A public school bulletin board displays motivational messages for students. Recent political debates over public schools have given birth to a New Big Lie, writes Clay Wirestone. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
Beware the New Big Lie.
For the past 18 months, those committed to truth have battled the Big Lie spread by former President Donald Trump that he actually won the 2020 election. But during that time, a New Big Lie has bloomed, one that threatens to undermine our country further.
That lie, no less audacious and obviously false, is that public school teachers mean to indoctrinate and warp our children.
The evidence offered by those spreading this lie has shifted over the months. At first it focused on teaching about our nation’s shameful racial past, which rightwing propagandists claimed was “critical race theory.” (It wasn’t.) It has now shifted to concerns about gender expression, LGBTQ rights and school library books. Perhaps those same propagandists will soon shift their messaging to suggest that any teacher who teaches a language other than English should be suspected of being a foreign agent.
Understanding what’s going on here requires clear eyes and the intestinal fortitude to understand that those who spout these concerns don’t mean to engage in good-faith public debate. They are lying, they know they are lying, and they mean to weaken a cornerstone of our democracy: free public education.
With the Kansas Legislature back in Topeka and school funding on the line, the state literally can’t afford apathy.
Big Lies one and two
To understand why I’m calling this the Other Big Lie, we need to go back a ways.
The technique gained widespread attention in the context of World War II. It was central to the Nazi regime’s propaganda. You say something that most reasonable people understand to be nonsense, but then you keep at it. Eventually, a few might doubt their beliefs. You then reward those who repeat the lie. You eventually add depth and context, shifting the targets and explanations if pressed.
Eventually, the Lie becomes a legitimate part of public debate because enough people — and government officials — keep talking about it. The public, which originally was inclined to dismiss the claims, sees it as just another political stance. Those on the side of the party or institutions propagating the Lie decide maybe it’s not so ridiculous after all.
“When one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous,” wrote Nazi propaganda boss Joseph Goebbels about the British, obviously engaged in a monumental case of projection.
In postwar years, the technique fell out of fashion. Outright demagoguery seemed crude, even though U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy gave it the old college try during the Red Scare.
Then Trump came along. A modern-day demagogue, he regularly tried the tactic during his presidential administration. Does anyone remember his claim of a record crowd at the inauguration? How about altering the projected path of a hurricane with a Sharpie? It took a humiliating defeat at the hands of Joe Biden to throw the messaging into overdrive, however.
Once the president failed in his attempts to overthrow the election — inciting an attempted insurrection in the process — he decided to devote his post-presidency to building a Big Lie of his own. Nefarious forces across the country conspired to deny him the presidency. Anyone who doesn’t bend a knee to Trump must be purged.
This is completely untrue.
We all know it. Elections in the United States are safe and secure, and Biden won by 7 million votes. But Trump and his supporters keep repeating the falsehood, even pressing their incomprehensible case to legislators in a cherry red state like Kansas. Eventually, a worn-down public sees the Lie as a legitimate perspective.
Now we face an election landscape where Trump acolytes have taken positions of power across the United States and where the former president clearly aims to run for the position once again. His Big Lie has worked thus far.
Kansans and those across the country who care about educating the next generation must be prepared, then, to shred this New Big Lie.
The school wars
This latest focus on schools began with the COVID-19 pandemic. Closures in 2020, along with various restrictions in 2020 and 2021, stressed families and educators alike. Children lost invaluable time in a physical classroom. Teachers wanted to protect themselves from the virus.
I watched my own son endure week after week of online school, despite the best efforts of his teacher and school staff. I understand and sympathize with everyone.
Shuttering schools was a mistake.
Many parents seethed at changes to their children’s schedules, especially when they still had to go into work. Many kids struggled with mental health issues over the same time, likely exacerbated by the pandemic. And during the summer of 2020, we saw an unprecedented outpouring of support for racial justice after the murder of George Floyd.
The time was ripe for exploitation. Arch-conservatives, who have long denigrated public education while supporting private religious schools or homeschooling, saw an opening to create discord and distrust. They also saw an opportunity to score bonus points by appealing to many white Americans’ insecurity about racism. Enter critical race theory.
None of the ensuing uproar was meant to engage with the university-level academic study of race in America. Ideologues seized upon it to demonize well-meaning diversity and inclusion efforts, energize conservatives and put public education in the crosshairs.
A notorious activist named Christopher Rufo explained the game plan on his Twitter account.
We have successfully frozen their brand—"critical race theory"—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.
