Shortly before Virginia’s gubernatorial election on November 2, the Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, circulated an ad in which a white woman calls for Virginia public schools to ban classroom discussions of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved.
Pandering to racist fears and white racial anxiety, Youngkin also stated he would ban from schools what the right wing is inaccurately describing as “critical race theory,” a term which actually refers to a body of legal scholarship, but which right-wingers like Youngkin are using as a catch-all to describe any discussion of systemic racism in the U.S. And Youngkin made the boldface and dangerous assertion that educators are destroying America. Days later, Youngkin received 50.6 percent of the vote, defeating Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Youngkin’s attack on Virginia teachers’ ability to discuss structural racism are just one example of the GOP’s ongoing attack on public and higher education — an attack that is closely aligned to a fascist politics that despises anyone who holds power accountable and sees as an enemy anyone who fosters liberating forms of social change or attempts to resist the right wing’s politics of falsehoods and erasure.
The Republican Party’s view of “patriotic education” draws directly from the playbook of previous dictatorships with their hatred of reason, truth, science, evidence and the willingness to use language as a source of dehumanization and violence. This is a language that operates in the interests of manufactured fear while producing a void filled with despair. This is a form of apartheid pedagogy that embraces the cult of manufactured ignorance, freezes the moral imagination, erases unsettling forms of historical memory and works to discredit dissent among individuals and institutions that call attention to social problems.
The attacks on suppressed histories of racism represent an updated modern civil war. This is a war against reason and racial injustice that reproduces itself through the production of, as Toni Morrison herself notes, “cultivated ignorance, enforced silence, and metastasizing lies.”
Matters of conscience, social responsibility and equity have been purged from a Republican Party that feeds off the ghosts of an authoritarian past. Its disdain for justice and civic responsibility is also evident in its defense of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, its refusal to accept the election of Joe Biden as president and its immersion in a culture of lies.
The spirit of the Confederacy is obvious in the GOP’s voter suppression laws and its support of white nationalism and white supremacy. The spirit of U.S. authoritarianism is also alive in the Republican Party’s efforts to capture the machinery of state power in order to invalidate state elections along with attempts to suppress the votes of people of color. Such actions are frighteningly similar to attacks on Black voters during Reconstruction.
The legacy of Jim Crow and an updated version of the Southern Strategy are the driving forces in the Republican Party’s attempts to remove from public and higher education, if not history itself, any reference to slavery, racism and the teaching of other unpleasant truths. In this instance, white racial fears are activated, functioning like a coma to enlist the public in increasing acts of censorship, surveillance, and other practices that deaden the moral imagination and sense of civic justice.
The current policing of education in the United States cannot be abstracted from a larger strategy to identify the institutions and individuals who “make trouble” by uncovering the truth, resisting the warmongers, and exposing the violence at work by those politicians who invite the public “to become vigilantes, bounty hunters and snitches.” Drawing on the work of Russell Banks, I believe that the current attacks on educators who teach about the history and contemporary realities of racism are part of a broader attempt to silence those “committed to a life of opposition, of speaking truth to power, of challenging and overthrowing received wisdom and disregarding the official version of everything.”
Authoritarianism and education now inform each other as the Republican Party in numerous states mobilizes education as a vehicle for white supremacy, pedagogical repression, excision and support for curricula defined by an allegiance to unbridled anti-intellectualism and a brutal policy of racial exclusion. Republican legislators now use the law to turn public education into white nationalist factories and spaces of indoctrination and conformity. Republican state legislators have put policies into place that erase and whitewash history, and attack any reference to race, diversity and equity while also deskilling teachers and undermining their attempts to exercise control over their teaching, knowledge and the curriculum.
Horrified over the possibility of young people learning about the history of colonization, slavery and the struggles of those who have resisted long-standing forms of oppression, the Republican Party subscribes to a politics of denial and disappearance. Science, racism, truth, climate change and dissent are now relegated to a politics of terminal exclusion and social abandonment. Attacking discussions of racism in public schools and higher education, they have made clear that “the ancient lie of white supremacy remains lethal.” History now repeats itself with a vengeance given that the Republican Party has a long legacy of pandering to racial resentment and white supremacy. This is a legacy that extends from Richard Nixon’s war on Black people and Ronald Reagan’s racist use of the myth of the welfare queen to Donald Trump’s birther arguments and the demonization of Mexicans, Muslims, Black journalists and athletes, and the reference to Haiti and African nations as “shithole” countries. Horrified over the possibility of young people learning about the history of colonization, slavery and the struggles of those who have resisted long-standing forms of oppression, the Republican Party subscribes to a politics of denial and disappearance.
