By Robert Koehler
Curse that First Amendment! What were the Founding Fathers thinking?
As Ron DeSantis has declared and legislated, the safety of Florida — and, yeah, the safety of the nation — isn’t a matter of gun control (or police control) but speech control, especially in public-school classrooms and libraries, where the innocent minds of our children are developing.
We shouldn’t be teaching them the howling beast of so-called “real” history, for God’s sake, replete with words like “reparations” or “Dred Scott” or “mass incarceration” — let alone, “queer” — but rather, polite history. The America we believe in is the one where people behave themselves and everyone gets along, right? That’s the real America, and those who don’t acknowledge as much . . . well, we can always burn a cross on their lawn.
OK, calm down, class. Let me at least acknowledge this much: I can more or less understand the concern — the fear — on the DeSantis right of the teaching of real history: the divisive history of white conquest of a continent; the history of slavery, lynching, Native American genocide. Yeah, that could make some people feel uncomfortable, especially if history is taught primarily as propaganda, simplistic and unquestioned, an adjunct, say, to the Pledge of Allegiance, which is the history I grew up learning in the 1950s.
In those pre-civil-rights-era days — where white was still, unquestionably, right — history essentially was a matter of “the first white man” to do whatever, e.g.: sail across the Atlantic, “discover America,” conquer the Wild West, teach savages about God. History was a gallery of white male heroes. It was taught from war to war. And it was good.
The problem that DeSantis and company face today is that the present moment is more racially and intellectually complex than it was seven-plus decades ago. The civil rights movement shattered the “white is right” mentality: Jim Crow is dead and gone, but his legacy must still be examined and atoned for. Citizenship isn’t a “whites only” thing, and American heroes of the good old days, including the Founding Fathers, are suddenly a bit less than their legacy. America — the real America of 2023 — emerged, evolved, not from its exceptionalism but its mistakes and misjudgments, which are still present today, often continuing to create serious harm.
Indeed, the real history of America is endlessly shocking. Grab one of its heroes — Teddy Roosevelt, let us say — and listen to his words, his values, as they sound in the world of today, e.g.: Should black Americans be allowed to vote?
As the History Channel points out, he once said to Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, back in 1916: “(T)he great majority of Negroes in the South are wholly unfit for the suffrage.” Giving them the right to vote could “reduce parts of the South to the level of Haiti.”
And, oh yeah: “Roosevelt viewed Native Americans as impediments to the white settlement of the United States and believed that white frontiersmen had forged a new race — the American race — by ‘ceaseless strife waged against wild man and wild nature.’”
Such words start putting American exceptionalism into a discomforting context. Should they . . . uh, not be taught? Washed forever down the American memory hole? Or maybe at the very least, removed from generic, “normal” history and relegated to a separate category, such as Black History.
Black History also provides the context for teaching such historical horrors as, for example, Florida’s 1923 Rosewood Massacre: one more largely forgotten detail of the Jim Crow days — the destruction of a prosperous, mostly African American town by angry white men, in search of someone who had allegedly attacked a white woman in nearby Sumner. Hundreds of white men ravaged the town, burning it to the ground, killing an unknown number of residents (possibly over a hundred). As the Tampa Bay Times put it:
“In the course of one week, the bustling town was reduced to ashes. The only thing that stands today is a sign erected to commemorate Rosewood. It is riddled by bullets.”
Seventy-plus years later, after a team of scholars researched the incident and concluded that the state of Florida failed to protect Rosewood from the racially motivated massacre, the state issued $2 million in reparations for the survivors. While the story of Rosewood is taught in some Florida schools, DeSantis has recently mandated that the word “reparations” cannot be used in the teaching.
The would-be future president, addressing the Florida Board of Education last summer, explained himself thus: “The ‘woke class’ wants to teach kids to hate each other, rather than teaching them how to read, but we will not let them bring nonsense ideology into Florida’s schools.”
This is apparently a man who cannot see beyond the concept of propaganda. Words are meant to convey what we must believe, nothing more, nothing less. One plus one equals two. And teaching the wrong propaganda is deeply problematic to national security. Hence, speech control is necessary. Teachers who don’t tread the proper line face criminal charges, including third-degree felony. Books that don’t toe the line must be removed from school libraries. Any questions?
Just a few quick thoughts, Governor. You’ve unleashed an avalanche of fear and legal absurdity into a struggling, underfunded system of public education, in the process crippling the learning process. What are you so afraid of? The truth?
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. He has been an editor at Tribune Media Services and a reporter, columnist and copy desk chief at Lerner Newspapers, a chain of neighborhood and suburban newspapers in the Chicago area. Koehler launched his column in 1999.