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Hi there, here’s what you need to know for the week of November 12, 2021, in 8.5 minutes.

THIS WEEK INSIDE THE BIG TENT:


① Assuming the right-wing critical race theory propaganda blitz is here to stay, how should liberals balance their obligation to contest harmful ideas against their competing one not to play sucker to cynics and liars. 

② A balancing test is important because what's at stake isn't just the easily caricatured excesses of progressive social-justice discourse—it's the idea that schools and teachers have any role to play in making integration a kinder process

③ It'll also allow create some space in the debate for some much needed perspective about whose culture (the left's or the right's) is on the long march through the institutions

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SCHOOLS OF HARD KNOCKS

More than a week later, the liberal political world remains torn between those who think public education writ large (and specifically the right-wing “critical race theory” dogpile) was a decisive issue in Virginia and New Jersey, and those who are skeptical of immediate and sweeping claims about things as complex as close elections.

I’m much more at home in the latter camp than the former. I tried to tier out what I think mattered a little from what mattered a lot in last week’s issue. My hazy sense, rooted in a lot of assumptions that may prove to be wrong, is that through relentless propaganda and the aligning of stars, Republicans were able to infuse the overwhelmingly false idea that Democrats are brainwashing schoolchildren with anti-white agitprop into a larger backlash, and they rode the backlash to victory. 

But for this week’s purposes, let’s assume the CRT stuff was decisive. Let’s stipulate, as Washington Post columnist James Hohmann wrote with a familiar kind of certainty, that it’s “obvious...Fox News and red Twitter did not invent parental anger about what’s been happening in public schools.” Because I think it raises important general questions about how liberals should balance competing obligations: to contest harmful ideas percolating in the broader culture without rewarding cynics and liars.

① CRT OF PUBLIC OPINION

This conundrum arises all the time these days. It’s a miserable artifact of operating in a world saturated with Republican bad faith, but it creates interesting challenges for liberal writers. What are the right words to use if, say, you think the boycott methods of the campus left are destructively censorious, but you also recognize that people who merely aim to crush higher education will exploit any validation of anti-left wing hysteria to mislead the public about campus life generally? How do you minimize the extent to which your word choices will be exploited by liars, without violating your ethical obligation to tell the truth? 

It’s a particularly pointed challenge in the CRT wars, because the liars aren’t even really trying to conceal their agenda. Step 1: “have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” Step 2: “lay siege to the institutions.” 

Most liberals presumably don’t set out to be useful fools for reactionary campaigns to collapse public education in America, or to aid the forces that want to ban the teaching of slavery and segregation. At the same time, it isn’t particularly liberal to play ostrich every time the media erupts with a new story about a race-essentializing DEI training.

If the ideal is to expose and debunk toxic ideas without validating false ones—to say the fringiest tenets of allyship thought are bad without conceding that they are the norm; to promote successful methods of easing integration while condemning right-wing efforts to equate Toni Morrison with “critical race theory”—I think liberals have fallen very far short. And in doing so they’ve contributed to the potency of the CRT propaganda blitz itself. 

② INTEGRATION OR MUTATION

I don’t know how prevalent the worst DEI trainings are, or even if reliable data to that effect exists. Surely we hear a lot about them because the underlying ideas are offensive and the people subjected to them complain about it. Worse than offensive, they’re ridiculous, and, thus, ripe targets for those on the hunt for anything and everything they can use to caricature all of liberalism. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

But what is the likely endpoint of that kind of propaganda? What happens when conservatives, "recodify [critical race theory] to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans." Are we merely on a path to rooting out a subset of bad ideas from workplace anti-bias training? Or will the very notion that teachers have a role to play in the process of integrating increasingly diverse communities be the main casualty? Because between some liberals crouching defensively from a right-wing onslaught, and  other liberals validating the onslaught, I don’t hear a lot of concern over what will happen if the propagandists win.

We had unconscious bias training at Crooked a couple years ago. I confess, it wasn’t something I was super excited to attend, because it entailed flying across the country and building both travel and long meetings into a regular schedule of deadlines. But it was actually really good. We did these group exercises that taught me a lot of things I didn’t fully appreciate about how my colleagues think through problems and resolve dilemmas. I realized with more specificity than I had before that my social and professional relationships, though relatively diverse, won't on their own attune me to the many difficulties people face in life. The purpose of that exercise wasn’t to guilt anyone into making different friends, but to remind everyone that even well-intentioned people don't always appreciate the impact of their words. During one exercise, the instructor accidentally used the generic term “he” to describe a hypothetical doctor whose name and gender were unknown, and we all had a good laugh; even the unconscious bias trainer has unconscious biases, etc etc.

The point is, it’s useful for people in positions of authority, even very modest authority, to stimulate these muscles every once in a while; it’s easy to become complacent and confuse good manners for empathy. It was a worthwhile thing to do, even at a new, nimble, progressive place like Crooked. Imagine how much more valuable that kind of thing might be in a suburban school district operating under protocols and curricula adopted when the student body was more than 75 percent white, but that is now only 60 percent white. 

