Over the past few years, conservatives have waged an insidious and dishonest campaign to whitewash the racism and oppression of American history and to censor material that would examine the most sordid parts of America’s past and present.
Almost from its first publication in 2019, conservatives attacked the 1619 Project – the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical reappraisal that seeks to place slavery and racism at the center of American history and institutions.
The same GOP politicians and pundits who attacked the 1619 Project then took Critical Race Theory — an academic-level framework for examining racial biases embedded in American legal, political, and social institutions — and misrepresented it. as a subversive ideology infiltrating the school curriculum. According to Education Week, as of January 2021, 36 states have passed or proposed legislation to restrict teaching related to race and racism.
National organizations coordinated efforts between states, distributing lists of books to be banned. These laws and regulations have resulted in the removal of books from libraries, the firing of educators, and even threats of civil and criminal lawsuits for librarians and educators who share the now banned topics.
In isolation, the demonization of the 1619 Project and critical race theory followed a familiar conservative playbook. Let’s first take a term with a specific meaning. Redefine this term through rhetoric and propaganda into something scary and dangerous. Misapply the term to a much broader set of ideas than it actually encompasses. And use the demonized new concept to discredit political opponents or groups of people associated with these ideas.
Through the use of this tactic at various times in American history, all socialists, or simply left-wing politicians and activists, have become “violent, godless communist Marxists.” Feminists have become “man-hating radicals”. Black Lives Matter has become “violent white hatred”. Inclusiveness and “wake-up” have become political correctness and thought police. And now critical race theory has dishonestly morphed into reverse racism, divisiveness, black supremacy and – to come full circle – Marxism.
The danger of this practice is not only that it is used to justify the censorship of ideas and history, an anti-democratic tactic that is a common feature of authoritarianism. The even more disturbing progression of these policies has been that, eventually, the targeting of ideas gives way to the targeting of groups of people associated with those ideas. CRT’s bans quickly extended beyond removing works on racism (most of which did not use the advanced critical race theory framework anyway), to banning books on black subjects or written by black authors.
Today, as the book ban movement has spread to attempts to suppress literature with LGBTQ+ themes – ostensibly on the grounds that it is sexually explicit – more and more marginalized people are danger by these tactics. And the censorship movement is even dipping its toes into Holocaust whitewashing, using the logic of ‘explicit material’ to suppress the award-winning graphic novel Maus, which uses cartoon images of mice and cats to depict the horrors. of the Nazis’ genocidal campaign against the Jews. .
Campaigns to rewrite history and target racial and sexual minorities to exclude them in order to preserve a culture are not simply authoritarian; such tactics are more specifically and accurately labeled as fascist.
It is not a term to be used lightly. Left-wing political actors have also been guilty of misusing and demonizing the labels to be applied to their political opponents: “fascist”, “neoliberal”, etc. It is therefore important to define terms precisely to avoid intentional confusion or misrepresentation. Fascism, the political movement that infected Europe in the interwar period before being defeated but not quite eliminated in World War II, is a notoriously difficult political concept to define. It is less a coherent ideology than a set of political strategies and pathologies. Some of its main characteristics include: authoritarianism centered around a charismatic strongman; nationalism, including a glorified representation of national history and a mission to return to past greatness; calls for racial, ethnic or national purity, coupled with the targeting of subversive or “unclean” groups within society; demagoguery and mass mobilization combined with political violence; a combination of censorship, propaganda and media manipulation to glorify and justify these ideas and tactics; and finally, the movement towards totalitarian demands on public and private life and discourse.
If that sounds like a variety of modern Western political movements, including the Republican Party’s Make America Great Again faction, then you’ve been paying attention for the past seven years or so. As white supremacist militia and lone wolves come out of the woodwork, anti-Semitic attacks occur at near record levels and real Nazis openly rally in the United States, the far right has silenced talk of discrimination, the racism and racial discrimination. violence.
Black community leaders, progressive activists and other left-wing voices have warned for some time that the bans on CRT and The 1619 Project were not just conservative or anti-progressive, but specifically anti-democratic, racist and fascist in their motives and effects. . These warnings have generally been dismissed by conservatives and ignored by moderates. When conservative Glenn Youngkin won the gubernatorial race in Virginia on a platform that railed against a broad caricature of critical race theory and even condemned the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved by the Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, Democrats’ attempts to paint Youngkin as a racist and segregationist fell flat. Since then, many white Democrats seem to have been afraid to openly discuss literature bans, allowing the reach of these laws to expand into new and disturbing areas.
It became clear that the censorship of books and school materials was not the end game, but simply an opening salvo towards greater demands for control of information and speech. The right-wing anti-democratic movement is now moving beyond mere censorship and entering a phase of surveillance and thought control that conservatives like to accuse liberals of employing.
Lawmakers in Iowa and Florida have introduced bills that would install cameras in classrooms for parents to monitor what children are being taught. A bill in Oklahoma would allow parents to sue teachers for up to $10,000 for educational materials “contrary to students‘ narrow religious beliefs,” which is commonly seen as a reference to LGBTQ content. A bill in Florida aims to restrict classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in public school classrooms for young children. Another proposed law in the state would ban public education or workplace training that makes people ‘feel uncomfortable, guilty, anxious or in any other form of psychological distress because of their race , color, sex, or national origin,” echoing language drawn from similar provisions enacted or proposed in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas.
The Florida version of this latest proposal is not only troubling because of its subjectivity, but also because it also extends the scope of these laws beyond education to private businesses. In short, having succeeded in restricting black authors and content, conservative censors are moving forward to weed out all the news they object to, working to remove identities tied to that news.
With International Holocaust Remembrance Day having recently passed, I remember “First They Came”, the poem that summed up German priest Martin Niemöller’s regret at the church’s failure to resist the threat Nazi growing over the years. When they came for the 1619 Project, and then for the so-called critical race theorists, few spoke out outside of the black community. Now, this movement comes after LGBTQ voices, dedicated educators, and seems determined to silence those who seek to voice views that don’t fit the ultraconservative, fascist ethos of the current Republican Party. They come for the country, and if left unchecked, they will do their best to silence any voices that might oppose them.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.