The Death of History and the Struggle to Remember

The Fight for Critical Pedagogy in the Age of Trump

On April 22, Governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill H.B.7 to, in his words, ‘give businesses, employees, children and families tools to stand up against discrimination and woke indoctrination.’ Jessica L. Adler, in an important article for the History News Network, has done us all a considerable service in challenging this 30 pages-long list of that has generated heated concern about protecting freedom of speech in the American educational system and the teaching of history in particular. According to the Governor’s own website, the legislation ‘includes provisions to prevent discriminatory instruction in the workplace and in public schools and defines individual freedoms based on the fundamental truth that all individuals are equal before the law and have inalienable rights. This legislation is the first of its kind in the nation to take on both corporate wokeness and Critical Race Theory in schools in one act.’ H.B.7 is essentially a bill that is designed to attack critical theory/critical pedagogy applied to the teaching of the history of immigration, racism and slavery and make it synonymous in the minds of Americans with a dangerous and threatening ‘far-left woke agenda’ of indoctrination designed by socialist or communist teachers who are committed to brainwashing future generations of students with the ultimate goal of taking over the nation’s schools. It is also designed to label the critical teaching of history as ‘discrimination’ which means that critical educators are now likely to be labelled as racists and liable to face lawsuits or to be fired from their jobs. It is very reminiscent of McCarthyite tactics, which have been given a new lease on life since the election of Donald Trump, who has given new legitimacy and urgency to the toxic ideologies of white supremacy, ethno-nationalism, fascism and violence in general.

The mainstreaming of conspiracy theories (with the help of popular Republican media figures such as Tucker Carlson) such as The White Replacement Theory (immigration policies are designed to bring non-white immigrants to the United States in order to undermine or ‘replace’ the political power and culture of the ‘founding stock’ of America, its White inhabitants) and the Great Reset Theory (a global elite is using the coronavirus pandemic to dismantle capitalism and enforce a communist takeover of the United States and the world) has been a gift to the progenitors of Trump’s American fascist agenda. Consider this comment by one of the most boorish and feculent Republican operatives in the nation, Christopher Rufo, Senior Fellow and Director of the Initiative on Critical Race Theory, The Manhattan Institute, whose silent screams against criticality in academia can be heard in his bloviating screeds against Critical Race Theory:

Critical Race Theory takes people and segregates them against each other. Individualism is not exclusive to any race, and it is patronising to say people have different work ethics based on their skin colour…. We are in the initial stages down a dark path, but luckily community leaders have said not in this state, not in this country. I think it is a testament to the legislators in Florida and the greatest Governor in the country right now standing up to these people. He stood up to the lies, he stood up to the ideologs [sic], and he stood up to the big corporations because he is on your side and he’s not going to back down.

Rufo seems to have taken on a role redolent of screaming Blood Judge Freisler of Hitler’s dreaded wartime People’s Court. I wonder if those critical teachers identified by Rufo and his like-minded cadre will be dragged to court deprived of their belts in front of a tribunal designed to humiliate and admonish them, forcing them to hold up their pants as they are berated and told they are enemies of America.

H.B.7 is intended to dictate rules about the content covered in college and university classrooms as well as elementary school and high school. It worries that teachers will intentionally or unintentionally make students feel culpable in a race crime of association because their ancestors were White during the time of slavery. This could, it is alleged, cause White students to suffer significant trauma. So, the legislation is effectively designed to, in effect, exempt White people from any complicity in the horrors of slavery and allow them to cry ‘racism’ if they, themselves, happen to be called racist sometime in the future. This emboldens White racism. Is this situation in any way similar to the teaching of German history to Germans – i.e., playing down the genocidal horrors of the Third Reich for fear of traumatising students whose parents may have belonged to the Nazi Party? Apparently not, since, in Germany, many schools organise mandatory school trips to holocaust memorials and former concentration camps. Students are also introduced to works of literature that deal with the rise and fall of Nazism and the thorny issue of ethnic hate in Europe at the time. So why not mandatory educational trips to plantations and slave quarters, or sites of former slave auctions for American students? We wonder what Ron DeSantis would say to that. He did make some remarks during Black History Month: ‘This Black History Month, students were able to learn about African-Americans that helped shape Florida’s history and that of our entire country.’

