It took just under a week for Virginia to go from a Republican gubernatorial victory supposedly fueled by conservative backlash to school curricula to wild-eyed calls for book burning.
On Monday, the Spotsylvania County School Board ordered school staff to begin removing books that contain “sexually explicit” text from school libraries, and report back on progress in a special session next week.
The directive was the consequence of objections raised by parents to certain books available on the Riverbend High School’s digital app. But two board members were adamant that removal alone wasn’t enough, according to The Washington Post.
“I think we should throw those books in a fire,” Courtland representative Rabih Abuismail said. Livingston representative Kirk Twigg wanted to make certain the book burning involved an element of public spectacle, saying that he wants to “see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”
Abuismail charged that the existing review process had failed, and said the existence of certain books meant the public schools “would rather have our kids reading gay pornography than about Christ.”
When reached by The Post for comment, the 24-year-old Abuismail, a self-described devout Christian, tried to moderate his comments. Abuismail said he “lost my mind [and] let my frustrations get the better of me” when the discussion turned to a book titled 33 Snowfish, a gritty novel about three runaways struggling to escape histories of abuse, exploitation, and addiction.
With the benefit of hindsight, Abuismail recanted his call to burn the books and suggested they should instead be donated to a “local community library,” rather than filling the shelves of public school libraries.
A member of the Spotsylvania School Board also clarified that, at this point, schools are simply setting out to review the books before making any final decisions.
But the fanatical fervor demonstrated by Abuismail and Twigg is illustrative of how easily the passions of conservative activists can tip into fascist zeal whenever the real world collides with their carefully constructed box of wishful thinking.
One couldn’t help but be reminded of the Nazi book burnings of 1933, organized by German university students in support of purifying the nation and promoting Aryan culture.
The notion that book burning is even being discussed in the United States should terrify all of us. Censorship and book bans are undoubtedly a motivator among the GOP’s base voters, and Republicans have already indicated they plan to run on it in next year’s midterms. On the very night that Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin emerged victorious in Virginia, GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy promised his caucus he would be introducing a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”
Though the GOP’s clear embrace of fascist pursuits should put all of us on guard, it’s also quite possible that Republicans have misread the role that education played in Virginia’s elections, and are currently in the process of overplaying their hand.
Several polls this week suggest that whatever Virginians made of education-related issues, including mask mandates and school closures, it doesn’t appear to be an issue that holds nationwide resonance.
A Yahoo News/YouGov poll this week found that a meager 3% of Americans with kids under 18 view schools as their most important issue. Similar to this month’s Civiqs/Daily Kos survey, the Yahoo/YouGov poll found that pocketbook issues, related to things like higher prices for consumer goods and health care, far outweigh education as a key concern.
As prices rise and shortages persist, the number of Americans who say the economy is the most important issue to them when thinking about the 2022 elections (31 percent) is 10 times higher than the number who say the same about schools. The number who choose health care as their most important issue, meanwhile, is four times higher (13 percent); those who say climate change (10 percent) or the coronavirus (10 percent) is three times higher.
An Axios/Ipsos poll this week also found that the vast majority of parents are satisfied with the way their local schools are balancing health and safety concerns amid the pandemic. As my colleague Laura Clawson wrote:
Overall, 71% of adults and 75% of parents gave their local schools a positive rating on balancing health and safety with other priorities. Among parents, 22% said schools had done “a very good job,” and 53% said schools had done “a somewhat good job.”
Ipsos senior vice president Chris Jackson compared all the hype over parental dissatisfaction with schools to a “tail-wagging-the-dog scenario.”
“A lot of the energy, criticism that’s been happening, it’s not coming from a large chunk of the population,” Jackson said. “Most parents are OK with how their schools handled the pandemic.”
What has seemed to animate Republicans, in particular, is the discussion around the way racial issues and racism are being covered in schools. The Yahoo/YouGov poll found that while 42% of Americans had never even heard of the term “critical race theory,” Republicans were most likely to be familiar with it and to be against having it taught in classrooms.
For instance, while 57% of Republicans said critical race theory wasn’t something students should be exposed to in school, just 35% of independents and 16% of Democrats objected to it being taught.
Of course, critical race theory is an advanced-level legal framework that isn’t even used in K-12 classes. But accuracy isn’t really the point when it comes to GOP lawmakers trying to whip up their base voters.
The takeaway here is that Republicans appear to have an issue that incenses their base by appealing to the worst of their white-identity instincts. But critical race theory is not an issue that resonates with the broader electorate, and neither do education issues related to COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
If Republicans insist on pushing their so-called “parents’ bill of rights,” Democrats will hopefully come to that discussion with their own version of parental rights to push—including the right to universal pre-K for every child, the right to affordable child care, and (maybe) the right to paid family leave when one’s child is sick.
And if the GOP’s excesses continue to spill over at school board meetings, where fringe-y conservative activists push extremist remedies like book burning on an issue that doesn’t concern the vast majority of parents, then Democrats must be explicit about the fact that the GOP and their rage-filled base are leading the nation down a very dark road to tyranny.
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