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It’s a pain in the ass, but if you dig down deep enough and for long enough, you’ll probably find at the root of any mainstream debate over “culture war” issues some kind of misrepresentation, distortion, falsehood, or lie. So much of what counts as “debate” begins and ends with what liberalism’s enemies say liberals say. Today, I want to talk about consequences.
There are many, but my chief concern is the near-total detachment from history, so that everything looks as good or bad as everything else, and maybe nothing really matters except whose side you’re on and whether your side is winning or losing. A society whose participants are indifferent to history is one willing to do anything. What “anything” means is hard to say, but let’s be serious, it’s not that hard. By the time the covid pandemic is over, we will have witnessed one million American deaths as a consequence of nearly half the nation insisting history isn’t real enough to respect.
That lots of Americans choose to deny history isn’t bad in and of itself. These people will always be with us, and in any case, they can be marginalized over time. They can be prevented by democratic means from having control of the levers of political power and from doing real harm. What’s bad is that class of people that you’d expect to keep controversies grounded in history but that does not. Instead, it gives known lies the benefit of the doubt, and in the process, severs public debate from the attachments of history, empowering those who choose to create “history” and therefore do real harm.
Of course, I’m talking about the press. To illustrate let me draw your attention to a local story. I’m in New Haven. There’s a town nearby called Guilford. After mass demonstrations last year protesting the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer, the Guilford public school board, like similar institutions around the country, took steps to identify and remedy systemic racism. Among those was changing the name of the school district’s mascot from “Indians” to “Grizzlies.”
The work continues, but meanwhile, a backlash is brewing. In my view, this backlash identifies correctly the partisan energies that converged to oust Donald Trump from office. On the one hand, were anti-Trumpists (think Democrats, alienated former Republicans, independents, et al.). On the other were social reformers (think Black Lives Matter, Antifa, et al.). To many respectable white people, Trump proved that the “post-racial America” imagined after Barack Obama’s election wasn’t real. So they joined BLM et al. to create the biggest coalition ever seen. In this context, many in Guilford feel the school board’s new anti-racist policies are actually anti-white.
This is evident in the accusations being hurled at the board. According to the New Haven Register, critics of anti-racism “have shown up to meetings, written emails to the board, and created a petition, claiming critical race theory is being taught in Guilford schools.” Guilford residents who see anti-racism as anti-white want to “persuade the school board to disavow any curriculum, or critical race theory, that promotes the unequal treatment of students and label any resources, authors, professors and experts that can easily be proven to have ‘blatant bigoted views’ as ‘radical activist theory’.”
The board has not disavowed anything, because there’s nothing to disavow. But that doesn’t matter if you consume great quantities of Fox or Breitbart or whatever. They have taken an obscure school of thought—critical race theory—and turned it into a one-size-fits-all explanation for Donald Trump’s defeat and into an enemy that must be crushed. What is critical race theory? That’s for later. For now, just know that its critics do not care what it really is, because they already “know.” If they bothered listening to its practitioners, they might be persuaded by its virtues, but there can’t be any virtues, because they “know” there are none, because they “know” it’s anti-white.
Critics are so certain they “know” what they need to know about critical race theory, without actually knowing, that denials are seen as proof and explanations are seen as censorship. As a parent said: “The repeated declaration that the racist ideology, critical race theory, is not a part of the school’s ‘Equity and Social Justice’ initiative is inaccurate and disingenuous at best, and when given in response to any parents’ sincere concern, [the Equity and Social Justice’ initiative] is intended to shut down all further inquiry and conversation surrounding this incredibly complicated topic.”
Again, that there are people aplenty who deny shared reality—that is, history—is not in and of itself a bad thing. What’s bad is people who should respect history who give the benefit of the doubt to known lies. Guilford public school district is not teaching critical race theory and shouldn’t. (That’s advanced college-level stuff.) What it’s doing, however, is recognizing and taking (baby)steps toward addressing the fact that systemic racism is part of American history and we are all products of that history.
In its reporting, though, the New Haven Register placed that fact at odds with an accusation, as if they had equal moral weight, as if they were two valid views in a public debate over things important to children and civil society instead of a debate rooted in a lie. Instead of a declarative headline—“Guilford board says no to critical race theory”—the paper ran with a question—“Is critical race theory being taught in Guilford schools?” The paper severed the debate from history and, as a result, made room for those who fabricate their own, thus giving them a chance to do real harm.
The Register is in good company. Reporters do this all the time. They do it because a Democrat is president. They do it because the repudiation of Trump is seen as a repudiation of white people. That, too, is a lie. Guildford’s school board was speaking the egalitarian language of anti-racism when it said it strives “to be a community in which all students feel safe, supported, and recognized, and must support critical thinking about all aspects of our history and current experience. None of our students is responsible for this history, but each will be responsible for their own participation in our local, national, and global communities as they emerge into adulthood.”²
John Stoehr is a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University, and editor and publisher of the Editorial Board. This article was originally published at The Editorial Board.