Sanity prevails for now in the great censorship battle of Spotsylvania County
All photos courtesy of Lori Diane Photography.
We were running late to the book burning.
“We need to leave,” my wife told me, “What if they burn all the books before we get there?” They’d scheduled the book burning for the same day that the Apache Log4j vulnerability dropped, so I ended up patching servers later than anticipated.
While that was an unhappy coincidence, it was intentional that people had scheduled the book burning the night of the latest Spotsylvania County School Board meeting. Everything had been on fire: fire and brimstone proclamations from concerned parents, fired up teachers and students speaking out against censorship, a flame war in local online groups, heated arguments between the board members, and surprise readings of red-hot literary excerpts.
It had started two meetings prior when two parents addressed the board during Public Comments to complain about two books on the high school’s shelves, Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman and 33 Snowfish by Adam Rapp. In response, the board voted 6-0 to remove all “sexually explicit” books from the high school shelves, though it never defined what constituted “sexually explicit”. Going further, two members, Mr. Rabih Abuismail and Mr. Kirk Twigg, suggested that they might burn any books they found to be inappropriate. Predictably, those actions had divided the community into two opposing factions.
The call for burning books made the national news and, depending on how you looked at things, either made Spotsylvania County a laughing-stock or placed it on the latest front in the culture war to #SaveTheChildren. People had turned out at the next meeting in large numbers, most of them to decry the decision to remove the books, the suggestion of book burning, and the perceived homophobia of Mr. Abuismail. Following their display, the board had voted 5-2 not to remove the books after all, with Abuismail and Twigg casting the dissenting votes.
Then, just when everyone thought that Spotsylvania was done making a national spectacle of itself, a local Facebook page named “Spotsy411” went viral for scheduling a book burning to coincide with the next meeting. On the event page, they invited everyone to have their children check inappropriate books out of the school libraries so that they could burn the books before the meeting. Screenshots of the Facebook Event were all over my Twitter feed.
Commenters deluged the Spotsy411 page, lambasting it for supporting censorship. The local paper published an article about the event, which included a quote from the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office that it would be present to ensure that no book burning took place. The page disappeared for some days; they either deactivated it or made it private. When it reappeared the event was gone. When people confronted the page, it repeatedly denied that they had ever suggested that people should burn books. Contrary to all of this, screenshots circulated in local online groups showing that the page had confirmed in chat messages that they still planned to have a book burning.
The Spotsylvania County Schools administrative offices are one intersection past Patriot Park. Despite the delay, my wife and I arrived half an hour early. We couldn’t find anything burning.
I checked my phone and discovered that, three hours before, the Spotsy411 page had posted, “PERVERT ALERT”, and gave a time an hour away and location across the street with no further information. The post had been liked by someone using a picture of Jason Statham as their profile pic. I thought this might be a covert announcement of the book burning and so drove over there, where I discovered a high school swarming with cops and a few members of the media. The school board meeting had been moved to the high school auditorium and, despite the fact that the county website had not been updated to reflect this, everyone seemed to have known but me.
I went inside to get the lay of things. The public portion of the meeting had started but, consulting the provided agenda, the public comments were not due to start for a while. I refreshed the PERVERT ALERT post and it had a new like from a woman named Sandra who, according to her Facebook profile, believes that Biden stole the election and that the pandemic is related to the JFK assassination. Minutes before she had made a mocking post, including a series of pictures clearly taken within the auditorium, about a teacher pushing her mask up in order to eat a snack.
Using the pictures, I found the woman sitting in the back row with a clump of other women. That triangulation should really have been unnecessary, as that group were the only ones there without masks. I noticed that several of them had brought young children with them, which seemed risky given that Mr. Abuismail had read sexually explicit passages out of context and without warning at previous school board meetings.
I had just missed the board voting to accept the resignation of the School Supervisor, Dr. Scott Baker, by a vote of 4-3, with board member Lisa Phelps joining Abuismail and Twigg in voting against it. His resignation surprised no one. The county elections in November had tipped the balance of power toward the Tea Party and the new board majority had been open about their intention to find an excuse to fire him.
After it showed a video presentation of a student choir, issued various awards and recognitions to members of the school system, and performed various other administrative agenda items, the board opened the floor to public comments. This part of the meeting lasted around three hours. About a third of the speakers thanked Dr. Baker profusely and bemoaned that the school system would be much worse off without him.
An overlapping 80% of the speakers covered much the same ground as the previous meeting, with concerned teachers and citizens speaking out for student choice and against school board censorship and homophobia. Many seemed to be competing to see who could deliver the best roast of Misters Abuismail and Twigg. Abuismail kept getting up from his seat and leaving for lengthy periods, to the great annoyance of many. Even when he was present, he stared at his phone and did not make eye contact.
The remaining speakers, who numbered fewer than 10, decried the “filth” on the library shelves, the mask mandate, and suggested that the staff of the schools might be full of sexual predators. “Predators go where prey is”, insisted one woman repeatedly. She asked for regular background checks on teachers and other school employees. She read a sexually explicit passage from The Kite Runner. I noted that one of the maskless women in the back put headphones on one of her grand-daughters but not the other one. The woman then read the infamous peach scene from Call Me By Your Name. This was not the only time that an anti-book speaker read explicit passages, but thankfully this was the only time that a warning, so that parents could remove their children from the auditorium, didn’t come first.
It went back and forth like that for the rest of the evening. A man pointed out that removing books with explicit content would mean removing the Bible. A librarian spoke about the necessity of stocking diverse books in order to enable marginalized students to see themselves represented in the books that they read. A woman spoke at length about freedom and the Constitution before insisting that schools are indoctrinating students rather than teaching them and that “biology is redefined” in the classroom.
A teacher pointed out that they’re not assigning these books to students, just making them available. She said that it is important to allow students to set their own boundaries. to choose for themselves. Sometimes they choose books that are not the right fit: maybe it’s not a subject they like, or the style of prose doesn’t work for them, or it’s too mature or immature; when that happens they put down the book and get another. Sometimes a student chooses a book that they like but it contains scenes that they aren’t prepared for; when that happens they put down the book or skip ahead in it. The important thing is that they choose and are in control of how they engage with the material, unlike those in the auditorium when Abuismail and earlier speakers read explicit excerpts.
A man named Daniel explained that he does not believe that we should ban books. He’s all for legal pornography, yet believes that schools should stick to core academics and not allow “morality” to guide their reading lists. He then railed against school libraries for shelving sexually explicit material. As he continued, it became evident that by “morality” he meant what some call “the gay agenda” and not his own internalized Puritanism.
Of the small number of people who spoke in support of removing books, Daniel was the only one willing have a local reporter interview him on camera. I ducked out of the auditorium to watch the interview and then to listen as others chatted him up. Daniel claimed to know the man who runs the Spotsy411 page and insisted that he was only trolling people when he created the book burning event, that he never really planned it.
He repeatedly complained that everyone had latched onto “book burning”, saying that it was a straw man that distracted from the real issue: that he had failed as a parent to prepare his children to navigate the culture at large and therefore could not trust them to make choices for themselves, therefore it was imperative that the rest of the world continue to shield his children. (NOTE: Those were not his exact words but his meaning was clear.)
The rest of the school board meeting was largely uneventful. No books were burned.