How Not to Fight Wokism
My latest column just went up at Discourse. I describe what I see as the foolishness of Florida’s continuing attempt to police the intellectual content of its public school and college classrooms. I argue that Ron DeSantis is politicizing education in a way “that is new because it is conscious, overt, and declared.”
I know some of you will find that controversial, because hasn’t the left already been politicizing the heck out of education? Yes, in some significant ways, though I note in the piece that my own observation of local schools indicates that my kids are more likely to encounter leftist political ideas in private schools. Public schools still have a presumption against political indoctrination that prevents some of the worst excesses, so for those who want their kids to be so woke they can’t get to sleep at night, a private school is still the best bet.
(I also mention that my approach to picking schools is not to prevent my kids from encountering leftist ideas. It is to find the place that will give them the best education and—with supplemental efforts from mom and dad—help them acquire the capacity to cope with whatever ideas they encounter.)
But my point is that to reject the very idea of government being ideologically neutral in education—a key difference between the nationalist conservatives and us classical liberals—is to start a contest for total power that nobody should want to fight.
First, though, my article concretizes exactly what is going on.
[N]ationalist conservatives have become the new snowflakes who have decided that they can ban anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, whether it’s homosexuality or the history of slavery and segregation.
We see the same principle at work in a recent exposé of how Florida is pressuring textbook makers to alter standard school textbooks in deference to the same kind of highly defensive sensitivities. Here are some examples from that report, which describes how a right-wing activist group, Florida Citizens Alliance, has been put in charge of vetting textbooks for the Florida Department of Education. Among the infractions the group told textbook publishers to remove were “photos of ‘non-traditional families’”; a reference, in a book for middle-schoolers, to Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin as “the first lesbian elected to the Senate”; and a reference to a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the rights of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding—which was tagged as offensive because it references gay weddings.
All this takes “don’t say gay” to a new level. Under the guise of blocking left-wing propaganda about sexuality, Florida’s church-lady caucus has been empowered to expunge all mentions of the mere existence of homosexuality.
Even worse, they have decided that the uncomfortable history of racism must be expunged. An image flagged as violating “the statute relating to guilt of future generations” is the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England. It was a popular image among abolitionists, showing a Black man in chains, captioned with the plaintive question, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Ironically, this image was specifically intended to awaken its viewers’ religious conscience. But portrayal of this history is now being targeted in an attempt to purge textbooks based on a partisan ideological theory.
So you see the sort of thing we’re dealing with.
But the self-defeating aspect of this is that in pretending to do battle with the educational bureaucracy, the conservatives are actually planning to give that bureaucracy more power and fewer restraints.
[I]f we seek to transform the public schools on the principle that they ought to be the instruments of an overt political agenda, in the long run this is a grant of power to the educational establishment, a green light for them to impose their own favored agenda whenever they feel they can get away with it.
The contradictory impulses behind this approach are summed up in Governor DeSantis’ recent statement about the government agencies he would seek to eliminate as president, including the Department of Education. But then he adds, “If Congress won’t go that far”—and they almost certainly won’t—“I’m going to use those agencies to push back against woke ideology and against the leftism that we see creeping into all institutions of American life.”
This is the foolishness of the nationalist conservative agenda. In seeking to use the state for their ends, nationalist conservatives will end up increasing the power of institutions they are unlikely to control for very long.
This is another chapter in how not to fight wokism. Too many conservatives are looking with envy on the left’s attempts to seize government power for the purpose of indoctrination, and they are exploring how to emulate it.
I don’t think I need to tell you anyone who is an individualist or an atheist or just not a down-the-line nationalist conservative—between those three categories, this means most of the readers of this newsletter—how we will fare under such a system. I encounter conservatives who get very angry when I criticize efforts by the nationalists and DeSantis to impose their own dogmas in the name of fighting wokism. But really, why would I even be tempted to support a system that will just as easily turn against me as against the left?
Yet as I argue above, nobody really benefits from this, because it accelerates an unpredictable scramble for power in which anyone can lose—and in all likelihood, everyone will.