This all sounds well and good since the remarks were made while presenting awards to student winners of a contest devoted to Celebrating African-American Contributions to Florida’s History. That sounds like an important theme that should be stressed in the teaching of American history. But such remarks are counterposed by bill H.B.7, which was designed to appease White parents, very likely as an election ploy on the part of DeSantis. First, you create fear of the Other. Then you address the anger and rage that results from such fear. You initially claim that there is a nefarious theory known as Critical Race Theory (CRT) being used to brainwash students into believing that they are racist simply because they have white skin – an imposed belief by progressive liberal teachers who have been infected by the ‘woke’ virus. The virus is allegedly designed to traumatise White students and make them feel responsible for the plight of Black folks going back to the days of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow and during more recent times, including the Black Lives Matter protests over the murder of George Floyd and other Black victims of police brutality. Critical Race Theory is sometimes taught in law schools at the graduate level but is not taught in K-12 classrooms. But that has not stopped some very courageous and committed educators from teaching about the history of slavery and racism by critically appropriating concepts and ideas developed in the field of critical pedagogy (that includes insights from critical historiography, the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, indigeneity studies, Marxist critiques of political economy, CRT, feminist theory, queer theory, ecopedagogy, postcolonial critique, ethnic studies, critical discourse analysis, African-American studies) and the work of the American historian, Howard Zinn.

So what is in store for these students who are learning from critical educators to draw from their own personal experiences in order to exercise their own voice and to play an active role in creating history, in challenging systems of exploitation in American society? In short, the plan is to dumb Americans down by shutting down the critical faculties of those who already have them, by wrapping military-grade razor wire around the curiosity of those who might consider developing them, and by placing anti-personnel mines deep into the brainpans of those indicating some penchant for individualism and a thirst for knowledge that might spark some risk in making prohibited excursions into the dark and dangerous world of so-called ‘woke’ thinkers. The plan (and there is no doubt that this is a carefully contrived plan to stoke fear among parents and to get them out to vote Republican) is to associate liberal Democrats with communism, short and simple. Elaborations on this plan are designed to create tangential associations for woke Democrats, entwining their ideological advocacy with Satan worship, sex trafficking, shape-shifting and cannibalism. According to the Governor’s website,

[c]oncepts constituting unlawful discrimination include:

  • That members of one race, colour, national origin or sex are morally superior to members of another race, colour, national origin or sex.
  • A person, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.
  • A person’s moral character or status as privileged or oppressed is determined by race, colour, national origin or sex.
  • A person, by virtue of their race, colour, national origin or sex, should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity or inclusion.

The bill also requires instruction, instructional materials, and professional development in public schools to adhere to principles of individual freedom outlined in the bill. Those principles include that no person is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive just by virtue of his or her race or sex and meritocracy or hard work ethic are not racist but fundamental to the right to pursue success.

The bill authorises discussion of topics such as sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination, in an age-appropriate manner, and in such a way that does not indoctrinate or persuade students to a certain point of view that is inconsistent with the principles of individual freedom.

The bill also expands instruction of African American history to develop students’ understanding of the ramifications of prejudice and racism. Classroom instruction will educate students on what it means to be a respectful and responsible citizen and encourage tolerance of diversity to protect democratic principles that our country is founded on. Schools are required to teach factual information on topics including African American history and the Holocaust instead of subjective indoctrination that pushes collective guilt.

Here are some important points made by Adler that all Americans would do well to ponder.

First, the law ‘is based on gross oversimplifications of how and why history is taught.’ Second, H.B.7 ‘would make it challenging, if not impossible, for teachers at Florida public universities to offer students, as the American Historical Association put it in a February 2022 letter to the state’s legislature, “a full and accurate account of the past.”’ Why is this? It is because, and this is important,

history professors do not simply catalogue atrocity after atrocity and uncritically identify victors and victims. My first goal as a teacher of modern US history is to help students develop the skills that define history as a discipline, including, for example, how to consider and make evidence-based arguments and how to evaluate varying representations of the past. A second goal is to help students understand the historical roots of contemporary problems and to recognise how decisions made in the past influence the present. I also aim to help my students open-mindedly explore multiple perspectives from and about the past to analyse change over time. When learning about the historical factors that have led people to have diverse experiences and viewpoints, students have the opportunity to consider how and why individuals and groups did what they did, to interpret how their actions shaped societies, and to develop empathy.

