On Jan. 12, 2021 — just six days after an attempted coup on Capitol Hill — something was weighing on my mind: The potential of a 76ers rookie named Tyrese Maxey. I wrote in that day’s newsletter: “With his slashing drives toward the basket and a steadily improving 3-point shot, this rookie may be the missing piece to carry Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to an NBA title.” Simmons? I meant James Harden! Otherwise I nailed it, right?

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The real reason they’re banning math books and canceling ‘Rent’ in the U.S. heartland

There’s always a tipping point, that moment when the normal background noise of political and cultural warfare crosses over to the crazy. Sometimes it looks silly — Sen. Joe McCarthy claiming some sheet of paper is a list of American communists, with a different number every time — and sometimes it’s too horrible to contemplate, like a girl burned at the stake in Salem, Mass. But innocent people are always going to be hurt when America descends into one of its frequent “moral panics.”

The Great America Moral Panic of 2022 — over something called “wokeness” that wasn’t even a word, let alone an *idea,* not so long ago — has been well underway. But this weekend, it felt like the nation, and any common sense of decency, is at long last spiraling out of control.

Just as Joe McCarthy had, “right here in my hand,” his ever-fungible list of non-existent Communists back in the early 1950s, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his education goon squad are now brandishing their manufactured list of “woke” elementary-school math text books — allegedly primed to teach little kids that the “2+2″ of U.S. white supremacy no longer adds up.

No, seriously. The weekend, the Florida Department of Education under the DeSantis administration rejected more than four out of 10 math textbooks submitted for the state’s grade-school kids. It said 28 of them, or 21%, were specifically rejected because they allegedly taught “critical race theory” or “incorporate prohibited topics or unsolicited theories” — a chilling phrase that would likely leave George Orwell spinning in his grave.

Team DeSantis offered no examples of what it claims is “indoctrination” — not surprising since “critical race theory” is a sophisticated theory about the nature of systemic racial discrimination that is largely taught at the level where it’s relevant: law school. That said, I could surely imagine what a “critical race theory” math problem might look like: If the average net worth of a U.S. white family is $983,400 and the average net worth of a comparable Black family is $146,800, the typical white family benefits from systemic racism by a factor of how much?

The correct answer — both in math and in real life — is 6.7 times. But let’s get real: That equation is not being taught to second graders. Ron DeSantis and his classroom bullies are surely exaggerating if not flat-out lying about the role of race in grade school textbooks — all to score some cheap points and motivate right-wing parents in an election year. It would all be so laughable if it wasn’t the tip of an iceberg, a rapidly accelerating national hysteria over books and schools and kids and their teachers that will eventually get some folks killed.

Elsewhere in DeSantis’ Florida, about 100 people protested this weekend at the entrance to Walt Disney World against the parent Disney Corp. The protest started as a political dispute over what can be said about sexuality in a grade-school classroom — what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, crafted to shame LGBTQ+ families — and somehow devolved into baseless, disgusting accusations that employees at the theme park are now “groomers” of young children.

But the great moral panic of 2022 isn’t just confined to Florida, or to Republican “red states.” In fact, the literary group PEN America finds Pennsylvania — which went, narrowly, for President Biden in 2020 — as the No. 2 state for recent efforts to ban books touching on race, gender or sexuality. That climate of fear in the classroom was driven home this weekend when it came out that the Central Bucks School District in the Philadelphia suburbs banned kids from staging the student version of “Rent” — with its sanitized takes on AIDS and sexuality in the New York’s East Village in the 1980s — because of, well, panic over what some politicized parents might say.

On a weekend when the front page of the Washington Post declared that conservatives from Texas to Montana are now waging holy war against America’s public libraries with censorship campaigns and political moves against library boards, the green shoots of a dangerous counterrevolution against free speech are everywhere right now, from local school boards to ornate statehouses. Hiding behind legalistic language, these cultural crusaders are actually winning through rank intimidation of teachers, administrators, and librarians trying to do their jobs. In a violent nation with more guns than people, the increasingly heated verbiage about anyone who opposes them as “groomers,” or attacks young transgender athletes, will surely get someone hurt.

But why this moral panic, and why now? The seeds seem to have been planted in the spring and summer of 2020, when the size, power and — perhaps most important — youth of the George Floyd protest movement, calling out not just police violence but a broader systemic racism, shocked Middle America. Larger than expected marches in rural towns and Rust Belt locales made a lot of Republicans wonder what their kids were learning in their schools — fears that were accelerated by anxiety over classroom mask mandates, and punctuated by the defeat of their savior, Donald Trump.

I think the experience made many on the right see control of the classroom as their last stand, to prevent a conservative and too often racist and sexist culture from being swept into the dustbin of history by the increased tolerance of their own children. Of course, hand-to-hand combat against LGBTQ-friendly books in the school library or a math problem that looks like it’s really about race instead of multiplication is ultimately a war against critical thinking, as well as the foundational idea that education is a public good.

We’ve seen this before. At the end of the 1960s, the movement for liberal education in the college classroom unraveled because America’s youth applied critical thinking to the contradictions of the Vietnam War and racial segregation — fueling not just a conservative backlash but a loss of support for higher education that fuels today’s resentment politics (not to mention runaway tuition). This time, their offensive against knowledge is fighting its way down to through kindergarten, and the stakes are getting too damn high.

