Political Theater of the Anti-CRT Campaign

There is a wave of bills and resolutions that are sweeping across the country that on the surface claim to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools. Beyond the surface lie concerted efforts to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion activities and outlaw culturally responsive teaching, critical pedagogy, and restorative justice approaches.

As someone born in the USSR, I am struck by the statements made by those who are participating in this campaign.

“Our children should know that we live in the greatest country on earth!”

“This dangerous, anti-American ideology has no place in Georgia classrooms”

“Our young people don’t need to be taught divisive lies!”

“Students should be able to report what their professors are teaching, to stop the spread of dangerous propaganda and the indoctrination of younger generations.”

I am struck by these statements coming from legislators, policymakers, education board members, and parents because I have already heard similar proclamations before. And, with some luck, I can hear them again if I find the right video recordings of the Communist Party Plenums from the Soviet era.

Here is the problem in the nutshell – surveilling who says what to whom and reporting what has been said to stop the spread of “indoctrination” has already been done in the Soviet Union where indoctrination was blatant and ever present. Of all the things done in the Soviet Union – not all of which were necessarily bad – witch hunts of those who express different views is not the best practice to emulate. Importantly, witch hunts – whether in this country during McCarthyism or in any other country under dictatorial regimes – never lead to anything good. In fact, they more often than not create large-scale disasters. You know where the word “gulag” came from? From the country where witch hunts based on political views were the norm, aka the USSR.

You might say, “These debates about Critical Race Theory don’t concern me” or “I don’t want children in this country to be indoctrinated.” I don’t want children in this country indoctrinated either. But along with others who have shared their analysis of the political theater around anti-CRT bans, I think there is a lot to be concerned about here. My main point of concern is how the media, marketing, and legislative campaigns are getting parents and legislators to believe that some people should be stopped because they are “indoctrinating” young minds. Why? Because this rhetoric itself is a form of indoctrination.

What are some symptoms of indoctrination?

The simplest one is repeating the same talking points.

See, if a person had a chance to wrestle with some ideas, they end up rejecting some, changing the language in others, and then adding something from themselves.

Legislators are demanding that the following “divisive concepts” be removed from school curricula or discussions in educational institutions. Can you guess which state these ideas came from?

  1. The United States of America is a racist country
  2. One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;
  3. An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously;
  4. An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual’s race;
  5. Members of one race cannot or should not attempt to treat others without respect to race;
  6. An individual’s moral standing or worth is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex;
  7. An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;
  8. An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex;
  9. Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race;
  10. Fault, blame, or bias should be assigned to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex.

Well? Is it Michigan? Utah? Florida? Georgia? New Hampshire? Idaho? Tennessee?

The answer is – all of the above.

And this should give you a pause.

Think about this for a second. Why is the United States a federation? So that each member state could make its own governing decisions that are better aligned with local contexts, values, and priorities. For example, people often repeat – K-12 education is a state issue; federal government has no business telling what states should do. Take, for example, Governor Kemp of Georgia who proclaimed that, “Parents, educators, and local communities here in the Peach State know how to best educate their students – not the federal government.”

If states have their own governing bodies, so that they could make their own policies, why is the language so consistent?

The answer is fairly simple. A group of conservative organizations created networks that influence legislators and supply them with scripts for the bills that should be introduced. These organizations are also linked to advocacy groups and non-profits that receive scripts to distribute among “concerned parents” and “concerned citizens.” These operations are funded by large donors.

For example, one of the central actors waging the war against “wokeness” and leading the charge against critical race theory, diversity, inclusion, anti-racism, and equity is the Heritage Foundation. Its IRS 990 forms list $365,763,848 as its assets and $132,836,267 for its gross receipts. It can spend millions on lobbying and “grassroots” activities. One of the organizations it supports is “Concerned Women of America” that tracks the introduction of anti-CRT bills and mobilizes others for action in their state. Heritage is supported by Koch brothers who also support the American Legislative Council and State Policy Network, with such affiliates as Texas Public Policy Foundation, that deliver “state solutions” with “national impact” to state legislators. Philanthropy Roundtable that seeks to influence policy-making by guiding philanthropic support has also receive support from Koch brothers.

