Republicans and Memory Laws
George Orwell Had It Right
Dictators have long concentrated on controlling and distorting the historical truths of their countries as a way to suppress dissent as they pass so-called “memory laws.” In today’s Russia, it is illegal to insult the memory of the “victorious nation” regardless of historical facts to the contrary.
It is against the law to criticize the era of former dictator Josef Stalin and to discuss the millions of Ukrainians who starved to death because of Stalin’s policies or to teach about the 1939 pact of non-aggression between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that gave Hitler the alliance he needed to begin the second world war.
The tactic is gaining strength in the U.S. as Republicans try to appeal to their racist base, as they try to control curriculum in public schools, specifically about the effects of slavery as they disavow the belief in systemic racism and that whites are to blame for the impacts of slavery, that include current efforts by Republicans to enact harsh voting restrictions.
In short, Republicans are in a panic over fears that there will soon be more people of color than the white population and they insist that discrimination is not a systemic issue but is caused by personal prejudice, and that the society at large does not bear any real responsibility and that white people, in general, therefore, are not to blame and in fact, the Democrats are trying to destroy the nation.
In the U.S., Republican government officials are using memory laws to try to guide interpretation of the past and forbid discussion of certain historical facts. They cloak their efforts in words that shroud the real and odious meaning.
Laws passed recently around the country ban teaching that would cause “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.” So, I assume the schools could not teach such unsavory facts as when the 1938 underwriting manual for the Federal Housing Administration declared that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.” Or that slavery, lynchings and voter suppression are all cut from the same cloth.
How can the schools teach about the Tulsa, Okla., race massacre of 1921 without drawing unbroken lines to the current and ongoing murders of unarmed black people? You do it with memory laws as in Oklahoma where schools can’t discuss situations that may cause “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” on any issue related to race.
There would be no teaching that slavery wasn’t outlawed in New York until 1827, and the last 16 enslaved Black men and women in New Jersey didn’t obtain their freedom until 1865. That would likely cause stress to white students, in particular.
We would be well advised to consider the words of George Orwell in his prescient book, “1984.” Orwell said that “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” He also said that “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf” and that “The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it.”
We have a long tradition of trying to sanitize the facts about our leaders, like eliminating discussion of George Washington’s slaves or President Wilson’s overarching racism.
A law recently approved in Idaho bans “divisive speech” in schools, specifically citing critical race theory, a decades-old scholarly work that traces the effects of slavery on current law and society. Tennessee teachers are prohibited from teaching that the rule of law is “a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups,” another aspect of critical race theory. Texas law says that teachers may not discuss or instruct about the “1619 Project,” an extensive study published in the N.Y. times that traces the history of slavery, the causes and the ongoing impact on current issues.
Republican state legislators have proposed dozens of bills designed to guide and control American understanding of the past. Five states (Idaho, Iowa, Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma) have passed laws that direct and restrict discussions of history in classrooms. The Florida Department of Education passed guidelines that prohibit public schools from teaching “American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”
Another 12 state legislatures are still considering memory laws.
And in his last days in office, in response to the 1619 Project, former President trump created the “1776 Commission” to advise educators on how to “restore American education.” Slavery is mentioned as one of many “challenges to America’s principles,” along with “progressivism” and “identity politics.”
Memory laws are everywhere. In Poland, you can go to prison for up to three years by referring to death camps built and run by Nazi Germany on the occupied Polish territory during the Second World War as “Polish death/concentration camps,” even though that is what they were.
In Russia, there is a law requiring that schools defend a positive narrative of the Soviet Union as fighting a patriotic war and the Soviet Union’s role in defeating the Nazis, while not mentioning the early cooperation with the Nazis and the endemic persecution of Jews in Russia.
And then there are attempts by the Israeli government to stop commemoration of the mass displacement of Palestinians, the so-called Nakba laws.