I’d be pretty pissed if my kid came home from a school like that and said she learned that punctuality and problem solving had something to do with whiteness or patriarchy. But I also wouldn’t assume it reflected a national crisis, and I wouldn’t want to throw the baby of making school integration a kinder process out with the bathwater of weird grad-schoolish ideas about the source of the racial achievement gap. Conceding to GOP terms as if they’re offered up in good faith isn’t going to neutralize their political offensive, and it isn’t going to meaningfully hurt Robin DiAngelo’s bottom line. The losers will be black children and parents who recently settled in places like Loudoun County.

③ REACTIVE SHOOTERS

The good news is it’s perfectly possible to erect guardrails against bad left-wing ideas without letting liars set the terms, and without sacrificing consistency or integrity. In fact, making headway on the pressing issues of the day, but on liberal terms, is why I’m always going on about how Democrats shouldn’t dodge culture wars, but fight to win them.

Joe Biden did this pretty deftly during the 2020 campaign through the most intense period of civil unrest since the 1960s. He was able to draw a kind of mirror-image equivalence between rioters exploiting a protest movement and Trumpist vigilante types who want police to serve as state agents of oppression, and it allowed him to occupy the sensible center of police accountability, crime fighting, criminal-justice reform.

I think Terry McAuliffe had a similar opening in Virginia, but wasn’t deft enough to seize it. He could’ve equated Youngkin and DEI zealots (or the San Francisco school board, or whatever) as two sides of the same extreme coin, and promised to teach kids about the good and the bad, without fear or favor, without banning books, and without teaching race essentialism. Instead he froze, and allowed Youngkin—the same Youngkin who ran the ad featuring the woman who wanted to ban Belovedto pretend he was the true pluralist in the race.  

I still don’t know why he froze. To the best of my understanding, it was rooted in complacency that Democrats had such a hammerlock on the education issue that he didn’t need to engage. But engaging on the terms I laid out is harder when your own ideological allies are out there saying the ideas you mean to triangulate against are ascendent; it’s hard when the people who believe it’s imperative for Democrats to reduce the salience of unpopular issues regularly exaggerate the influence of ideas like the ones in those Tema Okun pamphlets, or “defund the police.” 

My main message to them is that thinking through what’s happening in the world and where things are headed—to feel invested in how bad actors will exploit hyperbole and, thus, not engage in it—isn’t corrupt or even a bad mental habit. In fact, it’s a good way to keep a sense of perspective about where things that feel nettlesome in the moment fit into a bigger picture. 

I’m sure plenty of parents were unhappy about something or other that happened in their school districts in the past year. It’s a big country and we’re living through strange times. But from where I sit, the notion that a relentless left is on the long march through the institutions of public education, or the culture at large, is pretty myopic. 

In my personal experience of youth, public-school schedules were organized around Christian holidays, and teachers could’ve used some DEI-style training to make the community more welcoming to young Jewish kids. We had some great science teachers, and others who subtly reinforced harmful myths about differing aptitudes for math among the genders. We learned that Reconstruction was well-intentioned but excessively punitive, and thus invited the backlash of Redemption. My vague sense is that some schools in some places are better about this kind of thing now, but for every step they’ve taken toward improving the curriculum and making religious and other minorities feel included, they’ve taken one back in subjecting all kids to the traumatizing ritual of active-shooter drills—a method of questionable effectiveness but that has become ingrained entirely because right-wing culture insists upon nationwide tolerance for the regular random slaughter of children at schools, and uses threats of violence to intimidate the majority out of doing anything to stop it. 

Ideally you’d want your children to receive only unobjectionable instruction, and also stand zero risk of living or dying through a mass-casualty event. But there is a real, partywide rearguard enshrining the national mass-shooting culture, and a real, partywide vanguard aiming to root out books that offend the sensibilities of bigots and religious fundamentalists. There is by contrast very little public support from liberal leaders for the left-wing ideas that supposedly paved the way for the Youngkin administration, but there’s also little that national or even statewide Democrats can do to completely root it out. It’s a big country with lots of guns and bad ideas and shooters and cranks looking for their marks. But the shooters and their guns are the ones with real political power. If your contribution to this discourse inverts that state of affairs, my question is, Why?

Read Perry Bacon on the political question underlying the whole CRT kerfuffle: Have Democrats reached the limits of White appeasement politics?

Think I’m joking about the vanguard of book burners?

I guess I should mention that the House passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Friday night, which allows us to have a lot of fun at Republicans’ expense (and particularly at Donald Trump’s expense) but also leaves the Build Back Better Act in a state of limbo. I wrote about the good and bad of it here in our other newsletter. 

Astead Herndon brings us the names, faces, and needs of the people who really lost out to months of unnecessary Republican vote chasing, and the internal whittling down of Biden’s agenda. 

Facebook has a slight image problem.

In ruling that the January 6 committee is entitled to Trump administration records housed at the National Archives, Judge Tanya Chutkan contemplated the idea that Congress may want to “enact measures for future executive enforcement of Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment against any Member of Congress or Officer of the United States who engaged in “insurrection or rebellion,” or gave “aid and comfort to the enemies thereof,” which is an idea my co-author and I teased out in this New York Times op-ed the week of the Capitol riot. 

Nevertheless, the Justice Department continues to ponder the mystery of whether Steve Bannon did or did not comply with his January 6 committee subpoena.

Speaking of which, Liz Cheney should run for president, but only for the purposes of suing Trump as ineligible to compete against her. 

The more you know dot gif.

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