As part of the ongoing culture wars, various Republican governors have banned the teaching of what they are inaccurately deeming “critical race theory” in public schools, and have also threatened to cut back state funding for public universities that introduce anti-racist issues to students, including a great deal of the founding literature of Black Studies and other sources that provoke discussions that offer a remedy to racial injustice. At the core of these attacks is a totalizing attack on critical thinking, informed judgments, truth and the core values that inform a critical notion of citizenship.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. has eloquently argued that what is at stake here is the freedom to write and bear witness, the freedom to learn that liberation and civic literacy inform each other, and to recognize that the freedom to teach and learn is under siege in a culture that is being policed by the new authoritarians. How else to explain that Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), the chair of the House General Investigating Committee, required that Texas school districts provide a list of over 800 books used in classrooms and libraries.
Not surprisingly, all of these books address important social problems. Krause also asked schools to report whether his designated list of books might make students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” Karen Attiah notes that, “looking at Krause’s list, it’s hard not to conjure up images of totalitarian regimes and violent groups that have gone after books throughout history, from Nazi attacks on works considered ‘un-German’ in 1933 to al-Qaeda destroying precious manuscripts in Timbuktu. A gander at Krause’s list reveals an almost exclusive focus on race and racism, sex and sexuality, LGBT issues, abortion and — gasp — even puberty.”
It gets worse. In Wisconsin, Republican legislators want to banish certain words, such as “white supremacy,” “structural bias,” “structural racism,” “whiteness,” “multiculturalism” and “systemic racism.” For the Republican Party, words are dangerous, especially those that encourage critical interpretations, expand human agency and produce sentences that open the possibilities for self-determination and a more democratic social order. Banning words and books constitutes a pedagogy of unlearning and disappearance, particularly with respect to care, empathy for the suffering of others, solidarity and the courage needed to confront injustices. Banning books and words injects ignorance into the public sphere, making reason toxic and justice irrelevant. Banning books and words is tantamount to a totalitarian dictatorship of illiteracy and politics of elimination. Even more, it both erases the genocidal brutality that such practices produced in the past and normalizes the possibility of their appearing again in the future. In Wisconsin, Republican legislators want to banish certain words such as “white supremacy,” “structural bias,” “structural racism,” “whiteness,” “multiculturalism” and “systemic racism.”
Words and books that offer oppressed people the opportunity to gain self-representation and the ability to narrate themselves are now viewed by many Republicans as unpatriotic. Words that unfold in books that speak to a critical engagement with history, engage the possibilities at work in the unfolding of the human condition, and “bear witness to the full range of our humanity” are increasingly subject to an updated form of repression that prefigures authoritarian models of governance.
Words that encompass the far reaches of human intelligibility, offering an emancipated notion of individual and public agency are now examined with a heightened racial frenzy produced by a Republican Party and its acolytes who support the toxic principles of white supremacy and a politics of disposability. In this discourse, language functions to suppress any sense of racial justice, moral decency and democratic values. It is indebted to a politics of erasure and manufactured ignorance, and it wages a major assault on reason and justice. Moreover, it turns lethal by paving the way for a rebranded form of fascism. As part of its attack on and whitewashing of history, memory is trapped in a present that is wedded to a form of historical amnesia. Under such circumstances, words, language and thought itself are being erased or misrepresented so as to operate in an educational climate marked by what Richard Rodriguez once called “an astonishing vacancy.”
Fears about banishing books feature prominently in a number of dystopian novels that provide alarming examples of future authoritarian societies. Such lessons appear lost on a sizeable portion of the general public for whom the current historical moment imitates the horrifying fictional narratives explored in dystopian novels such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where books are outlawed or relegated to memory holes connected to incinerators used to destroy them.
American authoritarianism is alive and well. The Republican Party and its allies are waging an aggressive onslaught against any institution, policy and ideal that upholds democracy. In a startling statement that resonates with the previous horrors of history and the war on critical intellectuals, academics and journalists, Republican J.D. Vance, who is running for the Senate in Ohio, stated that “The Professors are the Enemy.”
