I was too young to witness, let alone experience, the O.G. McCarthy Red Scare. By the time I was paying attention, Republicans had ceased to reflexively accuse Democrats who expressed anodyne liberal opinions of being commies, as they had in the glory days. This was assuredly not because Republicans had seen the error of their ways, but because it had stopped working. No one but the craziest Birchers thought Great Society Democrats were working with the Soviets, and in those days the craziest Birchers were not in charge of the GOP.
Despite that, all through my childhood I noticed that Democrats and Republicans alike had to say at intervals that communism was bad; it was some kind of invocation they had to give, like “your excellency” or “say hallelujah,” to show they were worthy of respect and attention. Later I learned that just a short time earlier you could be fired or even jailed if they thought you were a communist, particularly if you were in a profession thought to be influential, like entertainment or education. The Red Scare persisted as an anathema even after it had ceased to function as a weapon.
Later on, I experienced some similar waves of irrationality: Reagan and trickle-down, Gulf War Fever, 9/11 and Gulf War Fever II, Trump. For getting on the wrong side of these, you were less likely to be fired, but it did happen, on occasion, to college professors; Ward Churchill is a famous example of post-9/11 blowback against what we like to call freedom of speech. When he got fired, his school claimed that it was because he was bad at his job, a case which anyone paying attention, such as the jury that decided his lawsuit against the school, saw right through. Some professors are still getting in trouble for their 9/11 comments.
No one cared whether a truck driver or a stock-jobber questioned the conventional wisdom. But if you had a platform — a readership, an audience, a classroom — they came down hard. The goal was to push in the boundaries of acceptable discourse, to make it absurd to suggest that pampering the rich was not the fast track to national greatness, or that petty tyrants in the Middle East were not a threat to our nation requiring massive expenditures benefiting Republican donors, or that a famously crooked con man was not just as likely to run the country to the benefit of its people as any stuffy old politician. The persecution of influential people was a way to demonstrate that you meant business.
Now we’re seeing educators getting fired again — but this time they’re not teaching college, they’re teaching high school. Matthew Hawn, for example, was fired for assigning an essay by National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates. (The school director claimed Hawn had not supplied students with “access to varying points of view in violation of the Teacher Code of Ethics.”) Principal James Whitfield was put on involuntary leave after being accused of teaching “critical race theory.” Now that there’s some heat over that, school officials are claiming Whitfield was ousted for being bad at his job.
These cases may seem remote to folks up north as they’re in Tennessee and Texas, respectively. And the states passing cockamamie anti-CRT laws are also below the cordon sanitaire. But it appears Tuesday’s governor’s race in Virginia, just under the Mason-Dixon line, turned on the same issue.
In his campaign Youngkin kept accusing schoolteachers of inflicting critical race theory on their students, and making the white ones feel bad; for his closing ad, he used the example of a high-school student who was assigned Beloved by the Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison and found it traumatizing. (It seems black people who win prizes for their eloquence really trigger these folks.)
Conservatives are jubilant — the overtly-Trumpy ones because they’re racist, and the covertly-Trumpy ones (i.e., the rest of them) because it’s racist, and it works. The ones with intellectual credentials they would prefer not to tarnish tend to admit the CRT charge is bullshit but feel it’s okay to use because their supporters, the salt of the earth, feel it’s true because something something elitism, e.g.:
The “Black dad who’s homeschooling” example from Washington Post reporter Julie Zausmer Weil’s thread is interesting, considering how most black Virginians voted in this election and it wasn’t “against critical race theory.” (Also from Weil’s thread: “One man supported Youngkin’s anti-abortion stance, saying he once conceived a child with a woman who chose an abortion…”)
As with Patty in “Peanuts” calling her bracelet hi-fi, Republicans have already started applying the CRT shtick to topics that have nothing even remotely to do with education: Jamie Dupree reports, “Rep. Virginia Foxx R-NC says the reconciliation bill will mean more ‘Drag Queen Story Hour’ in public schools, and a federal takeover.” Soon we’ll get an essay in the New Republic about how health care reform is critical race theory. How many poor people who got health care under Medicaid expansion were minorities?
In one sense this is nothing very new; as mentioned, conservatives have whipped up hysterias before, particularly when they had nothing else going for them, and as usual they’re targeting people to whom others might listen. The disturbing extra ingredient of this one is the linkage with race, and the claim that white people are getting a bum rap.
The force behind their formula has always been the accusation that the pointy-heads are aiding and abetting an external enemy who poses an existential threat to the nation — the Soviets, Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden. The enemy in this case has so far been left unnamed. In the anti-CRT laws they’re passing, conservatives are careful to stipulate that they’re trying to protect members of any race who feel bad about what their teacher taught them — even though it’s only been white people complaining. But as their movement grows in power and confidence I don’t expect that will hold. Soon enough they’re going to start saying out loud who their enemy is — and then, friends, you better hold on tight.