Alder underscores the important, if not obvious, point that ‘sources’ are the tools used by history teachers, both primary sources – ‘artifacts from the period under study – to offer our students windows on to the past’ and secondary sources – ‘books, articles, and other texts produced after the period being studied’ – that provide the necessary contextual specificity ‘for understanding how and why the past matters and how certain people, events, and trends are connected.’ So how is it possible to pursue even this basic teaching goal like that listed above by Adler under the strict and sclerotic rules restricting interpretive license under Florida’s new draconian law? I find it interesting that the bill stipulates teaching history based on facts, when the Republicans have been notorious for creating the idea of ‘alternative facts’ and engaging in epistemological heresy in order to advance ‘big lies’ such as the stolen 2020 election. Adler makes the point that primary and secondary sources could be confused with the type of ‘advocacy’ imagined by DeSantis and his cadre of guardians of American values and thus be pitched to the authorities as ‘discriminating.’

Adler cites one example of a reading that could be used in an introductory undergraduate US history class, Andrew Carnegie’s The Triumph of America (1885). Carnegie, a steel magnate who became one of the richest Americans in history, immigrated to the United States from Scotland. He wrote: ‘There is no class so intensely patriotic, so wildly devoted to the Republic as the naturalised citizen and his child, for little does the native-born citizen know of the value of rights which have never been denied.’ Adler notes that ‘Carnegie was arguing not only that immigrants played a crucial role in fuelling the United States’ economic growth, but also that they had a more profound understanding of the value of rights than their American-born counterparts.’ And so Adler makes the argument against the vaguely-worded H.B.7 legislation as follows:

Rather than being free to use Carnegie’s article to generate open discussion about, for example, why the steel tycoon might have made certain arguments, whether he supported his points with ample evidence, and the broader time period, H.B.7 suggests that a history professor at a public university should first consider a daunting question: Could statements in the piece be interpreted as derogatory to ‘native-born citizens’ and therefore ‘compel’ students who, like Carnegie, identify as immigrants, to believe that ‘they must feel guilt, anguish, or any other forms of psychological distress?

Could this example constrain class content? Could the teacher be accused of discriminating against native-born citizens? Adler notes: ‘Policies pressuring teachers to limit access to relevant historical evidence ensure that students consider only part of the story. They undercut core tenets of the discipline and teaching of history and restrict students’ opportunities to make sense of their world.’ She goes on to say that

[m]ost US history survey textbooks and classes cover how Irish and German immigrants established themselves in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They also generally note that those groups faced discriminatory treatment. Would students be tasked with learning only about the positive experiences of Irish- and German-Americans? Would discussions of the hardships those groups overcame be limited because they might ‘compel’ students to believe that they ‘must feel guilt’?

But let’s move on to the prime target of H.B.7, which, Adler agrees, is the study of the history of racism in the United States which some have argued (myself included) amounts to a whitewashing of history of the founding events and circumstances of America. Adler writes:

Indeed, people of all backgrounds might experience a range of emotions – including ‘anguish’ – when they learn basic facts about the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction and Black Americans’ fight for freedoms. But placing restrictions on the information students may access in classrooms is irresponsible, not least of all because, as Historian Nikki Brown points out, studying the meaning and history of white supremacy can be a powerful means of dismantling it.

Adler concludes by arguing that

conveying the complexity and nuances of history – encouraging students to critically analyse the rich stories of their country, including questions about why certain ideas may be defined as ‘repugnant’ at given moments in time – could be construed as a criminal act. For the sake of public university students who deserve free access to information and knowledge, let us not fall silent.

Adler makes important points, to be sure. This is why The Southern Poverty Law Centre recently filed an Amicus Brief in Falls v. DeSantis, maintaining that Florida’s H.B.7 is unconstitutional because it represents ‘a gross infringement on … freedom of expression and access to information under the First Amendment.’ The lawsuit claims that H.B.7 intends to dictate rules about the content covered in college and university classrooms. To use the SPLC’s words, that content includes discussions of ‘America’s legacy of racism.’

