According to an adage attributed to George Santayana, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. But how to explain those who know history quite well and yet nonetheless repeat it?
That question has cropped into my head many times in recent weeks, as conservative activists and Republicans in Congress have actively denounced and in some cases acted to ban the teaching of what they call Critical Race Theory in public schools (both K-12 and universities) — and many of the left's most intelligent writers have responded almost exclusively by railing against right-wing critics of CRT.
Put in slightly more schematic terms, the left is reacting to the anti-CRT movement by becoming loudly anti-anti-CRT. That is a big mistake, both intellectually and politically. How do we know? In part because we just lived through the folly of Republicans enacting the double negation of becoming anti-anti-Trump in order to avoid calling out the obscenity of the man himself.
But there's an even more pertinent parallel further back in American history. Roughly seventy years ago the left's forebears made precisely the same move when confronted with an overly zealous, demagogic critic of communism. Rather than single out Sen. Joseph McCarthy for hysterical overreach while also acknowledging that communism was a serious threat that demanded vigilance, they instead became anti-anti-communists, elevating "McCarthyism" into the real danger, perhaps even the only danger, and dismissing concerns about communism as a phantom threat.
Never mind that by now the preponderance of historical evidence shows that both Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg were spies for the Soviet Union, or that historians have verified that many, many other people had ties to Soviet agents or were themselves Soviet assets working in the United States at a time when the USSR was a serious totalitarian threat looming over a war-ravaged and militarily impotent Western Europe and Japan, both of which the U.S. had pledged to defend after the defeat of the Axis Powers in World War II.
CRT, of course, isn't a spy ring led by a hostile foreign power. In fact, as I'll explain in a moment, it isn't even an incursion into primary, secondary, and undergraduate education by the academic field of research that goes by the name "Critical Race Theory." Yet the phenomenon the term is invoked to describe is real, it is pernicious, and the parents and politicians rallying against it are not simply cynical pawns in a nefarious right-wing "astroturfing" operation. They are reacting to something real, they aren't wrong to do so, and the left would be well advised to combine their justified criticism of Republican overreach with full-throated criticism of the excesses of their allies on the left. The failure to do so will simply recapitulate the myriad mistakes of past.
Left-leaning critics of the ascendant anti-CRT movement like to point out that Critical Race Theory isn't being taught in schools. Strictly speaking, this is correct, and I've made the point myself. CRT is a diffuse academic specialty animating the work of serious scholars across a range of fields, including law, history, and various disciplines in the social sciences. Much of this work is worthwhile and fruitfully provocative in its emphasis on structural dimensions of racial oppression in the past and present. But the suggestion that this scholarship is regularly being taught in K-12 history classes, or even in survey-level courses to undergraduates, is risible.
But it's also beside the point. Republicans and conservative muckraking activists are using the term CRT as a politically efficacious slogan to describe something distinct from but also adjacent to the academic field that goes by the same name. To fixate on the phrase and reduce the debate around it to a dispute about nomenclature is to sidestep vastly more import issues — a little as if Cold War intellectual fights had focused primarily on whether communists really aimed to force people to live on communes.
What, precisely, are politicians and parents objecting to? They are objecting to highly polemical, contestable, and potentially incendiary assertions about the place of race in American history. And they are insisting that these assertions not be taught to their children — to the next generation of American citizens — as the simple, unadulterated, unambiguous truth.
They do not want their children taught in state-run and state-funded schools that the country was founded on an ideology of white supremacy in which every white child and family today is invariably complicit regardless of their personal views of their Black fellow citizens.
They do not want their children taught that 1619 is the country's "true founding" or that slavery is not just a very important aspect of American history that shapes the present in all kinds of ways but that it lies "at the very center" of the country's past and present.
They do not want their children taught that Black Americans are uniformly victims of "systematic," "structural" injustice that can only be rectified through the intentional dismantling of the country's political and economic institutions.
In sum, they do not want public schools propagandizing their children into becoming left-wing radicals. And it is perfectly reasonable for them to hold that position.
Some on the left will undoubtedly respond by insisting that the "systematic," "structural" account of racism in American life is the unvarnished, incontestable truth, and they will point to CRT scholars who will back them up on this. But this is of course not a position universally held. Other scholars — not to mention ordinary citizens, who are not required to defer to their intellectual betters on such questions — dissent from it. And that means that the effort to get schools to adopt assumptions derived from CRT for use in teaching history is itself a political act, an effort to prevail in a scholarly and civic dispute by seizing control of the means of knowledge production and dissemination. No one should be surprised that such efforts have provoked a backlash.
Others on the left will quietly concede that the past and present of American life is indeed more complicated than the most simple-minded construals of systematic or structural racism imply. Yet they will point out more loudly that conservatives hardly do better at advocating pluralism and complexity in the classroom. On the contrary, they propose and prefer uncritical patriotic homilies like those contained in the report produced by Donald Trump's "1776 Commission."
This is certainly true of some on the right. But that's precisely why the country needs liberal-minded leftists to ally with liberal centrists in taking a stand against the pious simplicities proffered by illiberal ideologues on both extremes. Public schools should be teaching the story of the past and present in a way that foregrounds the admirable as well as the shameful, that shows students how to hold contrary and complex views in their minds at the same time, that highlights our noblest principles as well as our most egregious faults, in the past as well as in the present.
But that's not what we're getting from the left. Instead, we're seeing savage critiques of the critics of CRT, but almost nothing about the simple-minded counter-homilies that their own allies are proposing.
That is an act of intellectual cowardice and political malfeasance, one that reenacts the mistakes of the early Cold War, when far too many were guided by the principle enunciated by Alexander Kerensky on the eve of the Russian Revolution: There can be no true enemies on the left. That axiom was founded on the (dubious) assumption that even if one's ideological compatriots on the left sometimes went too far, their hearts could be judged pure because their moral aspirations placed them on the right (meaning: the revolutionary) side of history. The same could not be said of such "reactionaries" as liberal centrists, conservatives, and those further out on the right. It was in their ranks, and in their ranks alone, that the true enemies could be found.
In a notorious 1952 essay on the spread of anti-anti-communism on the American left, Irving Kristol speculated about why so many Americans had fallen for the lies and exaggerations of a "vulgar demagogue" like Joseph McCarthy. His answer provoked on the left the kind of white-hot fury one typically hears only from a man or a movement justly accused.
There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: He, like them, is unequivocably anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification. [Commentary]
Today's left-wing critics of the critics of CRT are ensnared in an identical ideological bind — helping, by their hesitation to express justified intellectual antipathy toward ostensible allies, to empower the very forces on the right that they would most like to tame and to trounce. They should work harder to learn proper lessons from the past.