The Heritage Foundation is not waging this war alone. The letter submitted by Attorneys General to the Secretary of Education where concerns about divisive concepts are shared bases its argument on the Heritage Foundation posts and publications by the American Enterprise Institute. One person cited is Christofer Rufo one of the main figureheads of the campaign who has held positions with the Manhattan Institute and the Discovery Institute – libertarian think-tanks that are also participating in this campaign against “wokeness.”

In fact, the points I listed earlier appear in “The Partisanship Out of Civics Act” designed as a model bill by the National Association of Scholars (section B, points 7 and 8). This is one instance of a script that gets circulated among policymakers and legislators to prompt political action.

Why should you be concerned?

It’s plain and simple.

You voted for elected officials who are supposed to represent you. But instead, your elected officials represent the richest people in the country and sign into law bills created by powerful “influencers,” some of which operate on multi-million dollar budgets. When the same language gets parroted from one state to another, indoctrination unfolds.

And that is how you get bills with the same language introduced from one state to another. And when journalists ask simple questions – Is Critical Race Theory even taught in schools?, rich donors have nothing to say.

Why?

Because this has never been about Critical Race Theory. It has always been about teaching you to look at your neighbor, your child’s teacher, or a college professor and see the enemy, instead of paying attention to who is spending billions buying superyachts and taking rides on space shuttles.

We can have many perspectives on what Critical Race Theory offers and what limitations it might have. But it is time to consider how this battle against it is in itself a form of indoctrination.

My invitation is simple. Let’s not repeat TV one-liners and social media posts. Let’s not forward to our elected officials mass send-outs from organizations funded by billionaires. Let’s read, learn, and check for ourselves what these ideas are and what they stand for. In order not to become coopted into someone else’s game, we all have to take a simple choice to think for ourselves and use credible reliable sources to develop our positions. Fighting indoctrination happens through careful learning and reasoning. Not by repeating someone else’s talking points or by legislating who should be reported and disciplined for discussing certain concepts.

Why does it all matter? Because we cannot have a democracy without independent thinkers.

If we all repeat one-liners here and there, if we engage in witch-hunts, reporting, and punishments, if we accept what we are told without critically examining these ideas for ourselves, we slide into authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

I hope we can all agree that it is not the future we want for ourselves or our children.

Lessons from the Pandemic

I did not know that wild violets grow in Alabama fields. Turns out they do, right in my neighborhood. I did not know that in the back of my yard grows a dogwood tree with tender blossoms, flowers that serve as a symbol of rebirth and revival. Granted I have not been living in this house long, but the three years of never-ending busy-ness, endless to-do lists, deadlines always looming larger than life, worries about the future, parenting obligations, and health issues choked out my ability to see life around me. Now, I stop to pay attention even if for a brief moment to marvel at the beauty that has been so elusive before.

This pandemic taught me many lessons already. For one, it has cracked open the fragility of human life. In the West, but particularly in the U.S., there is an implicit assumption of invincibility. And it is contagious. “Best healthcare system in the world!” “We will win this war!” “We will not let this enemy prevail!” It is so easy to believe that tragedy and horror will pass by. But friends from New York write about the constant sound of howling ambulances; news stories describe the stench from unrefrigerated trucks full of decomposing bodies; nurses and doctors share stories of trauma and desperation from seeing dozens of patients die daily. Assumptions of invincibility are pretentious and dangerous. They take us down a much darker path.

That is the major lesson of the pandemic so far – “unforeseeable circumstances” and “unchartered waters” bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. Ultimately, these events become a true mirror of who we are as a society. Or rather, what we have become. Years of ragged individualism and aggressive propagation of libertarian ideas left us stranded on the island on which homo hominin lupus est – “a man is a wolf to another man.” The widespread disregard for the vulnerable, for the community, for the well-being of others is astonishing. Of all the tragic twists and turns that I could anticipate, the scale of the protests against shelter-in-place policies and the aggressiveness against basic means of protecting public health, such as masks, have been devastating to observe. I have been wrestling with the question of how a society gets to this place.

