Progressives won the culture war! Well, for the most part anyway. If not every issue and sub-issue within those battles, public opinion is generally aligned with contemporary, "liberal" thinking. LGBT rights, the right to same-sex marriage, women's rights, minority rights, the right to interracial marriage, the right to abortion... !!! But wait, what? The right to abortion is being clawed back by the political right! LGBT rights are under attack, especially regarding the trans community and raising trans children. Medicine and science are under vicious assault as they are being dragged into the culture war. (Think: climate change, vaccines, Covid treatments.) And that almost literal war over gun "rights" still shows an expansion of laws that favor unlimited gun ownership for almost anyone that breathes and has the money to buy one. So what gives?
The political blowback from the right has been as fierce as it has been well-funded and organized. Public opinion on these issues though, still polls strongly in favor of modern, progressive thought. Even a majority of gun owners support some basic, 'common sense' gun regulation. 61% of U.S. adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. A Gallup poll last month clocked support for gay marriage at 71%, a whopping increase since 1996 when barely a quarter (27%) backed the issue.
Unluckily for moderates and progressives, the modern GOP's playbook has been to stay in attack mode over these issues. Early on, the party made strategic gains with this plan. Evangelical religious groups, rural voters who often rejected modernization, and seniors that embraced traditional views were drawn to the party's reactionism. The Republican "brand" became one that claimed patriotism and Christianity as its core, and everyone else as imposters. This was a good example of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy, a rhetorical/framing technique that excludes all but the in-group. This strengthened the base and created a political cohesion that the GOP has counted on ever since. While opinion polls show support for progressive policy and law, the modern GOP is tightly organized and turns out the vote.
This week is typical, we find ourselves mired in national controversies. And both sides of the aisle have their backs up over a doll and a country song. Roger Gray actually thinks this is a good sign for the country. His tortured logic is featured here.
The fact remains that the modern Republican (MAGA) party is slowly losing ground. Even with a tight-knit, organized, and motivated party that turns out the vote, they are slowly being overtaken. So what to do? There's always denying that an election was won, or that it was fair. Or heck, just attack election judges. If all else fails, just take over the government.
But I digress.
Step 1 in the authoritarian playbook is to (re-) educate the masses. Oh no, is the label "authoritarian" too far? Sorry kiddies, when the president loses a fair election and incites a mob to storm the Capitol to "stop the steal" of the election that he lost - that's pretty much the definition of authoritarian. And a majority of the GOP still agrees with (or won't contradict) the former president when he says he never lost.
Still think that "authoritarian" is hyperbole? Myra Jolivet found this little story that came out of Alabama this week. Some communities have elections, but elect to simply ignore them.
Education has been under attack by conservatives for years. Much of their anger is grounded in their ideology - they don't want their tax money to support others. Or that their tax money must only support institutions that share their exact ideology. Popular now is the idea that tax money should be rebated to individuals so that they may spend money earmarked for public education for their own private school choice. Republicans contend that "schools are too woke," "schools do not reflect traditional values," and "schools do not teach our Christian heritage."
As they fight for school vouchers (the system they want to rebate their tax money,) activists attack local school boards. School libraries are under fire for any books on the shelves that are deemed to be "woke." The law in Texas states that a “teacher may not be compelled to discuss a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” (There is no guidance on what constitutes 'controversy.') And if a teacher does elect to teach something controversial, they must “explore that topic objectively and in a manner free from political bias.”
Just today, the Texas Tribune released a report on a professor at Texas A&M who was suspended when she was accused of criticizing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. "The professor had just returned home from giving a routine lecture on the opioid crisis at the University of Texas Medical Branch in March when she learned a student had accused her of disparaging Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick during the talk." There is no recording of the talk. A well-respected pharmaceutical researcher, Joy Alonzo, M. Engineering, PharmD, gives these non-controversial talks to a variety of groups. The lectures usually center on the need for prevention or reduction of opioid addiction. She advocates for the easy or free availability of Narcan as a life-saving treatment for opioid overdose. One student recalls, "Alonzo talked about how policies, like the state’s ban on fentanyl test strips, have a direct impact on the ability to prevent opioid overdoses and deaths." A push to legalize the test strips died earlier this year in the Patrick-led Senate despite support from top Republicans, including Abbott.
Unfortunately, someone politically connected was in the audience. The land commissioner's daughter heard her (allegedly) criticize (yikes!) the lt. governor or his policies, so she told her mummy, who then told the lt guv, whose staff then got in touch with TAMU prezzie John Sharp, who suspended the prof. All inside of 2 hours after she finished her presentation. After the obligatory investigation, she was cleared and allowed to return to work. Again, from the Trib,
On March 21, two weeks after she was placed on paid leave, Alonzo received an email saying her leave had been lifted. The following day, pharmacy school Dean George Udeani said in a memo to Alonzo that during the lecture she “related an anecdote and an interaction with a state official.”
“I understand that your comment did not assign blame. However, some members of the audience felt that your anecdote was offensive,” he wrote. (emphasis, mine.)