Here’s the thing: The majority of Americans — silent, vocal, whatever — do not support what is happening in this country right now. While it’s true that millions will always cling to the paranoid style in politics, there are even more citizens who abhor censorship and the banning of books and plays, who want our public schools to get better instead of dismantled, who want their kids to learn tolerance toward people different from them. We have between now and November for this majority to speak up, to call this allegedly “moral” panic out for what it really is: An Immoral Panic, meant to lock in discrimination. Let’s win by doing the math.

Yo, do this

  • Philly’s creative revival in the 21st century has lured some cool rock bands from Brooklyn to the banks of the Delaware, but also attracted some really smart writers. I’m excited that one of the best of these — local labor journalist Kim Kelly — is out later this month with an exquisitely timed new book: Fight Like Hell: The Untold Story of American Labor. It’s about the nearly forgotten working-class heroes who created the modern U.S. workplace by struggling against impossible odds. It’s a saga that will hopefully inspire the Amazon toilers, Starbucks baristas, and all the others writing the next chapter in real life.

  • In a crazy era dominated by tales of book banning in the hinterlands and insurrection on Capitol Hill, it can be easy to forget the original sin of modern American politics: Millionaire and billionaire cash, corrupting the system with untraceable “dark money” donations. Luckily, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer — whose seminal work on the Koch brothers at the dawn of the 2010s started pouring sunlight into this shadowy world — has stayed on the story. Her latest piece reveals a well-funded but stealth campaign to block every Biden administration nominee, from the Supreme Court to obscure bureaucrats, and it’s a must-read.

Ask me anything

Question: Do you believe Elon Musk really cares about free speech in his effort to take over Twitter? I suspect he would allow Trump and all falsehood voice as free expression. — From Bud Bretschneider via email

Answer: Bud, I wanted to spotlight your question this week a) to remind readers that the best route toward maybe getting your question answered in next week’s newsletter is to hit me up by email at wbunch@inquirer.com and b) because as someone who spends way too much of his day-to-day existence mired in the endless conversation of Twitter, the future of this iconic social media site matters to me, maybe more than it should.

I agree with your basic premise: A successful Twitter takeover by Musk — who somehow is the world’s current richest man even as he often tweets with the emotional depth of a middle-schooler — would be disastrous, because he’s the epitome of a modern view in which “free speech” locks in the power of the wealthiest, at the expense of the marginalized already so often abused in the online world. The good news here is I suspect Musk would rather jack up the stock price and cash in than do the hard work of running the company.

Backstory on Biden’s latest, lamest broken campaign promise

In February 2020, the presidential hopes of Joe Biden looked hopelessly lost in the snows of New Hampshire when the former vice president made a promise meant to melt the hearts of the party’s left wing. “And by the way, no more drilling on federal lands, period,” Biden said, indicating a break from the pro-fracking, pro-fossil fuel policies of the Obama administration. “Period, period, period.” It was one of a number of bold promises from Bidencanceling at least $10,000 of student loan debt was another — that enthused progressives as the party rallied behind Biden and high youth turnout helped the then-77-year-old win that November. And the tougher stance on climate change made sense, since the impacts of a warmer planet were being felt more clearly than during Biden’s first stint in the West Wing. But two years later, it turned out that Biden’s “period, period, period” was apparently followed by an em dash.

This week, with the 46th president’s approval at an all-time low and with many voters enraged over high gas prices, Biden broke that 2020 promise by announcing a resumption of oil and gas leases on public lands. Team Biden defended the move by saying it acknowledged the very different political realities of 2022 — with war in Ukraine and other factors causing pain at the pump for middle-class drivers — while driving a good deal that finally raised the price for leases and also reduced available slots, at a time when fossil-fuel firms aren’t even taking advantage of the leases they already hold. The problem is that the world’s climate crisis is at a point where deal-making and short-term political talking points are exactly NOT what is needed. The world desperately craves moral leadership, to rally behind the latest United Nations report that calls for fossil-fuel use to peak in just three years and then quickly decline to stave off the worst impacts on climate. Biden just sent the wrong message at the wrong time ... again. No wonder young voters are so deeply disappointed.

Recommended Inquirer reading

  • Only one column this week as I enjoyed Easter Sunday with my family. That piece looked at the byzantine Democratic politics of urban Pennsylvania — including a situation here in Philadelphia where party bosses shunned a two-term progressive incumbent woman, state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, to endorse a 28-year-old novice with a history of hailing Trump World on Twitter — and what it says about the bigger struggles on the left side of American politics. Will an old guard clinging to parochial power drive away the young and female voters Dems need to win in November?

  • One of the defining features of American life in the 21st century is the insanely high rate that we lock human beings into cages for prolonged periods of time, especially when compared to other (more?) advanced nations. Yet civil society often ignores the profound consequences of this. Not so in this past Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, where the Currents section took an in-depth look at what it really means to live in a carceral state, under the powerful headline “A Broken System.” The accompanying pieces looked at issues ranging from the dangerous lack of prison staffing, to whether inmates should be allowed to have cell phones, to the question of why more sick and elderly prisoners can’t go home. It’s easy to forget our neighbors living on society’s margins without local journalism to do that work. In Philly, you support that conversation when you subscribe to The Inquirer.