Americans like to think of their nation as a beacon of freedom. And despite all the ways in which we have failed to live up to our self-image, above all the vast injustices that sprang from the original sin of slavery, freedom — not just free elections, but also freedom of speech and thought — has long been a key element of the American idea.
Now, however, freedom is under attack, on more fronts than many people realize. Everyone knows about the Big Lie, the refusal by a large majority of Republicans to accept the legitimacy of a lost election. But there are many other areas in which freedom is not just under assault but in retreat.
Let’s talk, in particular, about the attack on education, especially but not only in Florida, which has become one of America’s leading laboratories of democratic erosion.
Republicans have made considerable political hay by denouncing the teaching of critical race theory; this strategy has succeeded even though most voters have no idea what that theory is and it isn’t actually being taught in public schools. But the facts in this case don’t matter, because denunciations of CRT are basically a cover for a much bigger agenda: an attempt to stop schools from teaching anything that makes right-wingers uncomfortable.
I use that last word advisedly: There’s a bill advancing in the Florida Senate declaring that an individual “should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” That is, the criterion for what can be taught isn’t “Is it true? Is it supported by the scholarly consensus?” but rather “Does it make certain constituencies uncomfortable?”
Anyone tempted to place an innocuous interpretation on this provision — maybe it’s just about not assigning collective guilt? — should read the text of the bill. Among other things, it cites as its two prime examples of things that must not happen in schools “denial or minimization of the Holocaust, and the teaching of critical race theory” — because suggesting that “racism is embedded in American society” (the bill’s definition of the theory) is just the same as denying that Hitler killed 6 million Jews.
What’s really striking, however, is the idea that schools should be prohibited from teaching anything that causes “discomfort” among students and their parents. If you imagine that the effects of applying this principle would be limited to teaching about race relations, you’re being utterly naïve.
For one thing, racism is far from being the only disturbing topic in American history. I’m sure that some students will find that the story of how we came to invade Iraq — or for that matter how we got involved in Vietnam — makes them uncomfortable. Ban those topics from the curriculum!
Then there’s the teaching of science. Most high schools do teach the theory of evolution, but leading Republican politicians are either evasive or actively deny the scientific consensus, presumably reflecting the GOP base’s discomfort with the concept. Once the Florida standard takes hold, how long will teaching of evolution survive?
Geology, by the way, has the same problem. I have been on nature tours where the guides refuse to talk about the origins of rock formations, saying that they have had problems with some religious guests.
Oh, and given the growing importance of anti-vaccination posturing as a badge of conservative allegiance, how long before basic epidemiology — maybe even the germ theory of disease — gets the critical race theory treatment?
And then there’s economics, which these days is widely taught at the high school level. (Full disclosure: Many high schools use an adapted version of the principles text I co-author.) Given the long history of politically driven attempts to prevent the teaching of Keynesian economics, what do you think the Florida standard would do to teaching in my home field?
The point is that the smear campaign against critical race theory is almost certainly the start of an attempt to subject education in general to rule by the right-wing thought police, which will have dire effects far beyond the specific topic of racism.
And who will enforce the rules? State-sponsored vigilantes! Last month Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, proposed a “Stop Woke Act” that would empower parents to sue school districts they claim teach critical race theory — and collect lawyer fees, a setup modeled on the bounties under Texas’ new anti-abortion law. Even the prospect of such lawsuits would have a chilling effect on teaching.
Did I mention that DeSantis also wants to create a special police force to investigate election fraud? Like the attacks on critical race theory, this is obviously an attempt to use a made-up issue — voter fraud is largely nonexistent — as an excuse for intimidation.
OK, I’m sure that some people will say that I’m making too much of these issues. But ask yourself: Has there been any point over, say, the past five years when warnings about right-wing extremism have proved overblown and those dismissing those warnings as “alarmist” have been right?
Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is a columnist for The New York Times.