revealed recently in a memo sent by Representative Jim Banks of Indiana to fellow members of the Republican Study Committee. Banks chairs the group, and his memo encouraged Republicans to embrace attacks on critical race theory. Banks entitled the memo, “Lean into the culture war,” and he wrote “Republicans are working to renew American patriotism and rebuild our country,” adding, “Here’s the good news. We are winning.”
I do not know if Glenn Youngkin read Banks’ memo, but clearly Youngkin’s strategy comports with its thrust in that he apparently believes a cultural battle centered on Toni Morrison’s revered book will result in a victory next Tuesday.
Posted October 29, 2021