— Christopher F. Rufo ⚔️ (@realchrisrufo) March 15, 2021
Never mind that the frustration began because parents didn’t like figuring out how to make Zoom work on their childrens’ iPads. Now they could believe they were fighting a “woke” conspiracy of teachers who made white kids feel bad.
The lie was dumb, but the frustration was genuine.
There’s no way to put the genie back in the bottle here. The pandemic did happen, and schools did close. Social disruption and learning loss did occur, and many parents and children felt abandoned by institutions on which they previously depended. The institutions tried their best, but there were no good choices.
Rufo and his ilk made political hay of that fact throughout 2021. Then they went further and darker.
Shifting into overdrive
I noticed the change in December. Debates about teaching history were shifting to disputes about gender and sexuality.
That bemused me, and I wrote a column titled “The latest fear for Kansas schools: CRT is turning our children gay.” Legislators and parents at the Kansas Statehouse were sounding the alarm about books and lessons that talked about gender and sexuality.
The trend has now exploded nationwide. Florida’s new “Don’t Say Gay” law prohibits any discussion of these subjects around young children, and it discouraging teachers from even mentioning their spouses or answering student questions in age-appropriate ways. And while that measure ostensibly protects the youngest, officials across the country have targeted books in middle school and high school libraries dealing with the same subjects.
Just this month, Republican state Sen. Rick Kloos voiced outrage about the Shawnee Heights High School library stocking the autobiography “Gender Queer.” Wrongest person in Kansas politics Dave Trabert has submitted breathless quotes from other suspect volumes.
In a matter of months, a debate about history has been transformed into one about gender expression and LBGTQ rights.
Rufo, of course, was on the case. He “is convinced that a fight over L.G.B.T.Q. curriculums — which he calls ‘gender ideology’ — has even more potential to spur a political backlash than the debate over how race and American history are taught,” the New York Times’ Trip Gabriel reported this month.
“The reservoir of sentiment on the sexuality issue is deeper and more explosive than the sentiment on the race issues,” Rufo told the Times.
Gosh. You might note that history was never the point, and a loose-knit coalition of activists and legislators have instead targeted parents’ unease with unfamiliar subjects. Ultimately, they mean to erode and destroy public education in the United States of America.
But what’s the lie? What’s the new untruth?
The New Big Lie is this: Teachers are a fifth column who secretly hate you and your family and basic American values. They not only want to teach little white children to despise their past, but they want to turn the girls into boys and the boys into girls. They want to disrupt and undermine our whole society, and they want to hide it from parents.
This is absurd.
Anyone who knows teachers or schools knows it’s absurd.
I know it better than most, coming from multiple generations of public school teachers. Nowhere, ever, in my parents’ or grandparents’ careers did I see or hear of a teacher doing such silly things. Educators were too busy working on lesson plans, grading papers, coaching after school sports and attempting to have lives outside school.
Teachers care about students and their learning journeys. They also know that anyone who aims to indoctrinate people should search for another line of work. Children and teens are naturally curious and rebellious. They can spot pomposity a mile away — and tear it down mercilessly. Students must be equipped to think critically, understand the facts of the world and make their own way.
For that matter, I’m also a parent. Over my son’s six years in public schools, I’ve constantly heard about what he’s doing in class. Weekly emails. Notes in his backpack. Chats with his teachers after school. Texts about where he’s headed after class.
While schools across the state have real needs, my family couldn’t ask for more transparency. So many others with children in school have similar stories.
What Kansas faces
The New Big Lie has powerful supporters.
Conservative groups have long sought to undermine public education. This cause unites both the business friendly and socially reactionary wings of the movement. Together, they see the opportunity created by the pandemic to reshape our society in a way that benefits the wealthiest while restoring discrimination against minority groups.
More than any teaching about history or gender, the end of free, high-quality schools would change our country forever. The United States depends on its public school system. Kansas depends on our public school system. Our shared society depends on it, and most of us grasp that basic truth. When Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax “experiment” undermined those schools, he became the second least-popular governor in the country.
We must recognize this New Big Lie where we see it, and we must call it out. We need teachers. We need public schools. There is no rural development in Kansas without them. There is no urban development without them either.
Our education system deserves care, attention and full funding.
It does not deserve this deceitful, conspiratorial rubbish. Those legislators and activists who spread the New Big Lie know better. With school funding still being debated at the Statehouse, ask them about it. Ask them about their proof. Ask them how many teachers they know and how many classrooms they’ve visited. Ask them if they have children or grandchildren in public schools.
Tear down the lie with truth, one question at a time.
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