These days, everyone is a censor
Toni Morrison, God rest her soul, has been in the news this week. In the annoying Virginia governor’s race, Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate, has pledged to end the teaching of critical race theory. Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill that would have required schools to notify parents when schools assign books with explicit content. Terry McAuliffe is a Democratic hack. But he’s certainly right in this case. As we’ve learned lately, “explicit content” can mean “anything parents don’t like.”
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That was certainly true in Youngkin’s ad, which featured Laura Murphy, a Republican witch from Virginia, who’s been trying to ban Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ from schools because it gave her son “nightmares.” Now, keep in mind, that son, Blake, was 17 at the time and a student in AP English class. He’s now a staffer for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Somehow, he survived the nightmare.
Voters in Virginia probably have bigger concerns than whether or not Toni Morrison promotes bestiality and underage sex in her book (spoiler: she does not). But this has led to all manner of concern trolling on the left. The controversy over ‘Beloved,’ said CNN.com, “is so much bigger than one book.” And, you know, maybe it is. Maybe if we ban Beloved from Virginia schools, then the next step is saying “slavery didn’t happen” and “racism is no big deal.”
But this is about something different than critics are saying.
It’s easy and obvious to pinpoint a proposed Toni Morrison ban as a “racist dog whistle,” as McAuliffe called it. And yes, Morrison’s themes about the legacy of slavery and racism probably do make certain people, not yet adjusted to 21st century reality, uncomfortable. But this is also part of a larger hysteria on the right over pedophilia and sexuality, which has caught literature in the crosshairs. Toni Morrison’s undisputed literary classic has become yet another signpost in the Comet Ping-Ponging of American culture, where right-wing fringe loons are insisting liberal elites want to bugger your babies at every turn. It’s annoying and depressing, but maybe not a sign that America is prepared to return to full-time practice of its original sin, racism.
Meanwhile, in Canada
Besides, the censorial impulse doesn’t reside only on the political right. Let’s turn our attention north to Canada, a country so woke that it never sleeps, where book burning is all the rage. A school board in Ottawa has become the latest Canadian educational institution to remove a book from its shelves. This time, it’s ‘Lord of the Flies.’
A bureaucrat, sounding like he’s fully internalized his white fragility training, said that they’d yanked Lord of the Flies because it internalizes white male power structures: “We’ve done a great job over the years of adding collections that promote the diversity both of our workforce and our students and our community as a broader point, but we haven’t spent the concentrated effort that we need to spend on ensuring that we’re removing inappropriate or texts that are questionable and don’t have the pedagogical frameworks that we need.”
Never mind that Lord the Flies is the ultimate critique of white male power structures, and a brutal indictment both of colonialism and of the ultimate cruelty of the male ego. It’s a powerful parable that continues to resonate in popular culture nearly 70 years after its publication. But this is the way in Canada now, where books like To Kill a Mockingbird, and, for god’s sake, The Handmaid’s Tale, are no longer appropriate because of racism or misogyny or homophobia or other unnamed crimes.
The censorial impulse
This is Canada, you say, our looney left-wing sibling to the north. And that’s true, to some extent. But let’s not pretend that left-wing censorial impulse doesn’t exist in the United States, because it does. It’s just that we have an equally powerful censorial right-wing impulse. Book banning is all the rage, across the aisle.
On the surface, there aren’t many similarities between Beloved and Lord of the Flies. But they do have one important thing in common: Nobel Prize-winning authors wrote both of them. William Golding won his in 1983, and Toni Morrison 10 years later. Golding got his toward the end of his career, while Morrison still had a bit to go, but you could easily call them Nobel laureate contemporaries. And I guarantee that neither would support the banning of each other’s books. While the Nobel Prize certainly doesn’t have a perfect track record, any writer who’s won the Nobel is worth reading. They certainly shouldn’t be open to a ban.
There’s been a ton of outrage from the political left in the United States because of the proposed Toni Morrison ban. Even though that outrage has been quite performative, it’s also justified. And there’s been quite a bit of grumbling, at least on right-wing Twitter, about the much more down-low Lord of the Flies ban. Let me cross the aisle and say the impulse to ban books, no matter what the intention or ideological reason, is always wrong. Before you start casting aspersions on your political opponents, you should also check to see if the call to ban books is coming from inside the house.