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Florida's communism problem
The way we are teaching the past is clouding our future
Florida has just become the first state in the Union to mandate that high school students learn about the crimes of communism. The subject is indeed very important, and too little known. The problem is that the new legislation, like other recent Florida measures, itself recalls certain evils of communism.
As of this coming school year, high school students who wish to graduate from a Florida school must pass a class in U.S. government that includes "comparative discussion of political ideologies, such as communism and totalitarianism, that conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy essential to the founding principles of the United States."
Any high school teacher is going to sigh at the awkward circularity of the "principles essential to the principles" formulation. As Orwell tried to remind us in "Politics and the English Language," though, vague formulations demand our critical attention. This weird phrasing serves a sinister purpose, one that becomes clear later in the law. The point is that the United States is to be defined as free and democratic, regardless of what Americans or their legislators actually do. American is free and democratic because of a miraculous investiture from the past. Complacency is therefore patriotic, and criticism is not.
The law presents "totalitarianism" as an ideology. Totalitarianism is not an ideology, so Florida teachers are henceforth legally required to teach nonsense. To be sure, one can find historical figures who referred to themselves as "totalitarian" in a positive sense, but in general the term has been used as analysis and critique. In use for about a century now, "totalitarianism" has generally been used as a category that brings together regimes with very different ideologies, drawing attention to underlying similarities.
As such, totalitarianism can also be a tool for self-critique, since it draws attention to political temptations that make different systems possible. The most important book about totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt, presents Nazism and Stalinism as possibilities within modern politics. When in Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt wrote about conspiracy theories, she was writing not only about Nazi and Soviet practices, but also about a human failing. When she wrote about narratives where we are always right and they are always wrong, where we are always innocent and they are always guilty, she was describing a universal risk. When she wrote of people who were simultaneously gullible and cynical, for whom “everything was possible and nothing was true,” she got uncomfortably close to contemporary American reality.
By defining totalitarianism as a foreign ideology to be contrasted with American principles, Florida legislators have denied students not just the knowledge of what the term actually means, but also the possibility to appeal to a rich body of thought that might help them to avoid risks to freedom and democracy.
Unlike totalitarianism, communism is an ideology. Its ideological character is visible in its approach to the past: communists transformed history, an open search for fact and endless discussion of interpretation, into History, an official story in which one's own country was the center of world liberation regardless of what its leaders did. The party was always right, even if what the party said and did was unpredictable and self-contradictory. The most important communist party still in power, the Chinese, takes this line today. To question the revolution or the inevitability of the system is to fall prey to "historical nihilism." In April 2018, a Chinese memory law accordingly made it a crime to question the heroism of past leaders. What we have is good and right because we inherited it from glorious dead revolutionaries, and we must not question what the government tells us about our glorious dead revolutionaries.
We have our own official story of revolution. The Florida board of education has recently forbidden teachers from defining American history "as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence." That narrow formulation rules out most of reality but crams in a good dose of mysticism. Nothing is ever entirely new, and nations arise from many sources aside from principles. The board of education’s claim is political rather than historical: Everything good comes from the past, and we must not question what the government tells us about its righteousness. If there is only one story, and you have to tell it, that is not history but History. The point is not that the American Revolution is the same thing as the Chinese Revolution. The point is that we are treating it the same way, describing it in dogmatic terms that we enforce in memory law. And that is deeply worrying.
The same spirit is in evidence in that Florida communist law. Deep in the past, it instructs us, is where we find freedom and democracy. Freedom is not something to be struggled for by individuals now, but magically "inherited from prior generations." That phrase should give pause to anyone who cares about freedom. If you seriously think that freedom is something that you can inherit, like a sofa or a stamp collection, you are not going to be free for long.
In the law's logic, democracy is not actually allowing people to vote, but some silent tradition that somehow exists whether or not real Americans can vote in reality. Despite what actually happened between the eighteenth century and now (slavery, let's say, or voter suppression), we must close our minds to everything but those mythical "principles essential to the principles." The facts give way to an underlying logic, impossible to articulate, that demonstrates that my country is better.
The Florida communism law requires that someone (it is hard, given the awkward phrasing, to say who) must "curate oral history resources." The curation will involve the selection "first-person accounts of victims of other nations' governing philosophies who can compare those philosophies with those of the United States." There is something humiliating about turning real people into poster children for American exceptionalism. Refugees from other countries past and present have individual and complex stories, which cannot usually be reduced to tales of American superiority. Edith P., a Holocaust survivor, speaks of waiting for hours every day in front of the American embassy, which denied her family a visa. American schoolchildren read about Anne Frank, but no one tells them that her father applied for an American visa. Leon Bass was an African American soldier who saw a German concentration camp. He had something comparative to say about "governing philosophies," but it would not survive curation.
America today is not an especially free country. Our own non-governmental organization Freedom House, relying on our own preferred notions of freedom (civil and political rights) ranks us in fifty-eighth place. In other words, it would theoretically be possible (and it would certainly be valuable) for the Florida board of education to solicit testimonies from people from fifty-seven other countries where people live more freely than here, who could explain why they have not moved to the United States. They could compare their countries' "governing philosophies" with that of the United States (favorably, unfavorably, who knows: they are free people). But we know that this will not happen. Such an application of the Florida communism law is unthinkable, because the Florida communism law is not about freedom. It is about repeating that America is the best country in the world.
Self-absorption is not anti-communism. Anti-communism would entail listening to history rather than History, and educating individuals who can make up their own minds. You don't get freedom from the flock.
Another familiar communist trick can be found in a recent directive by the Florida board of education. The trick has to do with leveraging victory in the Second World War. Beginning in the late 1960s, a certain version of the Second World War became an important part of communist ideology. In the Soviet Union, and also in today's Russia, any wrong done by the system was explained away by the fact that the Red Army had defeated the Germans. The fact that Nazis were evil made the Soviets good. The fact of having resisted the Nazis made one's own system unassailable. This communist technique has now, uncannily, resurfaced in official Florida pedagogy.
In the recent school board directive, we learn that "examples of theories that distort historical events and are inconsistent with State Board approved standards include the denial or minimization of the Holocaust, and the teaching of Critical Race Theory, meaning the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons." This repeats the Soviet (and Russian) logic. We don't deny German crimes, and therefore we are innocent of any crimes ourselves. Indeed, anyone who suggests that we look at our own history: well, they are like Holocaust deniers!
Another sad resemblance concerns voting. Freedom involves educating people about the past as it was so that they can make up their own minds about what the future should be. Democracy involves giving people the vote in the meantime. The Soviet Union held elections, but they were ritualistic and fake. When Soviet power extended across eastern Europe after the Second World War, local communist parties rigged elections. Thus authentic anti-communists would make sure that their own elections were not rigged, and that all citizens could take part. But the Florida communism law was passed in circumstances that suggest a lively interest in making voting more difficult. In 2019, the Florida legislature enacted pay-to-vote legislation that effectively disenfranchised people that Floridians, in a referendum, had voted to enfranchise the year before. The Florida communism law came into effect this 1 July, hard on the heels of a new Florida voter suppression law.
I have spent decades teaching and writing about communism, and I certainly think that young people should know about communist systems and their policies of mass killing. But declarations of superiority do not amount to a pedagogy, nor to an anti-communism worthy of the name. The content of the Florida communism law, and the Florida voter suppression law, and the board of education directive on race, do not suggest that Florida lawmakers and administrators have learned much about what was wrong with communism. These measures reveal American weaknesses that make American tyranny more likely.