The Will Bunch Newsletter is back from its hiatus and for the rest of 2021 it’s going to be bolder and better than ever. Since you asked, the reason for the break was my 2022 book about the modern American way of college and its outsized role in causing our political crackup (tentatively called Resent U ... do you like it, or nah?). It is now about 95% done!
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Florida’s shameful, recent past echoes in DeSantis war on academic freedom
Just two years ago, Florida state Rep. Evan Jenne introduced a resolution calling for what he called “a formal and heartfelt apology” to victims of one of the most shameful episodes in the modern history of the Sunshine State — a lengthy witch hunt by a legislative committee at the height of post-World-War-II McCarthyism that ruined the lives of university professors and members of the LGBTQ community, and targeted Black activists.
No apology was forthcoming, as the latest iteration of Jenne’s bill died in committee this spring. The Republicans who currently run America’s fourth-largest state — led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a 2024 White House front-runner — had a different idea about the notorious “Red Scare” of the 1950s. They want to bring it back.
Last week, DeSantis signed the latest in a series of measures aimed at chilling political conversation on college campuses and crimping what teachers in Florida’s classrooms can say about racism or other troubling aspects of America’s past. The new law mandates that Florida’s public universities conduct an annual survey of students’ views on “viewpoint diversity” — with the governor suggesting that campuses not open to right-wing ideas (like his own) could lose government funding. DeSantis said colleges that appear to be what he called “hotbeds of stale ideology” are “not worth tax dollars and not something we’re going to be supporting moving forward.”
The new law came just days after the Florida Board of Education — at the urging of DeSantis, who appointed most of its members and appeared before the panel to urge teachers to stop “trying to indoctrinate [students] with ideology” — moved to ban the teaching of what it called “critical race theory.” Educators say the ban will make them fearful of suffering consequences for any teaching around America’s historic racism.
On one hand, DeSantis and Florida are on the cutting edge of a powerful and alarming development in current U.S. politics, in which a Republican Party desperate to retake Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024 is grasping for incendiary devices. Party insiders say hysteria over discussions of race in classrooms — centered on a misuse of the once-obscure term “critical race theory,” which has been mentioned hundreds of times on the Fox News Channel — among white suburban parents is fast becoming a 2.0 version of the Tea Party revolt that propelled the GOP a decade ago.
On the other hand, the moves against academic freedom in the classroom — not just in Florida but a number of conservative “red states” — seem very much a replay of a different grim moment in the history of what the late Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics.” In the aftermath of World War II and with the rise of a nuclear Cold War, demagogues like Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy claimed that Communists had infiltrated the nation’s classrooms as well as government agencies. One of the most fearsome crusades occurred in Florida.
“There are some eerie similarities,” Robert Dahlgren — a former Florida academic and teacher who studied that state’s wars over academic freedom from 1945-60 and now teaches education at State University of New York-Fredonia — told me this week. He said Florida schoolchildren will likely face mandatory testing on the patriotism-oriented curriculum developed by DeSantis’ allies, and he worries that more extreme measures like loyalty oaths for teachers and professors could come in the near future.
The past reign of terror that led to the futile push for forgiveness by Jenne and some Democratic colleagues and newspaper columnists came under the direction of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee — also known as the Johns Committee for its far-right chairman, Charley Johns, who was also the leader of a faction of white rural lawmakers called the Pork Choppers. Much like the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Florida’s Johns Committee abused its power to hunt for alleged Communists in academia and elsewhere.
At committee hearings in the 1950s, lawmakers blasted public institutions like the University of South Florida for teaching evolution as established fact or assigning students “trashy and pornographic” books — which for them meant The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye or Brave New World. But the Florida panel was especially focused on rooting homosexual people out of the academy. Professors would be interrogated three or four times over their sexual proclivities. Dozens of faculty and staff were fired, and one professor attempted suicide. The University of Florida’s 1959 yearbook is dedicated to an unknown number of students forced to leave, “never to return.”
Dahlgren’s research found the 1950s’ crusade had grassroots support from groups like the American Legion or local Chambers of Commerce eager to promote an aggressive anti-Communist, patriotic classroom curriculum they called “Americanism.” That sounds a lot like today’s growing number of parent groups whipped into a frenzy by Fox News. DeSantis supporters insist the governor is only trying to protect free-speech rights for conservatives on campus, but a growing number of classroom instructors instead see an impending climate of fear.
“This is a way to scare potential voters for DeSantis,” said Dahlgren, noting that appeals to anti-Communism tend to energize Florida’s large Cuban-American community as well as newer arrivals from Venezuela. While Florida — with its sizable population, its key role as a presidential swing state, and with DeSantis working to inherit the mantle of Trumpism — gets a disproportionate share of attention, the push to make education about race and American history the hot-button issue of the 2022 midterms is spreading everywhere, even the Philadelphia suburbs.
