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An Overview of the “Culture Wars”

I am writing this the day before the Virginia Gubernatorial race between McAuliffe and Younkin. I am expecting Younkin to win, though one might well say that six weeks before the California Recall election, I thought that Newsom would lose, although I did not think that a week or so before the vote. I see that Larry Sabato, highly respected as an observer of Virginia politics, has “moved” the race to “lean Younkin,” just today. Well, we will see, and root hard for McAuliffe, as he was a more than decent governor, and Younkin is a right-wing jerk, to put it inelegantly.

As we all know, Younkin, in typical Republican fashion, has gotten the race and the media to focus on a “cultural” issue. He has spent a couple of months attacking “Critical Race Theory,” which can be controversial, but is not taught in Virginia schools. He recently found another such issue, centered around a parent of a young man at a Virginia high school who had earlier sued the School District, because the teacher assigned the novel “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison, to be read in his Advanced Placement class, and she said that it caused him nightmares. So Younkin, now in classic demagogue fashion. has vowed to ban the teaching of that book,

One would then ask, what would the totalitarian-in-waiting Younkin also want to ban? Of course, he is just using this to inflame and infuriate his base, to make sure that they vote. But these are very dangerous words, and should have no place in this country, which was built on the concept of free expression.

However, all the Republicans care about is winning. and they have been successful at running campaigns focused on cultural issues, to avoid discussing actual policies. Do you remember when the 1988 presidential race somehow turned toward Michael Dukakis saying that he was a member of the ACLU, and that he was opposed to the death penalty?

A Supreme Court decision had years before left the death penalty issue to each state. Dukakis had no power to change state laws. But the Republicans made this so important, and the media, as always, let them do it. And then there was Willie Horton, a prisoner who was paroled in Massachusetts, and then terrorized a couple. Dukakis didn’t parole him, the Parole Board did. But of course Horton was a symbol; a violent Black man, someone whom the Bush campaign wanted to tie to Dukakis, as in, “If you elect him, he will let violent criminals go free, because he is a bleeding-heart liberal, and then you are in danger from such people roaming in your neighborhood.”

And there was the “flag-burning issue,” which was another logically absurd misdirection which worked on susceptible voters. The Supreme Court, including all of the Justices on the Right, in one case, have held that flag burning is “symbolic speech” protected by the First Amendment. But they got the electorate so angry, that Dukakis was going to allow people to burn flags. Do you remember when Bush kept making appearances at flag factories?

So it has gone on like this. Actually, Republicans have always run on fear. Fear of Bolsheviks, and later fear of Communists, and Socialists, and Freethinkers; Atheists, Hippies, Free Love Advocates, Intellectuals, Wine Drinking, Cheese Eating Elites.

Now, it’s “people who are going to force you to read books that you don’t want to read. Books that make you feel bad about being White. They’re going to make you read them, and only we can stop them.” Of course, this is the absolute converse of complaining that Democrats were canceling all the things you like, such as Doctor Seuss books, and Christmas. Democrats don’t want you to read Doctor Seuss, bu we will make sure that you can, while we make sure that you can’t assign “Beloved” in high school!

But of course the logic of it is completely irrelevant, as it always is when you are just trying to stoke anger, fear, and then also racially based reactions. What is interesting is that Democrats, liberals, almost never do this, though they could. They could campaign against a totalitarian like Younkin vowing to ban a Pulitzer Prize winning novel from the classroom. DeSantis n Florida banning professors at the University of Florida from testifying at hearings about the validity of Florida’s voter suppression laws, because he claims that as employees of the state, they cannot argue a position counter to that of the state. Can you imagine if that became a rule, that no one in a state job could ever argue a position contrary to the governor’s?

But Democrats don’t run on such things, they mostly run on a policy agenda: what they will do to improve living conditions wages, roads. It is as if they sense that the average voter is not very sophisticated; and that while their own voters will understand the great dangers to free speech and democracy that the Republican candidates pose, the rest of the electorate will not react that way, and will easily be manipulated by the demagogic pronouncements that their opponents make. The problem is, that the Republicans do make those statements,and then seem to own the playing field. that the Democrats are wary of playing on. And in Virginia, it has happened again. And Republicans far too often are able to win just on such invented or wildly overstated “cultural issues.”