But bill H.B.7 seems to pale in the overextension of extremism to the recent Republican demands in Texas that were announced during the Texas Republican Convention, a state notorious for its one-party rule and voters who characteristically make Father Coughlin of the 1930s seem woke. Texans’ fanatical stances on gun ownership and religion in the schools serve as a bellwether cry to bring American democracy to its knees, and to raise the whip hand of Trump to the lips of the Statue of Liberty as a gesture of craven obeisance. Before the convention began, the Log Cabin Republicans (a long established group of advocates for LGTBQ rights) were prevented from setting up a booth. The convention platform approved a measure for declaring that President Joe Biden ‘was not legitimately elected’ thus upholding the notion that any event or situation that is not politically acceptable is therefore de facto fake or illegitimate, and a rightful target for violent reprisal – a position historically reminiscent of fascism. Astonishingly, in view of last month’s murderous rampage in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 schoolchildren and two teachers were mercilessly cut down by a teenage assassin, the convention platform approved a motion for repealing or nullifying existing guns laws, such as the Gun Control Act of 1968. The gun law they repealed prevents felons and dangerous individuals from purchasing a gun. This, after a massacre that happened in their own state! What kind of people do this?

The Texas Republican platform has something to say about the public school curriculum, mainly, that ‘Texas students should learn about the Humanity of the Preborn Child, including … that life begins at fertilisation.’ The platform mandated that students be forced to watch ‘a live ultrasound’ and for high-schoolers to read an anti-abortion booklet that has been criticised for including scientifically unsupported material and for shaming women who wish to procure abortions. This resembles a theocratic imposition, and is in line with evangelical Christian calls to base government laws on fundamentalist interpretations of scripture, which has led to calls for a total ban on abortion. The convention’s document additionally compels officials ‘not to infringe on Texas school students’ and staffs’ rights to pray and engage in religious speech,’ while, at the same time, it deprecates transgender people, claiming in ignorance that they suffer from ‘a genuine and extremely rare mental health condition.’ In keeping with the nature of this attack, they deem sexual reassignment surgery to be a form of medical malpractice. Additionally, they claim that homosexuality is ‘an abnormal lifestyle choice.’

Alarming positions such as these can not only be spoken out loud today, but they are exhilaratingly embraced by a growing number of MAGA knuckle-draggers. For gays and gun rights people to be openly denounced at a major convention suggests even more drastic denunciations could be at play in the future, including calls for violence. How far will this go? Will this devolve further into a free-for-all against gays, transgender people and those who choose to live outside the MAGA madness? The MAGA crowd has now been freed from its ideological cage and is free to think how it always wanted to think, and are free to be how it always wanted to be: vile, hate-filled and self-righteous. This should come as no surprise at a time when a Missouri Republican (and former governor) Eric Greitens can feature himself in a campaign advertisement in which he talks about his past as a Navy Seal before saying that he’s going ‘RINO hunting’ (RINO stands for Republicans In Name Only) and cocking a shotgun. He breaks into a home to the sound of flash bangs alongside a group of men wearing US camouflage uniforms and other military-style gear. Then, he says, ‘The RINO feeds on corruption and is marked by the stripes of cowardice.… There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country,’ as he calls on viewers to join the ‘MAGA crew’ and get a ‘RINO hunting permit.’ He ends by saying, ‘We are sick and tired of the Republicans in Name Only surrendering to Joe Biden and the radical Left.’

Disloyalty to the MAGA agenda is expressly forbidden. Greitens and his group of MAGA devotees are attempting to sow fear by presenting themselves as your ordinary, rank-and-file Republican psychopath ready to smash into homes of disloyal followers, ready to terrorise whomever they deem as enemies – which could easily be you or me. Shame on this former Navy Seal. As a character, Greitens fits right in with Hitler’s 1944 Operation Werewolf, where his ubermasculine Nazi SS lieutenants, Adolf Prützmann and Otto Skorzeny, were assigned to infiltrate Allied camps and sabotage supply lines accompanied by a fanatical paramilitary group, engage in reprisal killings, and unleash holy terror against those who might fraternise with the enemy. Greitens sounds like the fanatical female Nazi broadcaster, Lily the Werewolf, whose words were designed to tantalise the allied troops with fear: ‘I am so savage, I am filled with rage, Lily the Werewolf is my name. I bite, I eat, I am not tame. My werewolf teeth bite the enemy.’ Yes, we know you’re a tough guy, Eric, and we know a long gun is the best phallic symbol available for your insecurities about your manhood. The RINOs in the advertisement can be easily compared to the German mayors working with the Allied occupiers. In short, Greitens sounds like a pathetically pathological Nazi werewolf with some deep-seated manhood issues.

