Culture wars roaring back with Virginia’s Toni Morrison book battle

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Now there’s a culture war over who is waging the culture war.

Conservatives say it’s the loony left. Liberals say it’s nutty right-wingers.

One thing that’s not in dispute is that it’s back, big time.

And I think it’s a fair statement that both sides are amply engaged. It’s like when each party accuses the other of “playing politics” with this or that issue while it’s standing on principle. Let’s just say political considerations are never very far from the minds of politicians.

You might think, while battling a pandemic and inflation and global supply chain problems, the culture stuff would be relegated to the back burner. But hot buttons tend to be pounded at election time.

That’s why, in the Virginia governor’s race, what began as one mother’s complaint about a book eight years ago is suddenly the hottest topic for Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin. And that means it’s drawing national coverage, since the pundits have decreed that Tuesday’s election – a dead heat right now – will have huge implications for the midterms.

President Joe Biden, right, reacts after speaking at a rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, in Arlington, Virginia.
(Associated Press)

The fact that McAuliffe, a former governor and DNC chairman, has had to bring in both Joe Biden and Barack Obama to bolster his campaign against Youngkin, a little-known neophyte backed by Donald Trump, is revealing.

Obama dismissed the book controversy as not “serious”: “We don’t have time to be wasted on these phony trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage, the right-wing media peddles to juice their ratings.”

But it has touched a nerve, in part because the book in question is “Beloved,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Toni Morrison. It’s a Civil War tale about a Black woman who kills her daughter rather than have her grow up in slavery.

A Northern Virginia woman objected to the book’s graphic depiction of sex and violence, and helped persuade the state legislature – on a bipartisan basis – to pass a bill allowing parents to have their kids opt out of discussions of such material, as with a sex-ed course. About half the commonwealth’s districts already had such policies. As governor, McAuliffe twice vetoed the bill.

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin talks to supporters at a sports bar in Chesapeake, Virginia, Oct. 11, 2021. 
(Associated Press)

With Youngkin putting the woman, Laura Murphy, in an ad, the battle was joined. Cue the tough rhetoric.

McAuliffe accused his opponent of using schools and children as “political pawns,” saying his “divisive culture wars” message of “book banning and silencing esteemed Black authors is a racist dog whistle.” But no one is asking for books to be banned.

Youngkin’s campaign shot back that McAuliffe “wants to silence parents because he doesn’t believe they should have a say in their child’s education.” But is it a coincidence that he’s picking a fight over the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize for literature?

Virginians gather to support Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin.
(Tyler O’Neil/Fox News)

In any event, if you’re a parent with a kid in school, this is not a bogus issue. Many parents are concerned about agenda-driven curricula and concerned they don’t have enough say in local education. That can motivate people as much as rising prices at the pump.

“Culture war” has become a rather dismissive term for some controversy that you think the other side has ginned up and you don’t care about. But when it comes to education, abortion, immigration, gun control, critical race theory and gender equality (on which the Biden White House just issued a 42-page report), they wouldn’t be effective if they didn’t strike a nerve.

As for who started it, let’s just say nobody is opting out. And after Virginia picks its next governor, you’ll be hearing endless spin about whether the “Beloved” battle was a boon or a bust.

Author Toni Morrison looks at her medal after being awarded the Officer de la Legion d’Honneur, the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, during a ceremony at the Culture Ministry in Paris, Nov. 3, 2010. (Reuters)

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