A part of the crisis is a broken economic system that puts profits over the well-being of people. The meritocratic narrative of rewards only for “hard work” supported the decimation of safety nets. With incomes lost, millions of Americans have nothing to fall back on in the time of crisis. When decisions were being made, they either actively supported or silently observed how social protections were eliminated believing that “those people” should work harder to earn their piece of the pie. Now, instead of realizing that they themselves were shortchanged by this ideology, they demand a return “to normal,” with a complete disregard for the loss of life this will incur. It does not help that in some states, there have been clear connections between groups that are organizing the protests and the billionaire class. A classic case from old philosophical texts – those with limited economic resources are working against their own interests as individuals or members of the working class to serve the needs and interests of their masters.

But there are also deeper issues at hand. Much of the American society has learned to live for pleasure – instant gratification to consumerist desires. Isolation cuts off opportunities to engage in rampant consumerism of goods, services, images, and pleasures. Being alone reveals the holes in one’s humanity created both by consumerism and fast-paced lives in pursuit of profit or sustenance. The space for leisure to cultivate hobbies that allow people to create, produce, observe, marvel, or contemplate has been erased by the rat race of non-stop running between work, meetings, activities, get-togethers, shopping, TV shows, and errands. As a cultural outsider, I am continually amazed at how consumerism is even taught to toddlers, both through garages full of trinkets and through busy schedules of soccer games, swimming lessons, and play-dates. When do they ever get to be children, I wonder. To just be.

In a recent interview, Chris Hedges – a Pulitzer-winning journalist and writer – described the current social crisis as a result of long-standing policies and practices, which in the long run have produced a society of spectators. He makes a point in his other works that 24-hour entertainment through every imaginable medium – streaming, TVs, ads, podcasts, phone apps, sporting events, and social media – cultivates a lack of critical thinking. On some level, this point resonated with me because I have spent a lot of my time thinking about schools and educational institutions producing spectators both in the U.S. and in other countries. I wrote extensively that certain educational goals run the danger of producing masses that do not question and do not engage in a social critique. Spectators.

Applied to the current crisis, however, this perspective helped it all make sense – spectators come together to derive pleasure from an act of entertainment. They are present to get their emotional high – not to be somebody, not to act decisively, not to make a difference, not to show care for the well-being of others, but to see and be seen. Their goal is to be satisfied by the show. A spectator has no moral or ethical obligation to a spectator right next to him or her. As Guy Debord – a late French philosopher  – explained it, all spectators are united  through a divided, fragmented, and disconnected act of being connected to a spectacle. We might all tune in to watch the spectacle of daily coronavirus briefings from the White House but that does not makes us connected or united to each other. We remain separated by our social classes, cultural groups, values, and beliefs. And after seeing the staggering numbers of infections and deaths, we remain on different social planes about our concerns for our neighbors and our community. Some will care, many others will not. And since the show is getting more and more dissatisfying, the edginess will grow and the acts of violence will increase. Homo hominem lupus est.

Spectators are also not expected to question the show. Theater goers repeat lines from the plays they enjoyed. They do not test them for truthfulness, internal logic, or factual support. Remember Hamilton – I am not throwing away my shot? What a catchy line to repeat and live by. In the same way, this pandemic has been a breeding ground for dangerous ideas that fly in the face of reason but spectators pick them up, write them on poster boards, and march into the streets to chant them back. In the era of widespread misinformation, catchy slogans become lethal weapons.

Some empires decline gradually, some fall apart abruptly. I was born in the Soviet Union – an empire that fell when no one expected it to fall. And I say to you, my friends, welcome to the end of the empire. We are about to witness something really spectacular, but not in an entertaining kind of way.

If practiced right, quarantine has given us the best gift we could ever ask for as a society – solitude (I know it might not feel that way when you are locked up with relatives and children, but still). Solitude is an amazing opportunity for introspection. For centuries, people across the world sought solitude to gain wisdom. Even though neither solitude, nor wisdom, is held up in much regard in this society, quarantine lessons suggest that we need to rethink our lives and our priorities. And perhaps that, which was not highly regarded before, could be considered as an opportunity to reimagine the world and build a better society. I don’t think the fall of the empire can be averted, but at least a better vision for us as a people and as a society can be created for those who will emerge from the rubble.

Dogwood flower

Money Matters: Political Theater of Competitive Grant Funding

“Money matters: Political theater of competitive grant-funding and reform ideologies” was presented during Eurasia Special Interest Group Highlighted Session at the Comparative and International Education Society Annual Meeting in Mexico City on March 26, 2018.