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Charting the Shadows of Feigned Outrage

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A colleague recently suggested that I might enjoy reading a collection of poems by Ted Kooser that sampled the writer’s work across his five-decade career.[1] Kooser, a Pulitzer Prize winner who resides in rural Nebraska, has twice served as this nation’s Poet Laureate. I had not encountered his work previously and was eager to learn more. After reading the volume, I can report that I have rarely been so consistently moved by the sheer acuity, clarity and power of an author’s poetry. Kooser, now 82, is often compared to Robert Frost, another American literary genius, for his mastery of language and artful description and for his lyricism. Kooser is also like Frost in that he writes often of daily rural and farm life and does so while raising universally significant questions and concerns.

    At the same time I began to enjoy this “new” poet’s work and to marvel at his remarkable powers of observation, sensitivity and technical prowess, I read that Fox media personality Tucker Carlson had attacked General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, following the General’s testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, in which Milley argued that the nation’s soldiers and officer corps should read widely and critically and confront and debate a variety of ideas and philosophic frames. More particularly, Milley defended exposing those in uniform to critical race theory, the current favorite propaganda talking point for the GOP and Fox News. For daring to suggest that service personnel should read such work, which was first developed in law schools in the 1970s and essentially points out an obvious and long-documented truth that the United States has systematically discriminated against minorities in law throughout much of our country’s history, Carlson lambasted Milley with this demagogic rhetorical barrage:

Hard to believe that man wears a uniform. ... He’s not just a pig, he's stupid! … Mark Milley is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He didn’t get that job because he’s brilliant or because he’s brave or because the people who know him respect him. He is not and they definitely don’t. … So, Mark Milley reads Mao to understand Maoism and he reads communists to understand communism, but it’s interesting that he doesn’t read white supremacists to understand white supremacy.[2]

    Carlson declared the Chairman incompetent because he called for armed services open to disparate ideas. The Fox personality specifically criticized Milley for suggesting defense personnel should be aware of the nation’s ugly civil rights history and should read widely and critically concerning such issues. More particularly, Carlson opted to launch an attack against Milley for supposed and unexplained obsequiousness and, implicitly, for the general’s reasoned open-mindedness. Carlson also professed to believe it “odd” that Milley did not first suggest that all service personnel should read white supremacist racist tracts.

    Milley was, in fact, arguing for a classical understanding of education and of democratic possibility in which reasonably well-informed citizens and those who serve them in public offices are assigned responsibility to make probative choices that result in the healthy sustenance of free speech and press and open dialogue amongst a range of perspectives in their shared society. For this “abomination,” Carlson saw fit to declare Milley unfit for office.

    In a recent commentary about the GOP’s effort to weaponize and mischaracterize critical race theory in a culture wars fashion, and to critique the free exchange of ideas in so doing, of which Carlson’s comments must be counted a part, columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. has pointed to Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ linked decision to support a law in his state,

… requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to survey students and faculty on their ideological beliefs. The aim, he claims, is to prevent schools from ‘indoctrinating’ students. DeSantis has hinted that those failing to show ‘intellectual diversity’ will face budget cuts. You may gauge the sincerity of his commitment to that diversity by the fact that this comes two weeks after he pushed to ban the teaching of critical race theory—an academic framework originated by legal scholars over 40 years ago. Like other states where similar restrictions are becoming law, Florida seeks not to further intellectual diversity, but to prevent it.[3]

    Tracing strategic use of critical race theory as a mobilization device in Republican Party politics, Adam Harris, in the May 2021 issue of The Atlantic, likewise warned against this orchestrated attack on the free exchange of ideas and warned that it may have less salience than Party leaders’ and their allied media might imagine:

For Republicans, the end goal of all these bills is clear: initiating another battle in the culture wars and holding on to some threadbare mythology of the nation that has been challenged in recent years. What’s less clear is whether average voters care much about the debate. In a recent Atlantic/Leger poll, 52 percent of respondents who identified as Republicans said that states should pass laws banning schools from teaching critical race theory, but just 30 percent of self-identified independents were willing to say the same. Meanwhile, a strong majority of Americans, 78 percent, either had not heard of critical race theory or were unsure whether they had.[4]

    The New York Times writer Michelle Goldberg has rightly suggested that the term “critical race theory” has become meaningless, as it has been employed as a cudgel in GOP efforts to kindle outrage:

Christopher Rufo, a clever propagandist, who has done more than anyone else to whip up the national uproar over critical race theory, tweeted out in March an explanation of how he was redefining the term: ‘The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans,’ he wrote.  Credit where due: Rufo has pretty much succeeded. The debate about critical race theory has become circular and maddening because the phrase itself has been unmoored from any fixed meaning.[5]

    Goldberg went on to contend that one need not embrace every interpretation or training regimen arising from critical race theory’s basic assertion concerning the role of institutionalized discrimination in American law and politics across time to conclude nonetheless that,

It’s nearly impossible to have a straightforward discussion of the educational content that’s being labeled critical race theory precisely because people like Rufo have succeeded in turning critical race theory into a catchall term for discussions of race that conservatives don’t like.[6]

    Goldberg concluded her reflection on the current concocted “controversy” with these thoughts:

