Our Best Stuff on Identity Politics, Ukraine Aid, and Pennsylvania
Plus, a win for sanity in the culture wars.
Hello and happy Saturday! It was an interesting week in the Ohio bureau. It was also a special week: Our oldest is graduating from high school this afternoon and I spent the week vacillating between stressing and smiling and blubbering, the latter taking over Thursday morning when the seniors embarked on a communal bike ride to school for their final day. Everyone meets in a supermarket parking lot, and the 500-plus students follow a police escort for the mile-long ride to the high school. It’s a tradition I’ve watched play out for years when parents shared photos on social media, and I always thought it was a sweet gesture. But it really packs a wallop when your kid is participating.
But the interesting part came that evening, when our school board held its regular monthly meeting. Now, don’t worry: We do want to cover stories outside of the Beltway here at The Dispatch, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to start reporting on municipal government or writing up the monthly Rotary Club luncheon. But this is a tale that will be familiar to many no matter where you live.
Last month, complaints began surfacing in local Facebook groups about In the Time of the Butterflies, a novel assigned to sophomore honors English/Language Arts classes. For those of you who are unfamiliar (as I was, because my own high school English curriculum featured a pretty standard mix of MacBeth, Holden Caulfield, Hester Prynne, and Boo Radley), it’s a work of historical fiction about four real-life sisters who were leading opponents of Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. The story is about the risks they took and how their involvement in the resistance shaped their lives and marriages but—spoiler alert—there’s some sex stuff.
There was a lot of predictable squabbling on social media, with some folks saying that public schools were dangerous and parents should pull their kids in favor of private school and others responding that no one was stopping them. (I did chuckle when a friend posted that her son had read the book at his Catholic high school.) In the end, only three people filed a formal complaint with the school. But the district convened a committee of parents, teachers, and administrators to read and discuss the book and vote on whether to remove it from the reading list. The panel voted to keep the book, but a parent appealed, and so the school board took it up and held its own vote.
Before I go further, I should explain that we had a very contentious school board election last fall. A trio of candidates ran together for the three open seats on what I’ll call a “culture war platform”: opposing critical race theory, social and emotional learning, and mask mandates (masks were mandated only in elementary schools this year, and only until 5- to 11-year-olds could get vaccinated). Two of them won. On the same day as our board meeting this week, the Cincinnati Enquirer published a story featuring text messages from both of them discussing their opposition to the book. Had all three of the “culture warrior candidates” won seats on the five-person board, Thursday night’s meeting might have turned out very differently.
What happened, though, was encouraging. I watched on the livestream as maybe six or eight local residents took the podium during the public comment portion of the meeting. Up until the last one, all spoke about their respect for teachers, their admiration for the book, and/or the importance of quality and challenging work for high school students. One of them was a Latina immigrant who shared how much it meant to her daughter to read a book with characters who looked like her. One was a graduating senior who’s become something of a local activist. They all received loud clapping and a few cheers. The final speaker was one of the parents who filed a complaint; she was able to say her piece without interruption and received a smattering of applause.
The board members discussed the matter and then voted 4-1 to keep the book in the curriculum. It was a victory for cooler heads and common sense. And yet … I can’t stop thinking how this should never have been a controversy at all. Parents who object to specific books are able to request an alternative for their children. The book has been in the curriculum for years. Why this fight and why now? Well, everyone else is doing it: Parents in Tennessee tried to get a book about Ruby Bridges removed from an elementary school curriculum, parents in Texas have tried to remove Kite Runner and a slew of other books, and many states are passing laws attempting to ban the instruction of critical race theory.
We write a lot here about the damaging effects of our polarization. (Our own David French even wrote a whole book!) Back in January we published a piece from contributor Paul D. Miller about “vocal minorities vs. the exhausted majority” and how we overestimate the other side’s extremism. We don’t realize how much we have in common. That was on full display in this case.
When the fight was playing out on social media, people were slinging insults and attacking each other for their views. But when the community gathered in person, we got to see reasonable viewpoints and calm discussion. When people had to stand up and share their opinions with others in the room, and not from behind a keyboard, we learned that there was far more support for the book than opposition. On Thursday night, in a middle class suburb of Cincinnati, the exhausted majority had a moment. May there be many more.
