Critical Race Theory

In the news, the military wants to learn about Critical Race Theory, which has triggered Matt Gaetz (I’m using the word in the same way he does, not the way anyone who’s experienced it would).

Before we get into the thick of it; I should point out that I usually write as a form of self-therapy (it’s a trick I learned as a cancer survivor; writing about upsetting stuff — which I’ll get to in a second — helps one process, absorb, analyze, and accept it)(M. McConnell should consider keeping a diary). In this capacity, I’d like to discuss my usual metaphor for the events of the last six months is that Doc and Marty got the Sports Almanac, and all the subsequent, strange events have been the result of the universe fading and annealing. In light of this bizarre twist, in which the USMC wants to learn the nation’s real history and they’re being forbidden by the GOP (hang on; I thought the Democratic Party was supposed to be the fascist censors, not the other way around), it is beyond-weird that I support the troops more than Republican Congressmen. I should point out that I have no problems with the military, apart from it being bloated, overfunded, and a tool of colonialism. Still, it’s a helluva weird flip to go from, “The military is an inherently problematic institution, but possibly a necessary one, and we’ll look into it later” to “Go get some, jarheads! Get that Master’s in Asian Culture! And then shell the Taliban, just because!” (I’m aware Milley is a soldier, not a marine, but he used the naval academy as an example). It’s like finding out that there is a God, and she’s actually Maggie Smith — a pleasant surprise, to be sure, but also shocking and weird as hell. I’m forced to rethink the metaphor; it’s like Doc and Marty got the Sports Almanac, but then replaced with pornography from 2783, and now the universe has become some weird, Kafka-esque experimental film. Or something. I don’t know how to process this sudden shift in how things work — again, I am now, for some reason, more pro-military than the Republican Party Chair. It’s aggressively weird, surreal, and off-putting, to say the least. I mean, it beats being a war boy for Immortan Joe, but it’s confusing.

So, for everyone outside of my skull, it’s likely you didn’t learn the exact, historically-accurate version of history. This shouldn’t surprise you; if you look at how the Russians present World War 2 in their schools — it’s called the Great Patriotic War. I’m certain that term probably appears in American textbooks, but only in the “Hey, isn’t it nifty that the Russians called antifa action ‘The Great Patriotic War? I bet the marines had a swell time on Guadalcanal!” kind of way. Most combat vets I know would not describe combat in those glowing terms, but you get the idea — there is a sort of collective white-washing of our own history.

Classic case in point, in the fourth grade, we learned about the Sioux, who roamed the plains with Lewis and Clark. Just one issue right away — the people that term describes are actually the Lakota; “Sioux” is an Ojibwe (another, larger tribe) slur (for everyone wondering, yes, minorities can absolutely oppress each other without whitey’s help, but we turn that up to 11). Calling a Lakota person “Sioux” is kind of an insult, and my primary school teachers didn’t inform us what a slur is, so, I could’ve unintentionally made some truly insensitive statements before Google educated me. I only know this because my schools had a weird underground network for properly teaching the un-whitewashed version of history (it’s a long story, we’ll get there).

At some point, whenever we discuss education, we’ll have to discuss Texas, which is, well, either on fire or frozen, depending on the weather. The Texas School System buys more textbooks than any other state, so they get to unilaterally set national standards on a variety of educational issues. The reason the sex ed section of your health textbook didn’t have adequate anatomical illustrations detailing how condoms work is probably because one of the Texas School Board members found them too disgusting. And, apparently, in the American history section of fourth grade history books, someone decided an ethnic slur white people wouldn’t catch (but the Lakota and Ojibwe kids would) was fine. So, like so many of America’s sins, the woeful inadequacy and cultural illiteracy that characterizes American education is the direct result of rich, white Texans who value obedience and gullibility over knowledge and skepticism. Who cares about the brown people we massacred! They were on our rightful land! So, the indigenous folx got ten pages of fluff before we went on to the Mission Project. I feel I should warn my LDS and Evangelical friends this is 900% less cool than the name sounds, and we’ll get there in a bit.

Before we learn about that, I should point out that, although there were a few Asian kids in my school system (we’ll get there), about 20–30% of the town was indigenous. And, because we hadn’t massacred them before human rights were invented, I went to school with quite a few of them. This subject is, if taught properly, truly traumatic, but destroyed indigenous kids. A quick review of history; mass slaughter and genocide are not the exception in history. In point of fact, the only reason we know about the Holocaust in Europe (as opposed to the Mongol invasions that killed millions)(or the Huns’ conquest of Eastern Europe)(or the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire) is because it was one of the most-recent, most-documented genocides we know of. But even the Boer Concentration Camps (that’s Britain vs Dutch settlers)(you know it’s gonna be a nightmarish epilogue when two invading powers fight each other before turning their attention to the natives) of the early 20th century were not the prototype. The prototype model of this systemic, industrialized genocide would be the Mission System, and these places made Treblinka look like a day spa. These were, essentially, outposts, nominally there to convert indigenous people to the way of the one, true God; but, in reality, it was more like a medieval gulag — a forced labour camp under the most-favorable view; a death camp when viewed from the victims.

