Discover more from The Bulwark
Why Just Ban CRT?
Best of Morning Shots
As a year-end stocking stuffer, I’m offering some of the most notable newsletters from the last year. This one is from June 21, 2021—with a couple of links from this morning below.
Elementary school teachers, administrators and college professors are facing fines, physical threats, and fear of firing because of an organized push from the right to remove classroom discussions of systemic racism.” — Axios
Welcome to the Summer Solstice, and our season of endless Kulturkampf.
Much of our ongoing struggle now centers on the push to ban the teaching of “critical race theory,” which is an interesting exercise, given that few of the legislators or media critics seem to know exactly what the term means.
But precision is not the point. CRT has come to stand for virtually any discussion of race that annoys, provokes, or offends. As anti-CRT activist has Christopher Rufo has explained:
So they are playing a (race) card, not making an actual argument. They may not understand what it means, but they know that this is a way for them to push back (and shut down) debates about racial injustice. Any concerns about the history of racism or police violence can be simply dismissed: “See, what you're doing is Critical Race Theory.”
I regret to inform you that this includes simply making shit up.
Some of the allegations Rufo laid out… are not supported by the evidence he produces, and others are stretched beyond the facts.
But it is one thing to push memes on Twitter, quite another to draft legislative bans on ideas or theories (think evolution and the Scopes Monkey trial). Even some of CRT’s fiercest critics are skeptical of the legislative offensive.
Andrew Sullivan, in particular, has been relentless in his criticism of the ideology behind race theory. As our colleague, Jim Swift, noted last week, Sullivan recently highlighted an incident in which an Illinois high school that was apparently teaching students that the question “What does it mean to be white?” can be answered with “segregation,” “individualism,” and “focus on intentions over impact.”
But, the attempt to write legislation banning this sort of thing, Sullivan writes, has been a fiasco.
Many of the bills attempting to ban CRT in public schools are well-intentioned and do not, in fact, ban CRT. But they contain wording to constrain the kind of teaching that is built on CRT that is far too vague, could constrain speech in countless unforeseen ways, and are pretty close to unenforceable. (When people are proposing body-cameras for teachers, you know they’ve gone off the edge.) Most of these bills, to make things worse, strike me as unconstitutional. And they cede the higher ground.
In Tennessee, for instance (as David French points out), legislation bans “Promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people.”
This is vague to the point of incoherence, but gives a taste of the difficulty of crafting this sort of legislation.
Sullivan suggests an alternative to the blunt instrument of government suppression:
Insist that you are not attempting to ban CRT but to allow it to be taught as one idea among many in a liberal education. And do not conflate CRT with honest, painful accounts of our history, which can be taught just as well within a liberal context.
But that is not what the GOP wants right now.
Instead, as Jacqueline Alemany writes this morning, Republicans have seized on CRT “to fire up the outrage machine powering the GOP's culture wars.”
Which brings me to a serious question: Why ban just CRT? And why just now?
With more than a touch of defensiveness, Ted Cruz is insisting that he understands what critical race theory is all about. Over the weekend, he recounted his answer to a reporter who asked him to define CRT. “I explained to him, I said it’s a theory that derives from Marxism. Karl Marx viewed the entire world as a conflict between classes, between the owners of capital and the working men and women, the proletariat,” said Cruz. “Critical race theory takes that same Marxist concept, except it replaces class with race.”
Marco Rubio also tried his hand at a definition. “Critical race theory at its core is a theory that teaches that Americans are divided between oppressors and the oppressed,” he explained.
But if we are banning this sort of thing, why stop there? If CRT derives from Marxism, why not ban Marxism too? (Or would that smack too obviously of censorship, cancel culture, and the attack on free speech?)
If critical race theory is beyond the pale, where are the bills banning or restricting all of the other criticals, like critical social theory and critical legal theory (or anything developed by the Frankfurt School)?
If conservatives really want to take on political correctness in education, why not also ban post-modernism, deconstructionism, moral relativism, and anything written by Jacques Derrida?
If we are really worried about anything suggesting that there is oppression, why not also ban the teaching of “intersectionality,” which is “the theory that the overlap of various social identities, as race, gender, sexuality, and class, contributes to the specific type of systemic oppression and discrimination.”
And since Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are so concerned about Oppression Studies, where is the legislative push to ban Radical Feminism, including arguments that science is deeply aligned with “sexist, racist, classist, and imperialist social projects”?
This is hardly a new issue. Feminist educators have challenged “masculinist distinctions,” such as “objectivity vs. subjectivity . . . reason vs. emotion, mind vs. body.” One writer from this school of thought refers to Newton’s Laws as “Newton’s rape manual.”
Here’s a critique from one young conservative wag that was written more than 30 years ago:
So why aren’t GOP legislators banning this sort of thing? Yes, I know this is a trick question.
If the concern was really simply political correctness, their agenda would be far wider, wouldn’t it? But by focusing solely on critical race theory, they sort of give away the game, don’t they?
Morning Shots is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
1. Messaging Mark Meadows: Let’s Have ‘Marshall Law’!
Taken as a whole, these communications provide abundant reason for the House January 6th Committee to recommend criminal charges against Meadows and others who took part in the plot to overturn the results of the 2020 election. . . . The committee is expected to vote this afternoon during its final hearing on possible referrals to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, in advance of the release of its final report on Wednesday. According to Bloomberg News, the committee is looking into bringing charges against Meadows and several others who sought to overturn the 2020 election by trying “to persuade Georgia and other states to use ‘fake electors’ for Trump, instead of electors that provided Biden with victories.” Trump himself is said to be facing possible charges of obstructing an official proceeding of Congress, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and insurrection.
2. Three Cheers For Content Moderation
No matter what form such an effort would take, when a tough call inevitably presents itself, someone, somewhere is going to have to make the final decision. That person will be flawed. They will have a political preference of some kind. They will have their own experiences and background and biases that will color how they think we should solve this intractable paradox. How do we balance user experience and safety with the individual’s right to express themselves when those things come in conflict? Pretending like there is an easy, consistent, one-size-fits-all, pro-free-speech answer to that question doesn’t make it so. The best we can do is moderate in good faith and hold those in charge accountable for their mistakes.