Thanks for reading.
The horrific shooting in Buffalo last weekend that targeted black Americans has intensified our national conversation on race, in particular concern over “great replacement theory”—the notion that too much immigration from developing countries will dilute the political power of whites. Jonah has a “pox on both houses” take on the debate in his midweek G-File. He casts a critical eye on the emphasis that the left puts on identity politics, while castigating white supremacists as ”among the weakest people out there. Their weakness—psychological, economic, political—is why they grab hold of ‘white supremacy as a way to purchase pride or meaning on the cheap.” He calls out Democrats and identity politics enthusiasts for viewing “demographics as destiny” and cheering on the idea that they will have a political advantage once whites are no longer in the majority: “It’s simply weird that celebrating the demise of the white majority is considered high-minded and normal, but lamenting it is the lowest form of racism.”
The $40 billion aid package for Ukraine that the Senate voted on and President Biden signed this week is an encouraging sign of ongoing U.S. support for the war effort. But Rebeccah Heinrichs and Bryan Clark argue that it could be better. They point out that the mix of weapons and diplomatic support show that the Biden administration is being too cautious, only doing enough to keep Ukraine in the fight until Russia is ready to negotiate. What we need to be doing is putting Ukraine in position for a decisive victory. “Rather than bleeding the Russian military, the U.S. goal should be to end the war quickly to stop the suffering of Ukraine’s people and allow its economic recovery. To that end, Ukraine must be equipped to carry out a punishing counteroffensive in defense of its sovereignty, and compel Russia to contrive an off-ramp,” they write. And they have a few suggestions.
For more on the political fight on the aid package, read David’s French Press on why the Heritage Foundation is wrong to oppose it.
On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Republicans nominated for governor Doug Mastriano, a man who attended the “Save America” march that preceded the violence in D.C. on January 6 and spent time on the Capitol grounds. He’s been subpoenaed by the select committee investigating the Capitol riots. His support for Trump and his emphasis on culture war issues might have won him the nomination, but will it hurt the Republican Party’s chances in the general election? “Both Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report had initially rated the general election race a tossup but changed the race to ‘leans Democrat’ after Mastriano’s primary victory,” Audrey reports.
If Vladimir Putin has said it’s “no problem” for Sweden and Finland to join NATO, why is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—who, as the leader of a NATO country, actually has a say in the matter—still opposed? Well, Erdoğan is a kleptocrat, so it’s safe to say that he wants something. Eric Edelman details Erdoğan’s past efforts to extract something in return for his support, including concessions he got from Barack Obama at the 2009 NATO summit to assuage his opposition to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen becoming NATO secretary general and his attempt in 2019 to get NATO to designate a Kurdish militia as a terrorist group in return for supporting defense plans for the Baltic states.
And here’s the best of the rest:
Khaya has an extensive and thorough fact check of Dinesh D’Souza’s new film, 2000 Mules, which is full of false claims about voter fraud and the 2020 presidential election.
What’s the deal with Texas’ controversial new social media law that prevents companies from censoring content based on viewpoint? Andrew has a detailed explainer.
Charlotte writes about some of the big revelations in Mark Esper’s new book, including how close we came to war with Iran and how he ultimately decided to go after Qassem Suleimani.
Andrea Stricker from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies warns that Iran might be close to a nuclear breakout and recommends that Biden stop trying for a new nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.
Some have suggested that the Buffalo shooting could have been prevented if anyone had taken advantage of New York’s red flag law, which allows law enforcement, school officials, and family members to seek court orders that restrict people from buying or possessing guns. Stephen Gutowski explains how such laws work.
Chris Stirewalt argues that our politicians know perhaps too much about public opinion, and it encourages them to appeal only to their most committed supporters. Which has negative effects for all of us.
And the pods! On Good Faith, David and his co-host Curtis Chang discuss white replacement theory and its damaging “scarcity mindset.” Yascha Mounk joins Jonah on The Remnant to discuss the dangers of tribalism, the topic of his new book: The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure. If you’ve been disappointed by our dearth of coverage of the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial, you’ll be pleased to learn David and Sarah discussed it on Advisory Opinions. And finally, Sarah interviewed Mark Esper about his new book on The Dispatch Podcast.