We Have No King but Caesar

A couple of years ago, a Connecticut senator worked tirelessly to remove any books that had the “n-word,” so-called, from school libraries. Then she gave a speech to a political club of fellow Democrats, bragging about her success in the endeavor. During the course of this speech she used the n-word, which got people upset.

From an article on the controversy: “The club said the use of the word is ‘reprehensible’ and ‘unjustifiable’ regardless of the context.”

Both the club and me made a telling error in the paragraphs above. The senator did not use the word, she mentioned it. The use/mention distinction is (among other things) what lets prim philologists discuss the etymologies of swear words without constantly washing their mouths out with soap.

Perhaps more to the point: One of the several YA books “called out” in recent years for being offensive, The Black Witch, was labeled “the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read” by one enterprising blogger, whose review (since deleted, though I read it at the time) “consisted largely of pull quotes featuring the book’s racist characters saying or doing racist things.” I’m quoting this Vulture article. This is a funny bit from the piece (which, to be fair, is full of funny bits):

“Here’s a representative excerpt, an offending sentence juxtaposed with [reviewer’s] commentary:

“‘“pg. 163. The Kelts are not a pure race like us. They’re more accepting of intermarriage, and because of this, they’re hopelessly mixed.”

“‘Yes, you just read that with your own two eyes. This is one of the times my jaw dropped in horror and I had to walk away from this book.’”

I’m not here to feed the flames of YA toxic drama. I’m a YA writer myself, and I have my own battle scars to show without dwelling on others’. The fact is, if you google the name of the reviewer who panned The Black Witch, you get almost all thinkpieces condemning censorship in YA lit. This soberer review wonders if the original hatchet job was the work of a Russian troll. The reviewer had her moment in the sun and then she got grief, and I don’t want to pigpile on her now, after she’s probably wishing the whole thing were forgotten about. But the thing is: The error she made is an easy one to avoid. It is, in fact, a novel error.

The book of Job has the line “curse God and die” (2:9b), and for the last two+ millennia, no one has seriously put forward the suggestion that the message of Job is that we should curse God and then die. “We have no king but Caesar” is not the primary theme of the Gospel of John (19:15), and it has for centuries been part of a responsive reading in Good Friday mass, without Catholics getting confused, leaving church converted to Caesarism. Everyone knows that characters in a book speak without the endorsement of the text or the author. Everyone knew.

I’ve been accused, speaking of pigpiling, of attacking the left too much, but what I want to show is not that one side is stupid or ignorant. What I want to show is that stupidity and ignorance are catching. They spread. Look at this meme everybody’s sharing:


For once, the memes are right! Sondland said (I’m paraphrasing): “Trump said there was no quid pro quo.” The right hears only “no quid pro quo.” We did this, guys. We created the framework in which this nonsense makes sense.

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