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Our View: Book burning

Culture wars driving efforts to suppress thoughts and ideas

If we start burning books, how long will it be until someone throws a few people on the fire? History tells us that is where that line of thinking leads. Whether it is a witch or two, political opponents or some racial or religious minority that is targeted, trying to suppress thought is really about controlling – or destroying – other people.

Still, the idea of burning books never seems to go away. The Washington Post reports that two Virginia school board members have advocated exactly that.

“I think we should throw those books in a fire,” said one. The other added 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.”

The Post does not report what those school board members think constitutes “bad stuff,” but how that is defined is the question. At times, any number of highly regarded works of literature have been targeted.

The current flap in Virginia stems from that state’s recently concluded race for governor in which the losing candidate, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, foolishly said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

His remark came when he was attacked because, when previously serving as governor, he vetoed a bill that would have allowed parents to opt their children out of reading assignments. At issue then was Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s book “Beloved.”

What McAuliffe presumably meant to say was something like “not every parent gets veto authority over curriculum” or “schools shouldn’t decide what to teach based on the loudest voice at the board meeting.” Instead, he fueled enthusiasm for book-burning.

In addition to “bad stuff,” these arguments tend to focus on terms such as “obscene” or “sexually explicit.” But nobody is advocating giving students graphic descriptions of people having sex. Too often the objections are not to actual pornography, but to things or people some others just do not like.

Is it sexually explicit, for example, simply to acknowledge that some people are gay? Or does it only become obscene if a homosexual is described as a human being with the same thoughts and feelings as anyone else?

What is most telling about the current flap is that what is deemed objectionable is as much about race as sex. This fits right in with the right’s obsession with critical race theory, a concept usually encountered in law schools – not in K-12. For example, a state legislator in Wisconsin added language to a bill banning a list of “terms and concepts” he finds offensive. Included, among others, are “woke,” “structural bias,” “systemic racism,” “abolitionist teaching” and such presumably offensive terms as “equity” and “social justice.” Similar efforts are underway in other states, most notably Texas.

What these culture warriors should remember, however, is that bans and burns work both ways. If someone can ban “woke” and burn “Beloved,” someday someone else could ban the Pledge of Allegiance or burn the Bible. Let’s not head that way.