This deadly contempt for academics is present not only in the ways in which the neoliberal university has stripped them of ownership over their working conditions and modes of governance, but also in its utter disregard for their role as citizen scholars and public intellectuals. This disregard was unabashedly visible when the University of Florida prohibited four university professors from providing expert testimony in lawsuits challenging state policies endorsed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In this blatant act of censorship, possibly a signal of what is to come, the University of Florida administration decided that it would look to the Republican governor to decide how to regulate university speech and the public activities of its faculty. As Robert C. Post, a Yale law professor, pointed out,
The university does not exist to protect the governor. It exists to serve the public. It is an independent institution to serve the public good, and nothing could be more to the public good than a professor telling the truth to the public under oath.
Fortunately, this blatant assault against freedom of expression and academic freedom was reversed as a result of mounting public and legal outrage.
The ominous shadows of history are once again flooding the United States. Historical memory serves us well in making clear that the banishing of words, ideas and books is the precondition for the horrors that produced the fascist politics of the 1930s in Europe and later in the 1970s and ‘80s in authoritarian regimes in Latin America. Republican J.D. Vance’s attack on academics mirrors a statement made by Gen. Millán Astray, a firm supporter of Francisco Franco, who on October 12, 1936, while attending a speech given by the Dean of Salamanca University in Spain, shouted, “Long live death … death to the intellectuals!! Down with Intelligence.” This grotesque utterance occurred in the midst of a civil war in which intellectuals were tortured, murdered and sent into exile. The terror it both evokes and legitimizes has now become an organizing principle of the Republican Party.
The banning of books also has historical precedents that speak powerfully to the dangerous authoritarian spirit that now animates Republican Party politics. On the evening of May 10, 1933, over 40,000 people gathered in Berlin in what was then known as the Opernplatz. At the urging of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, more than 25,000 books labeled as “un-German” were burned. Soon afterward, book burnings took place across Germany in a variety of university towns. The purpose of the book burnings was to “cleanse” Germany of the literature of “racial impurity” and dissent and “purify” the German spirit. There was more at work here than what the novelist Andrew Motion called a monumental “manifestation of intolerance;” there was also a forecasting of the killings, mass murders, disappearances and genocide that would follow this symbolic act of racial hatred and purification.
The banning of books in the United States, which bears a dangerous resemblance to the Nazi book burning, represents a startling vision of the Republican Party’s disdain for democracy and its willingness to resurrect totalitarian practices linked to earlier periods of censorship, repression, terror and state violence. In this case, as the great 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine observed rightly, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn people.” The banning of books and the dehumanizing of the writers who produce them is one step away from habituating the wider public into accepting the transition from censorship to more overt criminal acts on the part of the state. Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole perfectly captures the implications such actions have for developing into a full-fledged form of authoritarianism. He writes:
As a society the American people are being habituated into accepting cruelty on a wide scale. Americans are being taught not to see other people as human beings whose lives are as important as their own. Once that line has been crossed … then we know where that all leads, what the ultimate destination is. There is no mystery about it. We know what happens when a government and its leaders dehumanize large numbers of people.
The Republican Party is not calling for the burning of books or the imprisonment of authors they target as “un-American,” (at least not yet) but the spirit that animates their calls for censorship, historical cleansing, so-called racial purity, disposability and politics is alarming and a precondition for something much worse. The Nazi assertion and threat proclaiming, “The state has been conquered but not the universities” could very well be viewed as a central feature of the Republican Party’s war on critical race theory, the banning of books and its all-out war on higher education as a democratic public sphere.
The attacks on critical modes of thinking in the United States are at the center of a looming civil war in which the horrifying phantoms of the past have been re-energized and now threaten to appear once again. Beneath the spectacle of the MAGA hats, the criminal assault on the Capitol and an expanding culture of lies, there is a reactionary cultural politics financed by corporate interests and legitimized by powerful social media platforms, conservative foundations and other cultural apparatuses whose endpoint is the death of democracy.
At the current moment in the United States, manufactured fear is now coupled with the mass production of ignorance and the surging political power of U.S.-bred authoritarianism. These forces work in tandem in order to destroy higher education, which is one of the few public spaces left where truth and justice can be taught, and resistance can be cultivated against the looming danger of normalizing white supremacy and an updated form of American fascism.
It would be wise for educators and others to heed Toni Morrison’s warning, so prophetically accurate at the present moment: “If the university does not take seriously and rigorously its role as a guardian of wider civic freedoms, as interrogator of more and more complex ethical problems, as servant and preserver of deeper democratic practices, then some other regime or menage of regimes will do it for us, in spite of us, and without us.”
