BY RICHARD C. GROSS
“In a democracy, you believe it or not. In a dictatorship, you believe it or else.”
— Evan Esar, American humorist, 1899–1995
When I picked up my grandson from school one recent afternoon, he told me excitedly in the car that he learned that day about ejaculation during a lesson about “puberty” in his fifth-grade class. He lives in the mostly woke Bay Area.
When I asked him whether it was a lesson about sex education, he frowned and assured me, “No. It wasn’t sex education. It was about puberty.” Oh, OK, I replied.
Though I was tempted for the sake of a teaching moment, I skipped elaborating, leaving sex education to his folks. But I was pleased he and his two mid-teen sisters are attending public schools in California, not in uptight, censor-crippled Florida.
That’s where right-wing second-term Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is the commanding general, waging a major widespread war on American culture. The guy went to such liberal bastions as Yale and Harvard Law School and earlier served in the Navy and should know better.
His impressive education doesn’t give him the credentials or a license to crack down on what Florida’s kids should read or be taught about sex, gender, LGBTQ+, transgender and race. But his crusade really has little to do with education and everything to do with far-right politics.
For DeSantis, on the brink of announcing he will run for president in 2024, is using the vulnerable school system to spread his name and conservative credentials among Republicans and the right wing nationally. He needs them to vote for him in the primaries.
Pity the poor kids, teachers, librarians and other Floridians who are DeSantis’ collateral damage. You think this Trump copycat cares? Did Trump care about the damage he wreaked?
His polar opposite on the other side of the country is second term California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, 55, who’s going through his second bout with COVID. He’s slapped at DeSantis, with whom he one day may compete for the presidency.
He wants kids to have the right to decide for themselves about medical care and gender expression. From the San Francisco Chronicle:
“We’re not here debating criminalizing classroom instruction,” he told Sacramento high schoolers recently, standing before a full classroom bookshelf. “We’re not banning books. We were here celebrating the remarkable diversity, regardless of your sexual orientation, making everyone feel included.”
That’s a governor.
This is why I’m delighted my grandkids are in public schools in California, where the woke come to live — a swipe at DeSantis’ Florida, where that governor remarked, that’s where “woke goes to die.” Too many funerals, Mr. DeSantis.
How’s DeSantis doing it, uncontrolled? Easy-peasy when you have a supermajority of Republicans in the legislature. They give DeSantis everything he wants, including the creation of a Handmaid’s state of controlled automatons.
Floridians, both children and adults, have been grappling with declining choices of what they can read because of the banning of such hallmarks of American culture as George Orwell’s “1984,” which PEN America says is the most banned book in the country.
Another far-right target is the popular “Catcher in the Rye,” one of my favorites I’ve read three times, first as a kid.
Catcher has been canceled by schools and public libraries for having “excess vulgar language, sexual scenes, things concerning moral issues, excessive violence and anything dealing with the occult” and “communism,” says the American Library Association.
Doesn’t the Bible include most of those forbidden subjects?
PEN America, which seeks to protect free expression nationwide and globally, said there were 2,532 instances of individual books banned in American schools between July 2021 and June 2022 affecting 1,648 titles of books written by 1,261 authors. It’s as if the Taliban lived here.
The bans “reflect the work of a growing number of advocacy organizations that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission,” PEN wrote. Not individuals, organizations.
You can bet these are embraced by DeSantis and his ilk because what they want banned is commensurate with what they don’t like for themselves or their kids. Never mind everybody else, who are in the majority.
The radical playbook of the governor — who says weirdly the Russo-Ukrainian war is a mere “territorial dispute” — to rid his state of liberal influences such as academic freedoms has spread nationally to the College Board. Rather than fight the far-right, the board decided recently to restrict what can be taught in a new advanced placement course on Black studies.
So, how are Black students and those interested in the Black experience expected to learn about Black history, beginning with slavery in 1619, long before the country was founded?
So, no teaching or classroom discussions about police brutality, the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s or Black Lives Matter? None of these controversial issues existed in exceptionally racist America?
Liberals and others unhappy with what DeSantis is doing have begun grumbling in public.
The March 6 edition of The New Yorker ran a cover by editorial cartoonist Barry Blitt showing DeSantis sharpening a carving knife over a butcher block with an open book waiting to be disemboweled. A stack of five books of various thickness is on the side. The title: “The Florida Book-of-the-Month Club.”
John Oliver, host of “Last Week Tonight” on HBO, had some harsh words for the governor:
“If you were forced to learn about Ron DeSantis from scratch, with no basis for comparison, what you would see would justifiably horrify you. Because you’d be discovering a petty autocrat and a bully, a man with no interest in hearing dissent, questions. . . . And all in all a man who is, and I do not use this term lightly, just a fucking meatball.”
I don’t know who DeSantis thinks he is, but a selfish program — or, better, pogrom — against freedom cannot stand. My hope is that all of these far-right controls on freedom will be deleted by the courts.
If not, DeSantis could broaden his despicable statewide campaign nationwide if he ever is elected president. He’d better not be.
Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East, the Pentagon and was foreign editor of United Press International, was the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.