“While it is important to preserve and defend academic freedom and as such be able to discuss and present to students and the public the results of research observations and strategies, you should be mindful of how you present your views,” Udeani said.
Chilling, much? Well, only if you're interested in academic freedom. Or, you know, simply teaching a class - to med students! This story is breaking just days after the president of Texas A&M resigned after she botched the hiring of a journalism professor who had once worked for... the woke New York Times! She was black (um, not that that mattered? and had made statements sometime in her career in favor of DEI standards. Some Texas A&M alumni certainly knew all about her and made their hiring preferences known. The resigning president, M. Katherine Banks, would later state that Kathleen McElroy (the UT prof that was ultimately not hired by A&M) was a "victim of "anti-woke hysteria" and "outside interference." But the damage was done.
Step 2 in the authoritarian playbook, is to control, control, control. No matter the subject. History, as is often repeated, is written by the victors. And much of American and indeed all world history seems to be about armed conflict. There is, though, usually a sanitized version and the truth. Too often in our country, the entire story rarely gets told because it would upset conventional thinking about who we are as a nation. Teaching the sanitized version is quickly becoming law, here in Texas and all over red America.
Jim Moore confirmed that while traveling in Colorado and Nebraska this week. He revisited some stories about Westward expansion, and a few things of importance that we know, but are never taught.
The subject of history holds a special place for authoritarians. History is the root of any movement, government, or social body. It is cultural DNA that establishes a birth story and develops into an overall narrative of any group; traditions, rituals, and community codes evolve from those stories. As Jim Moore noted, we tend to write favorable narratives that elevate our self-worth, we downplay and ignore the inconvenient accounts of slavery, genocide, and other distasteful behaviors.
What to leave in and what to leave out has always been a bit of a tussle when it comes to teaching history. After all, it's nice to see a "good guy" in the mirror. But history, like science, is constantly evolving. New evidence is unearthed (often literally,) witnesses come forward, and science advances to reveal new truths. And for some, none of that even matters, they are only interested in remaining the hero of their own story.
The Alamo and the glorious stories of her defense have been the cornerstone of Texas History for generations. Every Texas school child knows how less than 200 "Texians" who were outnumbered 10 to 1, held off the Mexican Army for 13 days before being martyred in the name of independence to the last man.
Over the years, historians have discovered subtle differences and nuanced takes on Texans' fight for their freedom from Mexico. Starting with the push to establish their own country, the usual narrative is that Texans were heavily oppressed by a brutal Mexican dictator. While that may be true, it has also become more widely known that one of the key disagreements was over the institution of slavery. In Mexico in the early 1820s had banned slavery, with some small exceptions to slaves already in Texas. New immigrants to Texas wanted more slaves in order to cost effectively develop agriculture and industry. The back and forth went on until Mexico banned slavery outright and taxed the cotton crop to support the Mexican military. Open the gates of the Alamo! But even the stories of the famed battle appear to have flaws. Did every man fight to the death? Most historians now agree that there were probably a very small handful of survivors, including Davy Crockett (aka John Wayne) who were captured and executed.
To most of us, this type of historical research adds a new dimension to an already compelling, classic tale. To others, it is the destruction of something sacred. No one would argue that the defenders of the Alamo were anything but courageous. It becomes a question of purity. Fighting for slavery is a bit tawdry; dying in battle seems somehow more... heroic somehow than being executed.
Currently, there is an ongoing battle over the Alamo and how that legacy should be taught taking place inside the Texas State Historical Association. The TSHA is a group of academics and non-academics that sets the state's view of its history. Over the years, the group has grown more diverse, and this has been reflected in how Texas history is promoted, what goes into K-12 history curriculum, and which history research projects are funded by the state. But a group of traditionalists, uncomfortable at times with this diversity, has stirred up the usual cultural divisions.
Wealthy oilman and history buff J.P. Bryan has been outspoken in his dissatisfaction with the group. As the current executive director, (he contributes generously to the organization,) he has attempted to bring more of those traditionalists to the board of directors. As the Tribune tells it,
"Bryan has emerged as a champion for conservative, nonacademics who favor a patriotic telling of history. He supports a historical narrative that illustrates Texas exceptionalism and opportunity and freedoms across the state. Bryan told the Tribune that, 'we believe that there was an incredible history fashioned on this landscape by exceptional people... Academics don't accept the fact that, especially if you were Anglo or Tejano, that you were particularly exceptional.'"
Remember that the Alamo was not the sacred shrine that it is today until the early 20th century when it became politically advantageous to promote the mythical hero stories of the battle for Texas Independence. The Alamo itself had fallen into further disrepair and was used as quartermaster's storage for the US Army after the Civil War. But as the South continued to cling to the Lost Cause narrative, Texas state leaders began to turn to the victory story of Texas Independence for a more positive brand identity. And the famous architectural Alamo hump? Heck, it wasn't even a part of Texas' most famous building until long AFTER the equally famous battle. To J.P. Bryan and his red state buddies, suggesting that something ugly like slavery played a major part in the battle of the Alamo, or that John Wayne didn't go down swinging a musket, or that there was no hump until much later... you might as well go pee on the place like Ozzy Osbourne did some 40-odd years ago.