This is all thoroughly depressing for folks like me who were taught growing up that America had learned its lesson from the stain of the Joe McCarthy era and the false accusations and ruined lives caused by its offshoots like the Hollywood blacklist. Instead, the demagoguery of white supremacy — whether it’s couched as “Americanism” or anti-Communism or something else — seems embedded in our national DNA. Ron DeSantis is just the latest in a long line of carnival barkers, and the question now is how many lives will be destroyed this time around.
Yo, do this
The paranoia, war crimes, and political corruption of Richard Nixon were so sprawling that — for all the millions of words he inspired during his doomed 37th presidency — it was hard to spin a coherent narrative that tied all of them together. Until now, and a riveting new podcast from the writer, social critic and former Spy Magazine impresario (which pegged Donald Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian”) Kurt Andersen called Nixon at War. Aided by the fascinating tapes of Nixon’s private conversations with LBJ, Henry Kissinger, and others, Andersen connects the dots between Tricky Dick’s treasonous undermining of 1968 peace talks, his secret war on Cambodia and the “madman theory” of foreign policy, and the fatal climate of suspicion that would lead to Watergate. A must-listen for history buffs.
I pride myself in seeking out unpopular books, so it’s a little jarring to be listening on Audible to the No. 1 best-seller in the nation, Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. A published poet, Smith writes powerfully about his visits to places like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and the Whitney Plantation and Angola State Penitentiary in his native Louisiana, and the movingly tragic stories of enslaved people that have been hiding in plain sight for generations.
Ask me anything
Question: Your thoughts on the likelihood the D’s both flip Toomey’s seat AND defend the governor’s mansion [Especially in light of all the Trumpers tossing their hats in for both positions ...] — Via @7ForwardGears on Twitter
Answer: Pennsylvania Republicans are clearly hoping for a repeat of 2010, when midterm voters were riled up over a new Democratic president and saddled the Keystone State with both Sen. Pat Toomey and ex-Gov. Tom Corbett. Fun times. But I agree with your fundamental assessment of 2022 and GOP’s problem with the Trumpists in a state that President Biden carried last year. In the governor’s race, Dems seem unified behind a strong candidate in Attorney General Josh Shapiro while Republicans can’t quit candidates like state Sen. Doug Mastriano, whose activities on January 6 are still being probed. The GOP’s chances are slightly better for Toomey’s Senate seat: sane, rich Republican Jeff Bartos is running, and Democrats face a divisive primary.
One looming political question — especially in places like Philadelphia and its suburbs, which swung heavily towards the Democratic Party during the Trump years — is what would happen to the so-called “Resistance” that gave us the Women’s March and knocked on so many doors to elect new Dems in the 2018 election, now that the Former Guy has left the White House. The short answer is that these groups are still here, hoping to pressure Congress to save democracy while anxiously eyeing the 2022 midterms. Last month, I swung by the post-pandemic in-person return of Tuesdays with Toomey, where about 20 folks ate celebratory cupcakes and rallied outside the Center City office of the outgoing senator. Its activists are not only focused on next year’s race to replace Toomey but are writing a guide for other would-be groups on how to protest GOP incumbents.
On Wednesday night of this week — that’s June 30 — Indivisible Philadelphia and about dozen suburban chapters of the Indivisible groups that popped up everywhere after Trump’s 2016 election are planning a big rally for 5 p.m. on Independence Mall near 5th and Market Streets. The purpose is to urge the Senate to pass the stalled For the People Act, which would bring sweeping federal election reforms such as expanded early voting and easier registration. The proposal — which also aims to curb the influence of so-called “dark money” in political campaigns — has been blocked by a GOP filibuster, so the activists are apparently hoping that rallies will spur balky moderates like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin to consider filibuster reform. It’s all a reminder that in American politics, there’s always something that needs to be resisted.
Inquirer reading list
After that four-week break, there was a lot I could have written about in my first column back. I went with taxing the rich. It’s outrageous that the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mike Bloomberg and company pay such a low rate on their winnings in American capitalism, while the nation’s bridges and crumbling schools suffer. The inability to address this inequity is really a failure of democracy.
One thing that was sad to watch during my time away was the departure of decades of experience and remarkable talent from The Inquirer — part of a wave of buyouts and life changes sweeping through American journalism in the aftermath of the pandemic. I can’t even mention them all, but among those I’d worked with most closely were Les Bowen, a Southern gentleman who found the essence of Philly sports; Julie Shaw, who never gave up until she got the scoop; ultimate Delco guy and sports historian extraordinaire Frank Fitzpatrick; and my fellow columnist Maria Panaritis, who always channeled her inner Upper Darby in finding great stories in the suburbs. I’ll miss them, and so will you. The next generation of great Philadelphia journalists is rising, and they need your support to flourish. Subscribe to The Inquirer today.