Behind the CRT CrackdownHistorians in the News
tags: culture war, teaching history, critical race theory
Sam Adler-Bell is a freelance writer and cohost of the Know Your Enemy podcast.
“Acts of forgetting,” wrote the French philosopher Ernest Renan in 1882, play an indispensable role in “the creation of a nation.” Peoples congregate into nations not only under shared memories of triumph and glory, Renan observed; for a nation to cohere, Renan thought, the “deeds of violence” at the root of every nation’s founding must be forgotten, too. “The essence of a nation,” Renan wrote, “is that all its individual members should have many things in common; and also that all of them should hold many things in oblivion.”
America has long lived by this dictum, that our union depends on collective acts of amnesia — ex obliviis unum. Indigenous genocide, the subjugation of women, the enslavement of Africans, the plantation regime, coerced “free” labor, the mine wars and anti-union terror, the criminalization of sexual minorities, nativist violence, lynching, and Jim Crow apartheid: all of these, at various times, have been consigned to common oblivion — ennobling omissions that undergird a vague but encompassing national pride.
For Renan, “historical error” was preferable to historical accuracy if the latter was unflattering. (“Advances in the field of history are often a threat to the nation,” he wrote.) His spiritual descendants — today’s right-wing crusaders against anti-racist education — are less candid about their intentions, but no less fearful of history’s rebuke. “Critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country,” said president Donald Trump in September 2020, as he announced a commission to promote “patriotic” and “pro-American” education in public schools.
Trump’s 1776 Commission amounted to very little: a single, tendentious, report, 41 pages long, written without consultation from any professional historians, and released two days before Joe Biden’s inauguration. But its underlying purpose — protecting the nation’s children from the unsavory aspects of American history, especially its moments of racial tyranny — has remained a pivotal focus for conservatives in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the largest anti-racist mobilization in US history.
In May, Mitch McConnell and 38 other Republicans admonished Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona for promoting “activist indoctrination” in public education “that fixates solely on past flaws and splits our nation into divided camps.” “Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil,” read the letter. Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted on July 5, “If we teach that the founding of the United States of America was somehow flawed. It was corrupt. It was racist. That's really dangerous. It strikes at the very foundations of our country.” (Apparently, Pompeo does not count the perpetuation of human bondage or limiting the franchise to white men as “flaws.”) Over the summer, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri introduced the Love America Act, which would require public schools to teach a version of history that “affirm[s] the truths that unite us, and make us a great people.” Newly elected Virginia GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin ran on a pledge to purge his state’s schools of critical race theory and its allied pedagogic doctrines of equity, diversity, and inclusion — cruising to a blowout win in a state that Joe Biden had carried by 10 points in 2020. Meanwhile, a spate of state legislative bills set out to ban instruction in “divisive” subjects having to do with race, sexuality, and subjects likely to (in the eyes of the bill’s drafters) create discomfort or feelings of guilt in a student body apparently prone to hair-trigger emotional nosedives. The tacit logic of this McCarthyite crusade was made all too plain in the language of New Hampshire’s anti-CRT legislation: “No teacher shall advocate any doctrine or theory promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and the history of the United States of America.” In other words, Granite State teachers may be mandated to teach history without the actual materials of history.
Today’s campaign to demonize critical accounts of the nation’s past is captained by an unlikely-seeming ideologue: a baby-faced 36-year-old policy entrepreneur named Christopher Rufo, a former documentarian and Seattle city council candidate who now enjoys a sinecure at the prestigious Manhattan Institute. Rufo’s September 2020 appearance on Tucker Carlson inspired Trump to issue an executive order banning racial sensitivity trainings for federal employees. “It’s absolutely astonishing how critical race theory has pervaded every aspect of the federal government,” Rufo intoned as the pinch-faced Carlson looked on, “Conservatives need to wake up. This is an existential threat to the United States. And the bureaucracy, even under Trump, is being weaponized against core American values.” Rufo reportedly received an enthusiastic and congratulatory call from White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows the very next day.
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