A recent Time magazine cover story about the battle over critical race theory featured a Missouri mother worried about the discussions of identity in her son’s ninth-grade classroom. The example she showed a reporter was an English assignment asking students to reflect on the ‘assumptions that people make about people in the different groups you belong to.’ This is not exactly a Maoist struggle session. The sort of antiracist education that’s sparked a nationwide backlash isn’t radically leftist. It’s elementary.[7]

    You may be wondering what systematic misuse of the term critical race theory and Tucker Carlson’s attack on Milley have to do with my initial thoughts on the beauty and power of Ted Kooser’s poetry. I began to explore the writer’s oeuvre at the suggestion of a colleague, but I could not know in advance that I would enjoy it. I did not set any preconditions concerning how Kooser and his work might relate to my own or others’ specific tenets or beliefs. In short, I entered into the experience of reading an author unfamiliar to me with an open mind and heart and with genuine curiosity about what I might learn. At the same time, I surely trusted my critical analytic capabilities to help me evaluate what I read. I was, and remain, perfectly willing to discuss those perceptions and judgments with others who may have different views. I am sure, as Milley argued in his testimony, that I would profit from just such conversations. All of this said, I did not come by this disposition solely by genetic make-up. Rather, I was encouraged throughout my education to explore a wide range of perspectives and to be open to what I could learn from each. No one told me what to believe, but many talented individuals taught me how to evaluate ideas and to explore their implications comparatively for whatever values or concerns were at issue. Indeed, one might say this is the classic definition of a liberal arts educational ideal and of a free society.

    In contrast, the GOP and Carlson suggest restricting discourse and ideas only to those that pass an ideological or political litmus test whose boundaries they determine. Meanwhile, those asserted limits remain changeable, opaque and characterized in the first instance by calculated Republican Party efforts to stir outrage by absolutizing constructs and interpreting them in ways that no reasonable individual would likely accept. They are, as the distinguished Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley has argued, creating an unreality designed to support their political power.[8] More, these actors are urging state governments to select specific ideas for this form of propagandistic demonization and to bar ideas from the public square by law on patently false premises. In so doing, the Party and its allies are limiting freedom of speech and inquiry and impairing the liberty of all, even as they misuse their public offices. That is, they are seeking to determine a priori what citizens may learn, know and consider, and they are doing so deliberately in a way that misleads their followers. This smacks of nothing so much as demagogic autocracy.

    It must be emphasized how dangerous this trend is for democracy and for freedom. The GOP has decided that to win elections it must use race, and specifically appeals to white racial hierarchy, to encourage anger among members of its base concerning the imagined injustices created by treating all Americans equally—a key identifying characteristic of fascist politics.[9] The party and its allies—evidenced by Carlson’s rant and the efforts of De Santis and other GOP state officials to legislate ideology—are willing to impugn anyone who might offer a different vision or otherwise appear to make controlling the message they are sending their adherents more difficult. Milley is an honorable and distinguished public servant who has served his country in uniform for 41 years, and yet Carlson perceived the general’s comments favoring robust educational possibility as so dangerous that he did all he could to libel him in a singularly outrageous way.

    I have argued previously that a democratic polity needs reasonably well-informed citizens prepared to weigh the evidence set before them and capable of living with the ambiguities and complexities of daily life. History teaches that those capacities are by no means automatic or guaranteed. They depend instead, in part, on the good faith of government officials to help to ensure that all citizens who wish to be, can be educated to that standard and equipped with the necessary analytic capabilities to realize it. The Republican Party and its media allies have decided it is in their electoral and financial interest to attack and delegitimate that social possibility. In so doing, they daily erode the fundaments of democracy in the United States. I am encouraged that Milley stood up for a very reasonable democratic and educational principle and I am equally hopeful that cherishing the possibility and power of ideas and imagination in shaping human and democratic society will yet prevail in our current governance crisis.

Notes

[1] Kooser, Ted. Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2018.

[2] Vakil, Carolyn. “Tucker Carlson Calls Joint Chiefs Chairman a ‘Pig’ and ‘Stupid,’” The Hill, June 25, 2021, https://thehill.com/policy/defense/560209-tucker-carlson-lashes-out-at-milley-not-just-a-pig-hes-stupid?rl=1, Accessed June 30, 2021. 

[3] Pitts Jr., Leonard. “No Mystery Why Conservatives find Education Dangerous,” The Dispatch, June 30, 2021, https://cdispatch.com/opinions/2021-06-30/leonard-pitts-jr-no-mystery-why-conservatives-find-education-dangerous/, Accessed June 30, 2021.

[4] Harris, Adam. “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession,” The Atlantic, May 7, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/05/gops-critical-race-theory-fixation-explained/618828/, Accessed June 25, 2021. 

[5] Goldberg, Michelle, “The Maddening Critical Race Theory Debate,” The New York Times, June 28, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/28/opinion/critical-race-theory.html, Accessed June 28, 2021. 

[6] Goldberg, “The Maddening Critical Race Theory Debate.”

[7] Goldberg, “The Maddening Critical Race Theory Debate.”

[8] Stanley, Jason. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. New York: Random House, Inc., 2018, p. xviii.

[9] Stanley, How Fascism Works, pp. 93-108. 

Publication Date

July 12, 2021

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