Clearly, faculty, students, and others who take democracy seriously must work together to make higher education take on the responsibility of addressing the authoritarian cracks that have appeared in U.S. society. Critical education helps us to remember that justice and what it takes to be human are inextricably connected and cannot be removed from a politics of solidarity. Justice is on hold in the United States, and, in part, this suggests that educators and those who refuse to live in a fascist world need to rethink the meaning of education and how it works as an instrument of empowerment, resistance and possibility. Fascist mythologies, racist social practices, misogynist governing structures and the prioritization of market values must be removed from higher education. Moreover, new structures of power must be enacted, and education must be reclaimed as a civic practice rather than as a series of commercial exchanges. Only then will it be possible for higher education to operate as a democratic public sphere that takes seriously the notion that democracy requires an informed citizenry and education is the foundation for that to happen.
Repressive forms of political education saturate everyday life and produce both a reactionary shift in mass consciousness and a crisis of civic imagination. In part, this is due to an attack on democratic modes of education and public understanding in a variety of cultural apparatuses, extending from public and higher education to social media. Heightened racial hysteria has become normalized and needs to be challenged in all the cultural sites in which it appears. The pedagogical apparatuses of culture have turned repressive and dangerous, and need to be uncovered, resisted and overcome. The threat they expose to democracy should be foregrounded, and, in part, this is a role that higher education needs to address.
As Toni Morrison has observed, colleges and universities need to embrace “powerful visionary thinking about how the life of the moral mind and a free and flourishing spirit can operate in a context” of tyranny. In part, this means constructing liberating pedagogies that address the dangers of white nationalism, white supremacy, political corruption and fascist politics. It also means educating students and providing faculty with the tools, time and space to create widespread forms of resistance in conjunction with other groups outside the university in order to fight against the authoritarian attacks that constitute what amounts to a new civil war.
The struggle over education is too crucial to ignore or lose. The stakes involve not just the struggle over history, knowledge and values, but also over the truth, justice, power and the social conditions that make democratic modes of agency, identity and dignity possible. The danger democracy faces in the U.S. is almost unthinkable given the impending threat of fascism. Given the seriousness of this impending danger, historian Robin D. G. Kelley rightly observes, “We have no choice but to fight.”
One entry into such a struggle is to recognize that democracy and capitalism are diametrically opposed to each other. The current racist attacks on higher education cannot be successful in the long run if capitalism remains in place. Not only is there a need for critical educators to do everything possible to develop forms of popular education and a cultural politics that challenges the corporatization of the university, but they must also produce an anti-capitalist consciousness central to any viable notion of equality, freedom, justice and social change. Predatory capitalism is incompatible with democracy given the staggering inequalities it produces in wealth, income and power. David Harvey is right in asserting that “The fundamental problems are actually so deep right now that there is no way that we are going to go anywhere without a very strong anti-capitalist movement.” What needs to be addressed is that the most powerful big lie in the United States is not that Trump won the 2020 election, but the normalized claim that capitalism and democracy are synonymous.
The struggle for a radical democracy suggests the need to develop a new language that enables people to think in terms of broader solidarities, necessary for overcoming a fractured political landscape. This should be a language that touches people’s lives, provides a comprehensive understanding of politics, offers a concrete program for social change and lays the foundation for a broad-based movement that will unite around a society steeped in the principles of democratic socialism.
Democracy and education have been pathologized under neoliberal capitalism and have drifted into a space that mimics the ineffable terrors of the past. Higher education in a time of growing authoritarianism must address the question of what its role is in a democracy and whether it is willing to define and defend itself as a democratic public sphere and protective space of critique and possibility.
As Hannah Arendt once put it in her seminal essay, “The Crisis in Education:” “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”
The struggle over education must be seen as part of a crucial struggle for democracy itself. As Primo Levy warned us, “Every age has its own fascism.” His words are more prophetic than ever given the current collapse of conscience and the willingness, if not glee, of the Republican Party to embrace an American-style fascism.
As Amartya Sen once argued, it is time “to think big about society” — to move beyond the despair, isolation, theoretical abysses and political silos that stand in the way of developing a strong anti-capitalist movement. The danger facing the United States is real and must be met with the utmost resistance by a mass movement of workers, young people, academics, teachers, feminists and others who believe that making education central to politics is an urgent political necessity.