June 10, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

How the press corps severs public debate from the constraints of history, creating space for real harm

To illustrate, let me draw your attention to a local story.

How the press corps severs public debate from the constraints of history, creating space for real harm

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It’s a pain in the ass, but if you dig down deep enough and for long enough, you’ll probably find at the root of any mainstream debate over “culture war” issues some kind of misrepresentation, distortion, falsehood or lie. As I told you in yesterday’s Editorial Board, so much of what counts as “debate” begins and ends with what liberalism’s enemies say liberals say. Today, I want to talk about consequences.

There are many, but my chief concern is the near-total detachment from history, so that everything looks as good or bad as everything else, and maybe nothing really matters except whose side you’re on and whether your side is winning or losing. A society whose participants are indifferent to history is one willing to do anything. What “anything” means is hard to say, but let’s be serious, it’s not that hard. By the time the covid pandemic is over, we will have witnessed one million American deaths as a consequence of nearly half the nation insisting history isn’t real enough to respect.

That lots of Americans choose to deny history isn’t bad in and of itself. These people will always be with us, and in any case, they can be marginalized over time. They can be prevented by democratic means from having control of the levers of political power and from doing real harm. What’s bad is that class of people that you’d expect to keep controversies grounded in history but that does not. Instead, it gives known lies the benefit of the doubt, and in the process, severs public debate from the constraints of history, empowering those who choose to create “history” and therefore do real harm.

My chief concern is the near-total detachment from shared reality—that is, history—so that everything looks as good or bad as everything else, and nothing matters except whose side you’re on and whether your side is winning or losing.

Of course, I’m talking about the press. To illustrate let me draw your attention to a local story. I’m in New Haven. There’s a town nearby called Guilford. After mass demonstrations last year protesting the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer, the Guilford public school board, like similar institutions around the country, took steps to identify and remedy systemic racism. Among those was changing the name of the school district’s mascot from “Indians” to “Grizzlies.”

The work continues, but meanwhile, a backlash is brewing. In my view, this backlash identifies correctly the partisan energies that converged to oust Donald Trump from office. On the one hand were anti-Trumpists (think Democrats, alienated former Republicans, independents, et al.). On the other were social reformers (think Black Lives Matters, antifa, et al.). To many respectable white people, Trump proved that the “post-racial America” imagined after Barack Obama’s election wasn’t real. So they joined BLM et al. to create the biggest coalition ever seen. In this context, many in Guilford feel the school board’s new anti-racist policies are actually anti-white.

This is evident in the accusations being hurled at the board. According to the New Haven Register, critics of anti-racism “have shown up to meetings, written emails to the board, and created a petition, claiming critical race theory is being taught in Guilford schools.” Guilford residents who see anti-racism as anti-white want to “persuade the school board to disavow any curriculum, or critical race theory, that promotes the unequal treatment of students and label any resources, authors, professors and experts that can easily be proven to have ‘blatant bigoted views’ as ‘radical activist theory’.”

The board has not disavowed anything, because there’s nothing to disavow. But that doesn’t matter if you consume great quantities of Fox or Breitbart or whatever. They have taken an obscure school of thought—critical race theory—and turned it into a one-size-fits-all explanation for Donald Trump’s defeat and into an enemy that must be crushed. What is critical race theory? That’s for later.1 For now, just know that its critics do not care what it really is, because they already “know.” If they bothered listening to its practitioners, they might be persuaded by its virtues, but there can’t be any virtues, because they “know” there are none, because they “know” it’s anti-white.

Here’s the tip jar!

Critics are so certain they “know” what they need to know about critical race theory, without actually knowing, that denials are seen as proof and explanations are seen as censorship. As a parent said: “The repeated declaration that the racist ideology, critical race theory, is not a part of the school’s ‘Equity and Social Justice’ initiative is inaccurate and disingenuous at best, and when given in response to any parents’ sincere concern, [the Equity and Social Justice’ initiative] is intended to shut down all further inquiry and conversation surrounding this incredibly complicated topic.”

Again, that there are people aplenty who deny shared reality—that is, history—is not in and of itself a bad thing. What’s bad is people who should respect history who give the benefit of the doubt to known lies. Guilford public school district is not teaching critical race theory and shouldn’t. (That’s advanced college-level stuff.) What it’s doing, however, is recognizing and taking (baby)steps toward addressing the fact that systemic racism is part of American history and we are all products of that history.

In its reporting, though, the New Haven Register placed that fact at odds with an accusation, as if they had equal moral weight, as if they were two valid views in a public debate over things important to children, education and civil society instead of a public debate rooted in a lie. It was as if history were the equivalent of anti-history. Instead of a declarative headline—“Guilford board says no to critical race theory”—the newspaper ran with a question—“Is critical race theory being taught in Guilford schools?” The paper severed the debate from shared reality, history, and as a result, made room for those who fabricate their own, giving them a chance to do real harm.

The Register is in good company. Reporters do this all the time. They do it because a Democrat is president. They do it because the repudiation of Trump is seen as a repudiation of white people. That, too, is a lie. Guildford’s school board was speaking the egalitarian language of anti-racism when it said it strives “to be a community in which all students feel safe, supported, and recognized, and must support critical thinking about all aspects of our history and current experience. None of our students is responsible for this history, but each will be responsible for their own participation in our local, national, and global communities as they emerge into adulthood.”2

John Stoehr

1

See “Why the GOP-fueled ‘controversy’ over critical race theory has nothing to do with critical race theory”

2

My italics.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

2 Comments

  1. Bern on July 31, 2021 at 12:00 am

    How much of what’s portrayed as caving the narrative to the fascisti is really only turning the headline-writing function over to them? I try to avoid deliberately reading the fascist agit-prop (it’s unavoidable, so why seek it out?) so do not bother clicking thru to anything FOX/OANN, etc…but the headline of the article cited above stands on its own as clickbait for ‘both’ sides. These days it is often the case that the headline bypasses the meaning of the article (and often bypasses truth and reason). This is aside from the whole thing with crafting a headline as a ‘just asking the question’* wanking exercise…

    *Any ‘news’ operation that uses questions as headlines is just flopping its vast, cash-cow editorial opinion department onto its broom closet-sized journalism hovel.

  2. Bennett on July 31, 2021 at 12:00 am

    The sad part is that right-wing provocateurs that have turned CRT into the outrage du jour know full well what they are doing: creating artificial clickbait for mainstream media venues. And those venues either know what they are doing by knowingly creating clickbait out of nothingburgers like this; or they don’t know what they are doing and are unknowingly creating clickbait, testimony to the gullibility of the reporting venue. I suspect the NH Register knows this is clickbait, but does not want to call out know-nothing-ness of the astroturfers who have shown up to harass the Guilford Board of Education.

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