America's Grand Old Party is fuelling the next 'big lie'

Republicans are passing state-level laws banning the teaching of the country's racial past and present

Supporters hold posters regarding critical race theory in Ortonville, Michigan, last November. Reuters
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The interminable US culture wars greatly intensified after the 2020 election of President Joe Biden, with Republicans around the country busily passing state-level laws that seek to restrict the teaching of race and US history in public schools and universities. This alarming trend shows that much of the right has decided to use state power to dictate a codified and politically correct version of history that is profoundly incompatible with both historical facts and present-day realities.

This push to use government authority to enforce a rigid, and often downright false, account of national history is highly reminiscent of laws in Poland that effectively criminalise public discussion of instances of Polish collaboration with the Second World War Nazi genocide against Jews, Roma and others, by mass shootings and then in death camps almost entirely in Poland and Ukraine.

The reality is that the Holocaust was a wholly Nazi-authored atrocity, although locals and authorities in many countries participated in various ways and for numerous reasons (while many others resisted or avoided it).

In fact, Poland has a proud history of heroic opposition to Nazi rule of which the country can be justly proud, while acknowledging that some Poles, under an especially vicious German occupation, collaborated in the genocide.

In the US, what these laws seek to purge is not memory of the past but acknowledgment of the present

There’s no need to lie, or even overlook facts, to maintain national self-respect. Yet, the current Polish government labours to legally enforce a narrative that casts Poles entirely as heroes or victims, and effectively denies any participation in the Nazi genocide. That’s the ideological and political falsification of history.

And it is precisely what’s being attempted in many Republican-run US states, at least when it comes to public education.

These new laws often forbid teaching that the founding of the American Republic was in any way at odds with the universal values articulated in the national mission statement, the 1776 Declaration of Independence.

Yet, the national bylaws, the 1787 Constitution, carefully incorporated the reality of widespread and lawful slavery in much of the country, even counting slaves – while delicately avoiding the word itself – as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation in Congress.

It is, therefore, simply a lie to argue that the US, as founded, lived up to the ideals in the Declaration and did not flout them to an existentially corrupting degree.

Under these new laws, it’s impossible to teach honestly about key negotiations at the Constitutional Convention of 1787; constant subsequent struggles over the expansion of slavery; the notorious Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857 that held that black persons had no rights under the US Constitution; the origins and trajectory of the Civil War of 1861-1865, or what former president Abraham Lincoln meant when he said the Civil War ushered in a “new birth of freedom".

Teaching the history of lawful, constitutionally protected racial segregation until the mid-1960s would similarly be impossible.

Yet, as in Poland, there’s no need to lie. The US has struggled mightily over centuries to overcome this “original sin", and, by any historic standards, has made remarkable progress.

The laws are especially pernicious because they’re so vague as to be practically meaningless except as a dire warning to teachers to avoid all such topics, or else. And the laws often cite the supposed feelings of students from lessons that make them feel “uncomfortable".

Any education that fails to sometimes make students uncomfortable isn’t worthy of the name.

And the feelings implicitly being protected are those of white students who supposedly may feel guilty based on their ethnicity because of historical realities, though there is no reason to believe this is a real phenomenon. Such concerns have never been an issue regarding the feelings of the descendants of slaves.

The parallels to Poland should be evident: don’t annoy the majority community with unpleasant details about past abuses that are more comfortably elided and denied.

Unfortunately, in the US, it’s even worse. Because what these laws seek to purge is not memory of the past but acknowledgment of the present.

The legacy of, not just slavery, but an additional century of segregation, and then half-century and counting of de facto discrimination, raises immediate and concrete concerns about present inequities.

This is especially essential because official segregation and “red-lining” in the 20th century deliberately produced housing separations that have a profound present-day impact on social services such as health, education and infrastructure that define daily life for most Americans. Without acknowledging those factors, most American racial realities become unintelligible, unless “explained” by silly stereotypes that further perpetuate these divisions and inequalities.

The context for the right-wing state-level backlash occurred at three levels.

Most immediate was the election of a Democrat, Mr Biden, with a black woman running-mate, Kamala Harris, in 2020. Immediately before that, came the national earthquake of anger at continued racial injustice in law enforcement and the courts following the police murder of George Floyd.

The biggest, but delayed, factor was the election in 2008, and probably even more the re-election in 2012, of an African American, Barack Obama, as president.

Perhaps above all is the tremendous angst about the apparent US transition to having no ethnic majority rather than, for hundreds of years, a reliably "white” one.

The laws may be practically meaningless and unenforceable. Yet, they may be intended merely to chill speech in classrooms rather than produce robust enforcement. Evidence of self-censorship is already being documented.

Some of the bills, though, outlaw things that are not taught anywhere, such as that one group is “inherently” inferior or superior to another. The political point in such cases may be just virtue-signalling, the pretence that valiant champions of “the people” and “right thinking” are opposing a non-existent nefarious agenda in schools.

So, around the country, books are being banned, long-standing class-plans abandoned, facts suppressed, and reality whitewashed so some white parents can assure themselves that their children will never be asked to feel guilty for things they didn’t do, and for which no sensible person wants them to feel guilty.

The consequence is the American championing of a communal and political historical narrative that has analogues not just in Poland and other eastern European states, but in parts of Asia and Latin America as well.

It’s the siren-song of self-appointed communal leaders: we will protect your tribal identity and “feelings” from basic and incontrovertible facts. It is, ultimately, the call of fascism.

Published: February 23, 2022, 8:00 AM
Updated: February 28, 2022, 9:31 AM