Jacob Crosse of The World Socialist Website has a particularly damning description of Greitens. We learn that this is the second advertisement in the last two months to have a gun-toting Greitens elected to the US Senate in the Missouri primary. Indeed, this is the second advertisement in which Greitens ‘glorifies homicidal violence against his political opponents while wielding a firearm.’ In a previous campaign ad, Greitens and Donald Trump Jr. are filmed shooting metal human cut-outs with automatic rifles. As Trump Jr. and Greitens walk toward the camera, Trump Jr. warns that they are ‘striking fear into the hearts of liberals everywhere, folks.’ Greitens can be heard saying ‘liberals beware’ over the sound of gunfire. Greitens is currently the front-runner in the Missouri primary, and while Trump has yet to make an endorsement, it is notable that Greitens’ campaign chair is Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle. Trump’s former personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has previously hosted a rally for Greitens, and billionaire Richard Uihlein has created a pro-Greitens super PAC. David McIntosh, president of the major conservative group Club for Growth, has urged Trump to support Greitens.

So what kind of man has garnered such enthusiastic support? Crosse writes:

Greitens is a highly trained killer who has deployed four times as a Navy SEAL in the service of US imperialism. He participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where he was the commander of an assassination squad tasked with targeting alleged al-Qaeda elements. Greitens also deployed as a SEAL to Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia. There is no doubt that Greitens has killed human beings using the methods, weapons and tactics he glorifies in his campaign ads…. Greitens was forced to resign as governor of Missouri in 2018, just over 500 days after assuming office, due to multiple criminal investigations at the time. There were allegations of campaign finance law violations, and he was also under investigation for felony invasion of privacy. The latter charge centred on allegations that Greitens blackmailed a woman with whom he was having an affair by taking illicit photos of her without permission and threatening to release them if she ever spoke out.

There were also domestic violence allegations.

There is a recent rash of Republicans airing advertisements in which guns are featured. Crosse writes that ‘The glorification of violence by far-right Republicans coincides with Trump’s ongoing attacks against ‘weak’ and ‘cowardly’ Republicans, who did not have the ‘strength’ to enforce his dictatorial strategy.’ Guns are more frequently mentioned and their firepower displayed in candidate-related political ads, as a way to publicly shame ‘left-wing snowflakes.’ Those willing to amplify personal insults and to display the fiercest level of hatred and contempt for Democrats are the candidates of choice for hard-core conservatives these days. More than 45,000 people lost their lives to gun violence in 2020, and these bully boy ads are almost certain to be hooked into America’s bizarre conspiratorial and nightmarish death fantasies. The Republican platform has become little more than a game of brutish slander. It evokes a kind of Mississippi, ‘down home’ and ‘old boy’ Ku Klux Klan charm. The American Psycho is back in fashion, and he or she will be making your life hellish from their office in Washington very soon. These political gun ads echo a racist animus. Not surprisingly, gun ownership is connected to White people’s fear of Black people. Joseph M. Pierre cites Jonathan Metzl, who argues that