How do you teach that to nine-year-olds? Why would anyone teach that to nine-year-olds, is a better question. Unfortunately, my school focused on the former, and not the latter, and, the best way to teach about massive genocide that still indirectly impacts a quarter of the class was to focus on the architecture and political importance of these monuments to racial hatred, or so our school board thought. Oh, and we had to make models of them. Imagine the insensitivity of requiring Jewish American students to make models of Nuremburg (the Nazi seat of power), and you can get an idea of how unbelievably inappropriate this is.

My mother, who enjoys combining brutality and honesty (she also has a Master’s in history), made me do that project as historically-accurately as possible (sort of; we stopped short of including figures of priests whipping indigenous kids to death in the diorama). It was a truly soul-killing experience; I can not begin to imagine how traumatic it was for my indigenous classmates to make a weird cardboard shrine to the people who murdered their great-grand-parents, at the behest of white teachers and principals. So, I totally agree with the GOP that maybe it wouldn’t be appropriate to teach nine-year-olds the completely unvarnished truth about history, but, much like Santa Claus, there’s a time when that belief becomes, at best, misguided, and, at worst, detrimental to one’s life. Actively distorting history either by white-washing or omitting more-embarrassing episodes from the curriculum is how we get M. Greene apologizing on-camera for lying about the Holocaust.

Thanks to a visible indigenous population and location (I literally lived in the same zipcode where Piper v Board of Education happened), and about 50 miles away from the Manzanar internment camp, there really wasn’t a way to escape reminders of the sins of our past. Well, you could ignore them, but that would take a significant set of mental blinders. I’ll admit, there was a bit of sugar-coating around Manzanar, but you can not visit the site and say, “Yeah, this was a happy place.” Remember the aforementioned Asian kids? Yeah, they were in that community because their grandparents and great-grandparents were imprisoned there. When you see the scars history leaves on us, you start to understand why your AP Literature class is 95% white. Again, it’s worthwhile to remember, I had to figure all of this out as an extra-curricular activity (and, after a certain point, learning the awful truth about what rotten characters the Constitutional Framers were becomes almost subversive; so, yeah, the GOP can ban history, but that will work about as well as attempts to ban rock and rap music, or violent video games, or drugs — it just makes the activity a little cooler to those inclined to casual rebellion), with the help of some similarly-minded teachers and mentors, who valued history too much to distort it. And, even with some extensive, decades-long mentoring, stuff like the Reconstruction were still in my historical blind-spot.

The way that you square, “My ancestors did truly unforgivable things to my neighbors’ ancestors, and almost all of our country’s founders owned, bought, and sold other human beings” (including Hamilton, who bought and sold slaves, which is a really weird thing to leave out of a musical, but I digress) is by recognizing that their sins aren’t necessarily your own, that they were very much products of their time (and morality at the time was different), and we’ve grown a lot, since then.

I am convinced that it’s not really accurately teaching history that’s so horrifying to the GOP — I mean, I’m sure that’s the lie Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones tell themselves when they’re on-camera, but their employers probably have a different issue with it (and, let’s get one thing clear; Carlson is probably the very last person to be read into Fox News’ corporate strategy), and Rupert Murdoch is probably worried that people might begin to understand that morality is, to some extent, relative. This is anathema to post-Reagan conservatives, because the Christian fundamentalists who brought him into power like moral absolutism. I’m convinced that moral absolutists are more interested in absolutes rather than morality. And, even then, they’re not that wild about absolute morality when it hinders them (my go-to example is the fact that most right-to-life voters support the death penalty, which seems a little incongruous to me). If you want an easily-manipulated population, you can’t have them realizing that the concept of valuing human life is actually an Enlightenment-era development, and maybe our current system of morality needs to be frequently examined and updated. If people start doing that, they’ll start questioning other stuff, like divine right, or the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the ruling class. And, if we’ve come so far since then, maybe we need to go further, which might require reforming our rapacious ruling class. These are all issues Fox News and Mitch McConnell do not want you to consider; they don’t really care if we teach kids about the truth about My Lai. Which brings me to the real moral of today’s story: Whenever you see a person with an obvious investment in the status quo (rich blonde women on television are a subset), you should ask why X activity/noun is really so dangerous to the status quo. And then you should go read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me.



Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Patrick Koske-McBride

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”