By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump’s main challenger for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has been proudly gagging free speech … in the name of freedom.
While promoting his ironically titled new book The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival, DeSantis recently had people carrying Trump signs threatened with arrest at one of his book-signing appearances. But the governor’s claim to fame, though, is working to make his state the place “where Woke goes to die.”
Intended by Black activists to mean awareness of social injustice, “woke” has been rebranded by radical conservatives as a hysterically unfounded insensitivity to mostly perceived slights. For them, ‘tis better not to look too closely at what has been going on in this country.
So DeSantis has moved Florida to limit what can be taught in Advanced Placement courses in African American Studies. He’s replaced the president at the state-funded New College of Florida while adding six right-wingers to its Board of Trustees. He also continues to punish Disney, a private corporation that gets tax breaks from the state, for speaking out against a Florida law that forbids public classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity to kids in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Calling Florida’s moves, “the most ambitious reform to higher education in a half-century,” DeSantis advisor and New College trustee Christopher Rufo tweeted, “Gov. DeSantis is channeling the sentiment of the voters, who have demanded that taxpayer dollars stop subsidizing left-wing racialist ideology and partisan political activism. Democracy returns.”
It’s worth noting that Rufo is one of the driving forces behind the Critical Race Theory under every bed mania that has consumed the right.
These so-called “education” reforms are partisan political activism, too, and basically another prong in the longtime conservative effort to do things like defund National Public Radio on the grounds that tax dollars shouldn’t be given to any organization that promotes predominantly biased (i.e. center-liberal) views.
The battleground is the public sector. At stake are which views dominate there. Any talking head or politician who claims to speak for “the American people” might want to note that this country is severely polarized.
In North Dakota, West Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, Montana, Iowa, Wyoming, Missouri and Indiana, laws are being proposed and passed by DeSantis-style Republicans to restrict what books public schools and libraries can stock. Most often, the subjects are race and gender.
Violations can result in criminal charges based on a dangerous — and I assume intentionally — nebulous criteria of “objectionable” and “harmful to children.”
What is actually harmful and to what degree should be a subject of thoughtful debate, not vague charges of “grooming” and “indoctrination.” Anyone can object to anything, and folks on the right are displaying the kind of oversensitivity they accuse liberals of harboring. Even honest, gently couched observations about how races and genders behave and interact are seen as a hateful rhetoric and intentionally divisive.
So in the name of “small government” that does not intrude on people’s lives, we are getting serious government intrusion into the freedom to share one’s lived experiences and heritage, and to even discuss one’s reproductive rights. In states such as Texas and Tennessee, doctors are now forbidden to speak to patients about abortion or gender-affirming care.
This hypocrisy and lack of principle is a useful tool for carving out an agenda and it permeates the right’s complaints about cancel culture … as if conservatives aren’t actively trying to cancel transgender people, drag shows, and the careers of anyone else who objects to what passes for conservatism these days.
Free speech as demanded by the radical right has no sense of propriety and place. Republicans like DeSantis assail what long-oppressed minorities have to say while eagerly defending the Second Amendment rights of bigots. Their likely candidate for President, Donald Trump, openly dines with anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers. And I don’t know about you, but I have a problem with white people deciding how Black people and other groups should feel and think about the way they have been and still are being treated.
It’s seriously debatable whether equity, inclusion and diversity are as harmful as racism, sexism and homophobia, but everyone is still free to speak as they wish in their own homes and public places (as long as they don’t incite violence). And everyone has the right to toss someone out of their homes or businesses if they object to what is said. While you have the the right to have me removed from your home if you don’t like my racist or antisemitic rants, I am still allowed to say them in other places. I have not been cancelled, just moved–like a Confederate statue from a public park to a private museum.
That’s supposed to be the American way of allowing competing viewpoints to exist. But even private restrictions are being decried as tyranny, depending on who is doing the restricting of course. And when it comes to restricting, Ron DeSantis and his ilk are working overtime … in the name of freedom.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.