Florida, like Texas, keeps introducing laws that dictate what history will be taught and how it will be taught. These new laws often center on the MAGA fear that white people are being marginalized, somehow. (Yes, the ones that control every branch of the government are being marginalized.) After years of ridiculing liberals for being overly sensitive "snowflakes," Republicans have banned any lesson on race and gender identity from public schools and workplaces that may make some people feel “guilt.” They claim there is a movement to integrate "CRT" into the curriculum. (Critical Race Theory is a graduate-level study that racism is systemic and is in fact, institutional in the U.S. Ask any teacher, however, and they'll tell you that they have never heard of it in the context of their classrooms.)
In other words, if someone mentions that many white families have ancestors that owned slaves, and a student feels "guilty" about that, the lesson is illegal and teachers may face penalties. (Would hate to suggest how actual slaves felt in those lessons.) The bill stipulates that schools may teach students about slavery and the history of racial segregation and discrimination in an “age-appropriate manner,” but teachers may not attempt to “indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.”
It gets better:
Florida's 2023 Social Studies Curriculum will include lessons on how "slaves developed skills" that could be used for "personal benefit." (You know, free on-the-job training!) Florida's Board of Education approved the curriculum last Wednesday.
Two members of the workgroup that developed the Florida curriculum said, "The intent of this particular benchmark clarification is to show that some slaves developed highly specialized trades from which they benefitted. This is factual and well-documented. Any attempt to reduce slaves to just victims of oppression fails to recognize their strength, courage and resiliency during a difficult time in American history. Florida students deserve to learn how slaves took advantage of whatever circumstances they were in to benefit themselves and the community of African descendants."
The 'happy slaves' trope has been around since there was slavery. They were happy, well-treated, and better off here than in their home country. Once savages, enslavement has produced dignified humans. This rhetoric developed into other positive twists - that slaves were protected by their masters, and that they were better off than the "wage slaves" of the North," and ultimately, slavery was enshrined in the Constitution!
As abolitionists gained traction in the north, here is Congressman James Henry Hammond from South Carolina in 1836 on the House floor, defending that peculiar institution.
Slavery is said to be an evil... But is no evil. On the contrary, I believe it to be the greatest of all the great blessings which a kind Providence has bestowed upon our glorious region... As a class, I say it boldly; there is not a happier, more contented race upon the face of the earth... Lightly tasked, well clothed, well fed—far better than the free laborers of any country in the world,... their lives and persons protected by the law, all their sufferings alleviated by the kindest and most interested care...
Retired television journalist Dan Rather got a lot of traction with his answer to these various history teaching guidelines in regards to slavery:
And this type of bullshit doesn't begin and end (as it usually does) with simple racism along the Mason-Dixon line. It's a short stroll from the fields of happy slaves to behind the barbed wire with the clever Holocaust survivors. From a Fox News conversation on the show "The Five":
Jessica Tarlov: I'm just fundamentally uncomfortable with this sentence that blacks benefited at all from this. And, you know, it made me think of someone obviously, I'm not black, but I'm Jewish. Would someone say about the Holocaust, for instance, that there were some benefits for Jews, right, while they were hanging out in concentration camps, you learned a strong work ethic, right? Maybe you learned a new skill.Greg Gutfeld: Did you ever read Man's Search for Meaning? Vik Frankl talks about how you had to survive in a concentration camp by having skills. You had to be useful. Utility! Utility kept you alive.
When it comes to education, the war goes on. Gov. Greg Abbott continues to insist that private school vouchers (funded by public education tax dollars) will be a reality in Texas, no matter how much public opinion is against the idea. And the battles over curriculum, teaching standards, and library books will continue, as will the forcing of "traditional values" into lesson plans. You can also count on more book bans. What's left of public education will be directed by the state, not by educators.
So maybe progressives haven't won the culture war after all. You can't win if the other side won't surrender. For every battle that appears to be won and settled, conservatives are willing to attack again. And they never seem to run out of money and resources to mount their attack. Whatever can't be taken over, can certainly be damaged. Excellent teachers continue to leave the field by the thousands. School districts all over the state face severe staff shortages. Teachers are blaming the culture wars and the constant attacks on their profession.
In an unwelcome move, The State of Texas recently "took over" the administration of the Houston Independent School District. Since HISD test scores were improving and the great majority of schools were meeting all state standards, this was widely interpreted as another political stunt/power move against one of the bluest cities in the state.
On Tuesday, the new state-appointed school superintendent announced plans to eliminate around 75 librarian and media specialist positions across the district. The library spaces will be converted to "Teams centers" — formerly called Zoom rooms — where students who misbehave in the classroom will be sent to watch the lesson virtually and others can work alone or in groups for differentiated instruction." (Miles promises that most of the librarians and media specialists will be able to find work in other similar, open positions within the district.)
That makes a statement, doesn't it? Libraries are being converted into detention centers.