It’s been a grim few weeks. Democracy, human rights and free speech are under assault as they’ve not been in generations. Misinformation and fabrications are carpet-bombing reality. Thought policing is muzzling expression and rewriting history as a worship-jerk. Individual freedom is in retreat. Authoritarianism–bullying, vengeful, exultant–is triumphant.
Using Floridians as bombing range DeSantis is waging a proxy war against all things lefty as buildup to a 2024 run. He’s making Donald Trump look like a compassionate con artist in comparison. Any semblance of inclusivity, of governance, of compromise or–heresy of heresies–moderation is out. The inquisition is back in. Strong-arming anything in the way is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself. There is no purpose to DeSantis’s governance other than himself, no grand policy agenda. It’s DeSantis as caudillo, now complete with his own Chavez-like election force.
His timing is perfect. Floridians are losing interest in democracy enough to believe bogus voter fraud claims and embrace insurrectionist violence as political speech. It’s how Goebbels saw Kristallnacht, too. Cleansing time. They don’t respect mere demonstrators, those pitiful social justice warriors. They see them as weak. As woke. It’s the red bait of the day.
We’re seeing the authoritarian impulse poison our own communities, as we did last week when Flagler Palm Coast High School student leader Jack Petocz was suspended after leading a brief walkout to protest one of those reactionary bills. He and Principal Greg Schwartz had agreed to the parameters of the march. But just as it was getting started, Schwartz saw that Jack was handing out pride flags. He ordered him to stop. Jack ignored him. Flags flew.
You might see that as an act of defiance. I see it as a foolish miscalculation on the principal’s part, ordered by the district office, an arbitrary muzzling of the very symbol representing the marchers’ point. You could say that district rules forbid political symbols. You’d be wrong. Pride flags are on many a teacher’s desk or in stickers on their doors, to reflect that their classroom is a safe space on a campus that unfortunately–unpardonably, considering the year–still needs them. And no student is being told to remove MAGA hats or Trump 2024 shirts.
Let’s give the district the benefit of the doubt and assume the rule against flags, which is in fact on the books, was applied evenly. Objectively, the rule is not at all unreasonable. It is designed to forbid all flags, confederate, neo-nazi and political party propaganda included. It is designed to keep the district from having to do “content discrimination”–allowing one type of message while disallowing another. Anything like that would get struck down in court. You either allow all or allow none. The district’s rule as written allows none.
So was the district wrong to impose the no-fly zone on the walkout? Absolutely.
The walkout was an agreed-upon disruption of the school day–explicitly agreed upon by Schwartz, with the district’s equally explicit allowance, as spelled out in an email to school board members by Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt. From that point on, those 15 minutes granted the walkout were a protected demonstration intended to express the students’ opposition to specific bills in the Legislature. It was the essence of political speech–political speech that justifiably would not be allowed during the school day, but that just as indisputably was allowed for those 15 minutes.
Within that time frame, within the context of the walk-out, which took place outside the school halls and on the track, the students were given the freedom to express themselves within the bounds of free, political expression. The flags were part of that expression. They were deployed for the march, and only for the march that Schwartz agreed to. For Schwartz to ban them was no different than if he had banned students from yelling “Say Gay!” or if he had censored parts of Jack’s speech. He at that point was doing precisely what the law forbids: he was doing content discrimination within the very bubble of free expression he had granted.
The suspension was arbitrary and retaliatory, pure and simple, and it was right in line with state edicts making a mockery of free speech, like the Soviet-style legislation just passed that makes demonstrating on some sidewalks illegal, or the legislation walkout was demonstrating against, which forbids teachers from discussing sexual orientation in certain grades and allows parents of any student in any grade to sue the district if certain subjects are broached against parents’ beliefs.
This is not democracy. It’s vigilantist autocracy violating students’ human rights, a violation echoed in the legislation banning abortions past 15 weeks, a brutal assault on women’s autonomy over their bodies that doesn’t even make an exception for rape, incest or human trafficking. Did I mention that the hippocratic oath has been replaced by the Gospel according to Fox?
Florida’s surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, our frontier doctor Strangelove who welcomed Covid like it was the second coming, just announced that he would be opposing the vaccination of healthy children under 18. He cited outright falsehoods cribbed from conspiracy theorists–tuxedoed in the regal language of the Barrington Declaration–that vaccines could cause more harm than good even though over 1,000 children have died from Covid. A far larger number have or continue to suffer from long covid. And unvaccinated children continue to be more likely to carry the virus and infect older adults.
Days earlier the governor was bullying students at the University of South Florida for wearing masks and calling it theater, thus unmasking his own claim that he stands for any kind of freedom in that regard. The move was oddly in line with a fundamental tenet of socialism: we will force you to be free. (“Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body,” Rousseau wrote in the Social Contract, handbook to future totalitarians. “This means nothing less than he will be forced to be free.”)
This is what Florida is becoming, an Orwellian state where repression is called freedom, lies are elevated to state policies and reckless public health edicts, and, like in a banana republic, a special gang is unleashed to police elections, something never seen in this country before, though Sinclair Lewis imagined it in It Can’t Happen Here. This is why the district’s response to the walkout at FPC was so alarming, and so unsurprising: the district is now a fully functional iron hand of state power, and that power has curdled into the “virtually unrecognizable” Florida Steve Bousquet, who’s covered state government for three decades, described in his latest column for the Sun-Sentinel.
Lucky for Florida’s Soviets (Putin is a genius!), the war in Ukraine is a splendid distraction. Nothing like championing democracy abroad while clobbering it at home.