Now I will say something which undercuts this a bit, but is only fair, and does provide some clue as to why this is effective. I was in a book group some time ago, and someone chose “Beloved’ as the book of the week. And I started it, but I did not finish, which was the only time I did not in the group. I found it to be so angry, so full of what might be seen as hatred of White people, at least those in the story, that I did not feel like subjecting myself to that, particularly since book club readings are obviously optional.

It may have become more rewarding had I gotten through it. I have read all the way through, books that t I was not liking,, but often that is because I was in school, or maybe I just wanted to see whether the critics who loved it were wrong in my view. But not this one. There was at least one more person in the group who also didn’t want to keep reading it, though it must be noted that she apparently was too busy to read many of them. Anyway, there was not much of a discussion; so we went on to other books. I think that I am apt to be able to tell fairly early whether I will like a book, though of course “liking” is not necessarily requisite.

So from what I had read, I could actually see someone being upset and even having nightmares from it. However, “Beloved” and Toni Morrison certainly have received much acclaim. If I were in school, and it was assigned, I would have read it, not just for a grade, but almost out of respect tor the professor who assigned that or any book. If he or she admired the book, or thought that it was worthy of discussion, I would participate and try to learn something.

When I studied literature at college, I read what is now sometimes derisively referred to as “the canon.” Books which happened to be almost all from White males, because most of the books were written by them, at a time when women had a good deal of difficulty finding a publisher. But those who did, writers like Emily Bronte, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), Edith Wharton, Flannery O’ Connor, were assigned.

Mostly in American Literature, we read Hawthorne and Melville and Twain; Stephen Crane, James, Joseph Conrad; Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Dreiser, Salinger, Bellow. They certainly differed in style and themes, but there were very few minority writers whose books were assigned, besides James Baldwin.

Now that has changed, and there are many writers of minority background whose books are assigned in school, and who win awards. I have not read too many of them, but some. If I taught a course in American literature, I would probably mostly stick with my favorites, and maybe get in trouble for it.

Some books are underrated for the wrong reasons, and some are overrated. I had a colleague at work with whom I shared recommendations of books,; and he encouraged me to read Marquez, and I must have read three of them, and did not really like any of them very much.

So I will say that it is good to introduce students to various writers of various backgrounds, but Literature is not a course in politics, where you try to “show” students how they should think about things. The great writers certainly had opinions,and sometimes biases of various types, but if they were truly great, they gave their novels or plays depth and balance,, so that they did not turn into the novelistic counterparts to the 15th and 16th Century English Morality Plays. How all of this plays out in individual classrooms, with various teachers, is of course almost invariably apt to upset some people.

I certainly don’t think that books, outside of the very few that are suffused with racial or religious hatred, or inciting of violence, should be banned. This country was supposedly founded on that principle, though we have had a history of various groups, mostly from the Right, but more recently and disconcertingly from the Left, trying to ban or suppress writings or ideas that they do not like, or are afraid will corrupt or misdirect others.

In the ’40’s and ’50’s, there were all sorts of Right-Wing groups trying to ban or burn “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” “Forever Amber,” “Catcher in the Rye,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and other books which were about sex, or expressed anti-establishment or anti-business sentiments. We liberals fought bravely against the tide of ignorant suppression, and for the right of artists to express uncomfortable opinions and truths. But somehow now there are people who seem themselves as Progressives, who do try to get people fired for something they said or wrote, even thirty years or more ago. Both sides seem afraid of letting others read things and make up their own minds, with the professor and the fellow students to help provide other points of view.

One thing we do know is that the Republicans will never stop trying to use these “culture issues,” because it allows them to avoid talking about actual policy objectives, and lets them paint themselves as people who are trying to protect their followers from rampaging liberals and minorities who are trying to take away their comfort zone, and force them to listen to incendiary rhetoric.

The next time someone gets fired in the entertainment world, or the awards shows feature socially themed acceptance speeches, the Republicans will be there to try to work this into their themes. Democrats have to be brave enough to turn these narratives around and tot try to inform people that the Republicans are the real totalitarians, given any kind of chance. And that the reason that America was founded in the first place, was because the framers of the Constitution understood what people with immense power can do to others who do not share their views or beliefs, and tried to provide as many protections as possible for the free exchange of ideas.