Shh! The Battle of the Fairfax Public Libraries is raging!

The confrontations taking place in urban America’s streets nightly are still new. But there have been battles taking place in our civic institutions for some time, and we are clearly losing that war. Right now, there’s a critical skirmish taking place in northern Virginia, among the Fairfax County Public Library Board of Trustees — of all things. We are bound to lose this one too, because the other side fights dirty, and we haven’t adapted.

The conflict began during a July 29th Zoom meeting when Trustee Philip Rosenthal complained that the books promoted on the catalogue page were not sufficiently diverse. Specifically, that the categories of books promoted were: Muslim Writers, Black Lives, Rainbow Reads for Kids, and Learning about Structural Racism. He was particularly upset about the presence of When They Call You a Terrorist: The Story of Black Lives Matter and the Power to Change the World by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the founders of BLM. He pointed out that the group is both Marxist and anti-Semitic. He added that the many of the books promoted were offensive to some members of the community, and that interests of those people were being ignored. Trustee Darren Ewing agreed that the homepage was “completely one-sided,” and that if there were two sides to an issue, both should be provided. Everyone agreed that libraries should have a diversity of materials, and that the issue would be discussed further at a later date.

Is the catalogue page one-sided? You betcha! It resembles a reading list for the most radical wing of the Democrat Party. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X Kendi, it’s all there; the only thing missing is The Anarchist’s Cookbook. Absent are books that question the existence of structural racism by authors such as John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, or Jason Riley. The library staff seem to use the page as form of agit-prop rather than a way to display the breadth of their collection.

What should have been a collegial discussion of library policy morphed into a public firestorm as word of the discussion became public. The chair of the trustees released a letter on August 11th in response to numerous e-mails, emphasizing that the board was committed to Fairfax County’s “One Fairfax” policy as well as the American Library Association’s “Freedom to Read” statement. But the issue had already begun to go off the rails. Fairfax county policy requires its institutions to prioritize the promotion of social and racial equity; the Freedom to Read states that “There is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others.” It further asserts that “the freedom to read is essential to our democracy.” The county policy commits its institutions to promoting an agenda; the national library group to promoting a diversity of thought and materials.

The public discussion, moreover, had already begun to be mischaracterized as a demand to limit of materials in the catalogue, rather than a request for the promotion of a wider range of literature. The man who wanted to diversify the books promoted and reduce the politicization of the library was transformed overnight into the man who opposed diversity and wanted to censor the library’s offerings. On August 19th, the Virginia Library Association piled on with a letter condemning censorship. They noted that Fairfax County was committed to ensuring that its materials “must reflect all community members.” This, of course, was precisely what Mr. Rosenthal has requested.

At this point community activists stepped in. The NOVA Equity Agenda Coalition demanded the resignation of both Rosenthal and Ewing. On their Facebook page, they described his remarks as “an attempt to advance white supremacism” and astonishingly, accused him of anti-Semitism. The coalition attended the trustees’ outreach committee Zoom meeting and Zoom-bombed it with protesting screen shots. Library trustees are appointed by members of the county Board of Supervisors, so John Foust, who appointed Ewing, quickly obtained his resignation. Jeff McKay, the head of the Board of Supervisors, demanded Rosenthal’s resignation. Refreshingly, Pat Herrity, the only Republican on the Board, is standing behind his appointee.

This endless conflict illustrates everything that is wrong with the politics of our day. Committee members are meant to debate, listen, persuade, change their minds, or perhaps ‘agree to disagree.’ Instead, outside agitators turn committee meetings into winner-take all contests in which the losers are defenestrated. Noisy social justice groups seem to be staffed by people who in the past might have provided real service to the community by running soup kitchens, tutoring children, or aiding shut-ins.

The left has ceased to debate; instead, they mischaracterize their opponents in order to demonize them, and then seek to cancel them. The accusation of “racism” is the kryptonite they use to destroy their enemies. When a citizen complains that the library page has become agit-prop for the left, he is labeled a racist and thus made untouchable. The offending citizen becomes one with the magical “systemic racism,” that invisible radon-like substance that cannot be seen, but which suffuses everything. So magical is it, that it can transform a man who asked for more diversity, more voices that reflect the multi-ethnic community, into a monster who seeks to censor the library and silence others.

I am a conservative because I wish to conserve that more civilized world I remember from my youth, in which most of us could disagree amicably, and civilization itself was not at stake in every community dispute. These days there are fires raging in our streets, but there are also angry blazes in our hearts. Unless we can find a way to live together peaceably, we may need to find a way to separate.

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