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Gov. Glenn Youngkin

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I’m so old I can remember when people calling themselves “conservative” thought “Cancel Culture” was a bad thing.

Oh wait, that was last week.

More recently, the brand new governor of Virginia—whose own children are safely ensconced in an exclusive Washington prep school—has opened a telephone snitch line enabling citizens to inform upon teachers committing “Thoughtcrime” in the Commonwealth’s public schools.

“We’re asking for folks to send us reports and observations,” Glenn Youngkin said, “and we’re going to make sure we catalog it all … And that gives us further, further ability to make sure we’re rooting it out.”

“It” being the dread Critical Race Theory, otherwise known as Black history. While there’s scant evidence of CRT in Virginia school curricula, there’s evidently more Black history than Trump-leaning parents want their children hearing about, what with Virginia being America’s cradle of slavery, beginning at Jamestown in, yes, 1619.

Can’t have that.

A country club moderate to outward appearances, Youngkin has turned out to be rather fiercer than advertised during his 2021 campaign. And right on schedule too. Book-banning and purging subversives have become all the rage among Republicans nationwide.

But then I can also recall when many public schools in Virginia remained segregated, when my wife and l lived there in the years following Brown vs. Board of Education. Change came slowly. Prince Edward County closed its public schools for five years rather than allow Black and white children to share classrooms.

At the rural Black high school where I was an occasional substitute, they used rocks for bases on the baseball diamond. But they did have tattered, second-hand books, desks, and blackboards—more than could be said for a lot of segregated schools. At the white county high school where my wife taught, she got summoned before the school board to answer a parental complaint about a “dirty” novel—Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”—she’d given her students.

It was the only book she ever got most of them to read.

The aggrieved parent had highlighted her child’s copy with magic marker, particularly objecting to the allegedly pornographic phrase “blue ball” to describe a child’s toy.

The board apologized to Diane for wasting her time.

Then there was the memorable meeting regarding the length of teacher’s skirts, prompting an exasperated assistant principal to remark: “If y’all don’t mind them boys shooting beavers, I don’t reckon I do.”

But speaking of nostalgia, here’s how the official state social studies textbook, “Virginia: History, Government and Geography” described the institution of slavery:

“Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, uncivilized and unemployed Negroes were given free passage on cruise ships from Africa to America with a stopover in Jamaica. Upon their arrival, after their time spent in the tropics, they were welcomed by white people who were happy to give them a new home. Jobs were provided along with a lifetime of free room and board. Here in America, they learned to speak English, sing hymns, and revel in the glory of God through the Gospel of Christ in place of their heathen savagery.”

Oh, happy day!

The novelist and law professor Garrett Epps, who grew up in Richmond, cites another Virginia public school textbook informing children that “[a]bove all the Colony was determined to preserve the racial purity of the whites. This determination is the foundation upon which Virginia’s handling of the racial issue rests, and has always rested.”

Which is not to say Glenn Youngkin endorses any of these ideas, nor that things haven’t changed for the better in Virginia and everywhere across the South. Nor even to say that parents who find the violence and sexual brutality of, say, Toni Morrison’s Beloved too heavy for high school kids are motivated by bigotry. I find her novels unendurable myself.

But Youngkin grew up in a culture marinated in Confederate grievance, as did many Virginians responding favorably to his attacks upon public school administrators and elected school boards. As a prep school graduate who has never attended a public school at any level, Youngkin campaigned as a genial moderate interested in “parents’ rights.”

He has chosen to govern as a bully.

The courts will decide whether or not gubernatorial fiat can override state law and local school boards in the matter of mask mandates. I suspect not.

Youngkin’s “Big Brother”-style attack upon the intellectual freedom of beleaguered public school teachers, however, has taken it several steps too far. Already, smart alecks are filling the governor’s tip line with allusions to “The Simpsons” and Cardi B, among others. Black parents are reminding him that they have rights too.

I think Washington Monthly’s Bill Scher has it right: Youngkin’s “I-know-best” gambit “has all the hallmarks of a misread mandate and classic overreach.”

Most Virginians, I suspect, have little appetite for loyalty investigations, and even less in becoming Ground Zero in a televised culture war.

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