‘mainstream society reflexively codes white men carrying weapons in public as patriots, while marking armed black men as threats or criminals.’ In support of this view, a 2013 study found that having a gun in the home was significantly associated with racism against black people as measured by the Symbolic Racism Scale, noting that ‘for each 1 point increase in symbolic racism, there was a 50% greater odds of having a gun in the home and a 28% increase in the odds of supporting permits to carry concealed handguns’ (O’Brien et al., 2013). Hypothesizing that guns are a symbol of hegemonic masculinity that serves to ‘shore up white male privilege in society,’ Stroud (2012) interviewed a non-random sample of 20 predominantly white men in Texas who had licenses for concealed handgun carry. The men described how guns help to fulfil their identities as protectors of their families, while characterizing imagined dangers with rhetoric suggesting specific fears about black criminals. These findings suggest that gun ownership among white men may be related to a collective identity as ‘good guys’ protecting themselves against ‘bad guys’ who are people of colour, a premise echoed in the lay press with headlines like, ‘Why Are White Men Stockpiling Guns?’ (Smith, 2018), ‘Report: White Men Stockpile Guns Because They’re Afraid of Black People’ (Harriott, 2018), and ‘Gun Rights Are About Keeping White Men on Top’ (Wuertenberg, 2018).

Back to Florida. Here are some further points that I believe should be considered in opposition to H.B.7. What about showing concern for students of colour who are justifiably angry because, as a result of their own self-taught critical acumen, they are all too aware that much of the historical material drawn upon by their professors has left out important documents and analyses, and are thereby complicit in whitewashing the history of their ancestors, collapsing their memories into dust and sweeping them off the stage of history? Are the feelings of these students – who have educated themselves beyond the reach of many of their professors – to be ignored or downplayed – or perhaps even ridiculed? We cannot discern how students will react emotionally to historical events or archival materials, whether they are primary sources or secondary sources. It may take only one student’s complaint to hold a teacher liable for discrimination. As in the words of lawyers representing the Florida Governor and Attorney General, ‘[t]he First Amendment … does not compel Florida to pay educators to advocate ideas, in its name, that it finds repugnant.’

What if students make a collective appeal to their professors to teach the educational programs of the Black Panthers in 1968? Or the place of Malcolm X in American history. Should the professor have to send out permission forms to students’ parents if the students are under eighteen? Or is the professor to respond to students by repeating in a meek tone, ‘sorry, that material might make some White students in the class feel guilty or upset and besides, I might get sued by one of their parents for criminal advocacy’? But then imagine that a student speaks up: ‘I heard that Paulo Freire once said: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.’ Another student chimes in: ‘Didn’t Martin Luther King say: “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict … [an individual] who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it”’? And then another student raises her hand: ‘I thought Desmond Tutu said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”’ And yet another student, normally quiet, speaks up: ‘Wasn’t it Elie Wiesel who said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented?”’ And still one more student stands up at the back of the room: ‘My mom likes the historian Howard Zinn. She taught me this quotation by him, and it has given me and my mother much strength during difficult times in our lives: “I don’t believe it’s possible to be neutral. The world is already moving in certain directions. And to be neutral, to be passive in a situation like that, is to collaborate with whatever is going on. And I, as a teacher, do not want to be a collaborator with whatever is happening in the world. I want myself, as a teacher, and I want you as students, to intercede with whatever is happening in the world.”’ ‘So you “can’t be neutral on a moving train,” can you, professor, or were Zinn and my mother wrong. And are all those historical personages not to be taken seriously?’ And then the professor resorts to the pathetic excuse: ‘Discussions involving important matters such as justice and human dignity are out of bounds now on campus. Please continue this discussion, if you must, in your dorm rooms, but please show courtesy to others by keeping your doors closed.’

How does this bill address discriminating against students who already have well-developed critical faculties? And what about the teacher’s voice, forced to remain silent in a time of national crisis when Trump supporters are searching through the Capitol Building to hang the Vice President of the United States, and Black people are being gunned down in a shopping mall? You can’t really teach anyone anything; all you can do is create the context for people to learn. And that includes professors. I candidly admit learning so much from my students – from those who returned from trips to Mexico after visiting the Zapatistas, to those amid the Los Angeles Uprising, to teachers who participated in Los Angeles student walkouts. So many classes revolved around the personal experiences of my students, providing me with important understandings, including indigenous students at Instituto McLaren in Mexico who shared with me the cosmovisions of their early ancestors.

