Here is the most embarrassing thing I can think of. You are a high school senior. You read Beloved, Toni Morrison’s searing novel about slavery and family, as part of an A.P. English class. Then you have a nightmare about the book. For some reason, despite being 17 or perhaps even 18 years old, you tell your mother about this. At which point she, for some reason, tries to get the book banned from being taught in your entire county. You complete your humiliation and go along with it, telling The Washington Post that the book “was disgusting and gross” and gave you “night terrors.” Now it is eight years later. You are a lawyer for the National Republican Congressional Committee. You should have forgotten all about this mortifying incident. But for some reason, your mother starts talking about that time a book made you have bad dreams again, and somehow this becomes the biggest issue in the most important gubernatorial election in the country.
All of this is really happening. Since securing the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Virginia earlier this year, the private equity baron Glenn Youngkin has waged a relentless and disingenuous campaign based around what is being taught in the commonwealth’s public schools, mainly in an effort to catch a ride on the GOP’s current fascination with fearmongering about “critical race theory” and the idea that Democrats are indoctrinating students with social justice ideas. This more or less tracks with Youngkin’s effort to walk a fine line between keeping the MAGA faithful raged up and ready to go (to the polls) while simultaneously working to win back some of the affluent suburban parents who might be a little bit Trump-queasy. With the election a week away, polls have tightened and Youngkin is pushing this as his closing message: Elect me so we can ban critical race theory and retake our schools from the demon hordes who want to teach our children about American history.
To do so, he has enlisted the help of one of the protagonists of the night-terrors story, Fairfax County resident Laura Murphy, who, The Washington Post reports, “waged a battle against Beloved in schools beginning in 2013 after her son—a high school senior at the time—said it gave him nightmares while reading it for an advanced placement literature class.” That son, Blake Murphy, is now conveniently employed as an associate general counsel for the NRCC, a fact that I’m sure renders him a neutral participant in this latter-day campaign caper. Mother Murphy, meanwhile, once pushed a bill that would allow parents to intervene to have their children opt out of “sexually explicit reading assignments.” Terry McAuliffe, Youngkin’s current opponent, who served as Virginia’s governor between 2014 and 2018, vetoed that measure, as well as another, similar one.
In an ad released on Monday, Murphy speaks to the horrors of Virginia’s schools under Terry McAuliffe. “As a parent, it’s hard to catch everything,” Murphy says over a mournful piano. “So when a son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk. It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine. I met with lawmakers. They couldn’t believe what I was showing them. Their faces turned bright red with embarrassment.” She closes with the usual list of political ad grievances: McAuliffe vetoed the bill and doesn’t care about parents or children; Glenn Youngkin, a good listener, knows when it’s time to burn books.
If you didn’t know who Murphy was or what she tried to do, you would think that she had a young child who was forced to read 50 Shades of Gray or something out of William Burroughs’s demented imagination. Instead her son—who, again, is now in his late twenties and works as a lawyer for the Republican Party—was instructed to read Beloved, a book by Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize–winner who is arguably the greatest American novelist of the late twentieth century. Sexual abuse is central to Beloved’s thematic power and its investigation of trauma and American history; in the ad, Murphy bizarrely acts as if it’s titillating, rather than horrific. That any Virginia lawmakers may have ever been red in the face at encountering Morrison’s prose should be disqualifying for public office—if not adulthood—but as far as I can tell, basic literacy is unfortunately not a requirement to sit in either of Virginia’s legislative bodies. The ad is misleading and disingenuous from top to bottom. It does, however, get at what the bogus debate over “critical race theory” is really about.
Youngkin and Murphy claim again and again that all they want to do is stand up for parents who want to have a say in their children’s education. It isn’t fair that godless public school teachers can assign books like Beloved. What if snowflakes like Blake Murphy can’t handle the classics? What if what they really need is to be left with lighter fare, like the Young Readers’ edition of Donald Trump Jr.’s Triggered and all 10 volumes of the graphic novelization of Thomas Sowell’s Capitalism and Freedom? What if the best thing for children is to let their parents, who know all about what gives them nightmares, decide what they can and can’t read in school?
This is, more or less, exactly what anti–cancel culture conservatives accuse liberals of doing: Because Murphy’s kid was triggered by this book, it should be banned. The argument here isn’t over whether “canceling” exists or if it’s a good idea, but what the criterion for canceling is: In this case, Murphy and Youngkin endorse a version of cancel culture that removes works that depict rape and slavery and are critical of American history. It’s not a fight over freedom, in other words, but one about control: Youngkin says he wants to “ban critical race theory” if elected, but this ad gives away the game: “Critical race theory” means “books by Black authors.” Far from giving parents autonomy, he’s treading on it: determining by fiat, over the objections of parents and school boards alike, what children can and cannot be taught.
It’s also, politically speaking, a self-own. Youngkin has run a race thus far trying to convince parents that he’s the only person who can give them back a voice in the education of their children. This idea is central to his larger effort to tiptoe between Virginia’s Trumpian die-hards and right-leaning skeptics. Here, however, he’s tipping his hand. He just wants to ban a Black Nobel Prize–winner’s work from being taught to schoolchildren. It doesn’t get more MAGA than that.