The Conversation: DeSantis' war on woke whitewashes our history

A law that took effect on July 1 restricts how educators in Florida’s public colleges and universities can teach about the racial oppression that African Americans have faced in the United States.

Specifically, SB 266 forbids professors to teach that systemic racism is “inherent in the institutions of the United States.” Similarly, they cannot teach that it was designed “to maintain social, political and economic inequities.”

We are professors who teach the modern history of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and we know that even democratically elected governments suppress histories of their own nations that don’t fit their ideology.

One frequent goal is to smother a shameful past by casting those who speak of it as unpatriotic. Another is to stoke so much fear and anger that citizens welcome state censorship.

We see this playing out in Florida, with SB 266 being the most extreme example in a series of recent state bills branded as “educational gag orders” by their critics. The tactics that Gov. Ron DeSantis is using to censor the teaching of American history in Florida look a lot like those seen in the illiberal democracies of Israel, Turkey, Russia and Poland.

Here are four ways SB 266 relates to attempts used by modern governments to censor history.

1. Invent a threat

One strategy DeSantis shares with autocratic leaders elsewhere is inventing a threat that taps into anxieties, then declaring war against it.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has been waging a brutal war against Ukraine in the name of “denazifying” the country.

This claim that Ukraine is a Nazi bastion is a fabrication. Nevertheless, it stokes real fear and hatred of Nazis, whose 1941 invasion of the USSR led to 27 million Soviet deaths.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labels critics of state violence “terrorists.”

As a result, 146 Turkish academics who signed a 2016 peace petition condemning Turkey’s violence against its Kurdish citizens faced trial for “spreading terrorist propaganda.” Ten were convicted and served jail terms before Turkey’s Constitutional Court, in a 9-8 decision in 2019, overturned their convictions as a violation of their freedom of expression.

In Florida, the phantom threat is “wokeness,” a reference to a term the Black Lives Matter movement made mainstream.

To “stay woke” means to be self-aware and committed to racial justice. Republicans have co-opted the term and use it sarcastically to denigrate progressive ideas and drown out discussions about the reasons for America’s stark racial inequities.

2. Criminalize historical discussions

Once a fake threat has been ginned up, world leaders can use it to create new laws to criminalize speech and critical discussion of history.

In Russia, Putin uses so-called “memory laws” to, among other things, prevent knowledge about the scale of crimes committed by former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin against the Soviet people from the 1930s to the 1950s.

In Poland, right-wing leadership added an amendment to one of its own memory laws to defend the “good name” of Poland and the Polish people against accusations of complicity in the Holocaust. Historians who defy this gag order have faced harassment and death threats.

Similarly, the Turkish government has a law against “denigrating the Turkish nation.” The law makes it a crime to acknowledge the early-20th-century Armenian genocide.

Meanwhile, a Turkish purge of intellectuals resulted in the firing of more than 6,000 university instructors in an effort to silence critical teaching about the nation’s past and present.

Florida’s SB 266 requires general education courses to “provide instruction on the historical background and philosophical foundation of Western civilization and this nation’s historical documents.” It also prohibits general education core courses from “teaching certain topics or presenting information in specified ways.”

The vagueness is deliberate. Teaching virtually anything related to America’s history of racism, particularly as it relates to racial inequalities in the present, could be seen as violating SB 266.

Florida professors may refrain, for example, from teaching that Jim Crow laws were designed to deny African Americans equal rights. Yet, these are the same laws Hitler used as a model for the Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jewish citizens of their civil rights.

3. Punish transgressors

With laws in place that criminalize dissenting interpretations of history, governments can then punish those who violate them. Punishment can involve threatening arrest and imprisoning individuals, and stripping funding from institutions.

For example, in 2011, Israel enacted the Nakba Law, which authorizes the minister of finance to cut funding to institutions that commemorate or acknowledge what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba — the “catastrophe” in Arabic. The Nakba is the displacement of more than half of the Indigenous Palestinian population and destruction of their communities that resulted from the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Likewise, SB 266 defunds diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in public colleges and universities and empowers school administrators and boards to take action against those who defy the rules. It comes in the wake of Florida’s 2022 “Stop WOKE” law, which restricted discussions about race in K-12 schools and led teachers to purge their classrooms of books they worried could get them a five-year jail sentence.

4. Write new history

With actual historical events denied or suppressed, governments can then rewrite history to further monopolize truth and impose ideology. Russia offers the most egregious example.

In 2021, Putin published a 20-page article, “On the Historical Unity of the Russians and Ukrainians,” in which he argued that the Ukrainian and Russian people are one and the same. Alarmed critics rightly saw this as a preemptive justification for escalating his war against Ukraine, which he did with a full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022.

Like right-wing ideologues in other parts of the world, DeSantis claims to be defending U.S. history from falsehoods pushed by ideologues. In his attempts to rewrite history, calls for a reckoning with America’s history of anti-Blackness are ridiculed as indoctrination, and bigotry gets repackaged as patriotism.

If the way governments are rewriting history in other parts of the world is a guide, DeSantis’ and other states’ legislation could be the prelude to an even greater assault on accurate history and freedom of thought.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.