“I want to find that out.”
“ . . . I want to understand it.”
These are the words of an inquiring, curious mind teachers should love to hear from students in their classrooms and democracy-loving Americans should love to hear from their fellow citizens.
The words exemplify the approach of open-minded individuals seeking to discover the truth and understand the complexities of our world without prejudice, without trying to map on to the world pre-formed conclusions before letting facts impact one’s mind.
Actually, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley spoke these words during an exchange last June with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) during a House Armed Services Committee to discuss the 2022 Defense Department Budget. Gaetz was interrogating Milley on the teaching and examination of critical race theory, the Republicans’ new favorite political bogeyman, in the U.S. military.
Gaetz shook his head and smirked with disgust as Milley effectively railed against the anti-intellectualism, the celebration and enforcement of ignorance, Republicans so vociferously promote these days. Milley defended the mission of seeking to understand the world by exploring the history of thought and political perspectives in the world:
“I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding — having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?”
In addressing specifically the issue of race and racism in America, making reference to the assault on the Capitol on January 6, he told Gaetz,
“I do think it’s important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read. And it is important that we train and we understand. I want to understand white rage, and I’m white… What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America?”
Of course, understanding the events of January 6 which put U.S. democracy in peril is precisely what the Republicans have actively sought to repress.
Senate Republicans voted against even having a debate about forming a special commission to investigate the assault on the Capitol in which rioters overtly threatened the lives of then Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among other congressional personnel, and violently murdered and physically assaulted Capitol police.
This tendency to repress inquiry into and understanding of U.S. history and our contemporary reality is not just counter to democracy, it is a definitively Republican policy and practice these days.
Remember former Attorney General William Barr shamelessly misrepresenting the Mueller report detailing “sweeping and systematic” Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election? This pretty big lie was also an attempt to prevent the nation and its leaders from fully understanding and being able to address a serious and significant attempt by a foreign power, possibly with help from American political power-seekers, to undermine American democracy.
Philosopher George Santayana is credited with penning the famous phrase, ”Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Republicans these days don’t see repeating the American history of racism as doom; rather, they delight in repressing the memory, the historical understanding, of racism in America, especially the deeply-embedded structural variety, precisely so America can repeat it.
Unlike Milley, they don’t want to find about it. They don’t want to understand it.
And they don’t want you to understand it, either.
Indeed, Milley’s defense to Gaetz of a liberal education geared toward discovering the truth and understanding the world from the many and multiple perspectives comprising the history of world thought came on the heels of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signing into law multiple pieces of legislation aimed at repressing the kind of open inquiry into America’s history Milley is talking about. In early June, in concert with a host of state legislatures across the country, signed legislation banning the teaching of critical race theory in schools on grounds it “teaches kids to hate our country.”
Then he signed a vaguer yet more insidious bill aimed at defunding public universities that supposedly “indoctrinate” students. These universities would be surveilled, with faculty, students, and staff being surveyed about their political beliefs, and if they are found wanting in a “diversity” of perspectives, meaning the university is thus an indoctrination center, the crucial state funding upon which public universities rely will be at stake.
Of course, DeSantis doesn’t really seem to want intellectual diversity. He says quite clearly, “We don’t want false history.”
While it’s true we don’t want to promote the teaching of falsehood, rational people understand that understandings of the world—across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities—are contested and evolving. One can read myriad historical works on the French Revolution that offer different analyses of its historical underpinnings and even of “what happened.” The university should, indeed, allow for multiple advocacies and provide students with diverse and contending perspectives.
But that’s not what DeSantis or the Republicans want. They want to repress perspectives they find problematize their world view—particularly perspectives geared toward understanding how race and racism have informed policy and practice in America’s social, political, and economic institutional life.
Earlier this year the Tulsa Race Massacre, in which white Oklahomans systematically planned the genocide of a thriving Black neighborhood with successful Black businesses, was memorialized. The massacre had been largely erased and not taught in schools because of what the city’s school superintendent called a “conspiracy of silence.” Shortly before the memorial events, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed into law a bill that restricted public school teachers from teaching lessons that might make a student “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”
Now understanding the history of Black self-sufficiency and success in America–and white attempts to thwart it —offers a history that debunks the myths of racial inferiority that enable violence and policies and practices that enforce racial inequality.
But Republicans don’t want you to know that.
They promote an ignorance that delights in repeating history, even if it results in deadly massacres.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.