New Youngkin ad highlights Virginia mom whose school made her son read an explicit book. But which book?

An interesting ad, not only because of what it says but because of what it doesn’t say.

This is Youngkin keeping up the pressure on McAuliffe over school policy and parents’ rights to influence it, an issue he’s ridden to a dead heat in the polls and one which may end up unlocking the suburbs for the GOP next Tuesday. It’s a culture-war battle and Youngkin is clearly winning it. McAuliffe knows it too. He wouldn’t have launched this defensive ad recently if he didn’t.

This mom’s story of Terry McAuliffe vetoing a bill that would have prevented her son from being exposed to “explicit” material is another gut punch to the Democrat. What weird, smutty reason could the governor have had to want her child subjected to filth?

There’s a reason she doesn’t get specific about the contents here, it turns out. Or the age of her son, for that matter.

Laura Murphy made waves when she challenged the local school board in Fairfax County about her son’s reading material in 2013. When I watched the ad before researching it I assumed from her shocked tone that he was in elementary school at the time, possibly under 10, and that some progressive teacher had brought in something wildly inappropriate that had no business being in a classroom.

Her son was a high-school senior at the time, it turns out. And he was taking AP English, reading the sort of challenging advanced material an older teen can expect to face a year later as a college freshman. The explicit material turned out to be “Beloved,” a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize written by an author who won the Nobel Prize, Toni Morrison. It is explicit, including a scene of bestiality to illustrate the horrors of slavery. But it’s also one of America’s most esteemed works of fiction. I read it in high school too, and if memory serves it was before senior year.

Both sides are being slippery in how they’re characterizing Murphy’s dispute with the school board. Youngkin’s ad, in its deliberately elliptical way, would lead you to assume some teacher was handing out porn to third-graders and Terry McAuliffe had no problem with it. The left, on the other hand, is screeching about Murphy and Youngkin wanting to empower parents to ban books. In reality, Murphy’s ask of the school board was modest. The district already had a policy requiring parents to be notified if an explicit film was to be shown in class and Murphy wanted that same policy extended to books. If a kid is at risk of encountering material he might not be prepared for developmentally, why should it matter if it’s on a page or on a screen?

In fact, the students themselves were already permitted by district policy to opt out of reading explicit material. Murphy wanted parents to be notified and given the right to opt out on their child’s behalf. She asked the district to stop teaching “Beloved” until the policy was changed. They refused — at first.

Republican state legislators responded by putting together a law known as the “Beloved bill” that would have required schools to notify parents of explicit instructional material covered in class. The bill even drew some Democratic support. McAuliffe vetoed two versions of it. How come?

Well, probably because he meant what he said when he sneered that parents shouldn’t be telling schools what they should teach. He’s a Democrat, after all, so he answers to the teachers union first and foremost. But there’s an argument that his veto was correct on the merits. I think this, from a WaPo article in 2016, summarizes the logic well:

[T]his appears to be the first attempt by a state legislature to regulate curriculums in this way, said James LaRue, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, which tracks such legislation.

While his association believes parents have the right to decide what their children read, LaRue said he worried that educators would find the process so difficult that they would decide not to teach certain books anymore.

“The focus of this effort might be to discourage the use of this book altogether — and that’s the chilling effect,” he said

And he said the approach could also give the false impression that the most important thing about a particular work of literature is its sexual content. In that case, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” becomes nothing but “teen sex and suicide,” he said.

Why bother assigning a classic like “Beloved” to 18-year-olds knowing that their parents might complain? For that matter, why bother teaching “Huckleberry Finn” when the use of the N-word by Twain might cause a similar hassle? Asked in 2016 to name some other books that kids shouldn’t be reading because they’re too explicit, Murphy cited another another novel by Morrison, one by Cormac McCarthy, and “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, arguably the greatest American novel ever written. This isn’t fringy modern progressive pabulum in the crosshairs. This is the canon.

On the other hand, all Murphy wanted was the right to opt her own kid out of reading it. She wasn’t calling for any sort of permanent district-wide ban. In fact, Fairfax County ultimately changed its policy and agreed to notify parents when explicit literature was taught in class. McAuliffe’s veto prevented that policy from becoming law statewide but Murphy won her battle in Fairfax.

Obviously parents should enjoy some right to say no when a teacher pushes dubious educational material on their children. My worry is that as America increasingly no longer speaks a common cultural language, a broad right of parental opt out will lead to kids being blocked from reading books which they should read but which offend their parents’ particular cultural tribal sensibilities, whether they’re “explicit” or not. That’s always been the tricky part of the fight against CRT too: We don’t want kids being taught that white people are inherently bad but we do want kids to know that white-dominated America enslaved blacks for centuries. I prefer handling this stuff the way it was ultimately handled in Murphy’s case, by lobbying at the district level rather than a one-size-fits-all policy for the state. But that sort of policy wouldn’t do much for Youngkin’s chances next week, which is why this ad exists.