I remember visiting the Apartheid Museum next to Gold Reef City in Ormonde, Johannesburg, South Africa, and also the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. The latter building is a large monument that Afrikaner Nationalists use to symbolise their neo-Dutch Calvinistic Afrikaner attitude to their historical past, that mythically asserts their divine right to subjugate the ‘barbaric’ Black South Africans and reeks of something right out of the Third Reich. I felt sick for days after visiting it and was surprised it had not been marked for a well-deserved demolition. The Apartheid Museum, by contrast, revealed the history of horror surrounding the Apartheid regime that was instituted by the White-ruled South African Nationalist Party in 1948 and had evolved into a brutally harsh, institutionalised system of racial segregation and violence that lasted until 1994. Some years after that, when my books became available, I was invited to South Africa, where I was hosted by former White Afrikaner members of South Africa’s security forces (those who felt ashamed at what the security forces had done in places such as Soweto and wished to dialogue), who took me to the Museum of Apartheid, where one of my hosts suffered a panic attack shortly after entering the building. I instantly began to think of a similar idea for the United States, but not to give people panic attacks – creating major museum sites and monuments in every state that would honour the African American victims of slavery and Jim Crow. I also wanted to see museums honour the dead of every American imperialist war – a tribute to the millions of innocent victims of the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. Not that creating these institutions would be a form of full atonement, but that they would help the public recognise the full implications of slavery, genocide, and imperialist wars. I was also asked by Black South African academics to sit on panels discussing the replacement of White professors with Black South African professors, and one of the first White professors to volunteer to give up his job so a qualified Black South African scholar could take his place was an unheralded witness for justice, a professor who had spent over a decade in prison as a result of his fight against apartheid. Now wouldn’t this make for an important debate to be held in university classrooms? But in the United States, debating controversial topics such as this in light of HB 7 could be used as an excuse for criminalising the ‘woke’ professor, all in the service of electing Republican politicians.

The US has been experiencing the mass murder of African Americans, the criminalisation of Black Lives Matter protesters, and making it more difficult for African Americans to vote. The United States is holding congressional hearings in Washington about a government insurrection that took place on January 6, 2021. Trump is discussing the coup in positive terms, describing the mob who stormed the Capitol as ‘great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated,’ and he has labelled Black Lives Matter protestors a bunch of ‘terrorists, thugs and anarchists.’

What could be more important than discussing this in the classrooms of the nation? What better way to re-democratise the United States through what I call acts of critical patriotism? How we remember ourselves, our history, and our actions is crucial. As the great Jesuit priest and anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan has said,

As a surgeon would, we ‘re-member’ an amputee or a broken body or a skeleton. It means that we put broken lives together into one body. The ability, also, to draw upon the future, to re-member the future, is, it seems to me, a very rich notion; so many people have the idea that memory is merely dredging up the past…. Few people have their lives so articulated that memory can gaze upon the future with equanimity simply because their present is quite intense and quite – even quite joyous.

Thinking about Martin Luther King, Berrigan notes that, ‘[e]ven though there were the bitterest memories of bondage and enslavement, the people could arise and create a human future in the midst of their oppression.’ That future is now in serious jeopardy. The government has become the Trumpian Party and has figured out a way to eliminate the threat of memories. Professors will now function as The Thought Police created to keep those memories – personal, historical, institutional – from being publicly acknowledged and reaching the light of day and to instil a fear of remembering. Because remembering and the politics of re-membering might contradict what the Party has said to the people. And contradictions cannot be tolerated – ever. The university campus will become like Oceania, where only the Thought Police matter. Will there be tele-screens in the dorm rooms? If you have done nothing wrong, then why should you care, so the saying goes.

We still have the power of memory and the faculties to rebel. But for how long? But how can we re-member a past memory without turning it into some kind of all-purpose meta-memory? We can only manipulate dead or dying memories, which is why we must keep memories alive. Because memories, as dark as they might be, are harbingers of hope. Memories need to be embodied in our everyday struggles, to be exalted by the contingencies of the present. Memories can be alive or dead or resigned to a limbo worse than death, and, to ensure their vitality, we need to constantly fill them with the blood and gristle of today’s ongoing battles for justice. This is not to ignore the memories of our ancestors in the ancient of days – some of which may be lost forever – but to recognise that we can share their memories precisely because they acted upon them and gave us the freedom to remember! We must remember the days when democracy – admittedly as partial as it was – existed in America before they are forgotten forever.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). The Death of History and the Struggle to Remember: The Fight for Critical Pedagogy in the Age of Trump. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.