Children of the persecuted majority
Anti-trans and anti-”CRT” attack lines are merging on the Christofascist right
In his 1995 essay “Ur-Fascism,” Umberto Eco wrote that the fascist imagines his enemies “at the same time too strong and too weak.” We can see this dynamic at play among members of the U.S. fascist right, who portray their enemies as at once hopelessly effete and shockingly powerful. The “snowflake” and the jackbooted oppressor are one and the same, somehow.
There is no use pointing out the contradiction; it’s a fantasy, not a logical argument. In 2022, we have seen the right wing project that fantasy onto two of its current archetypal villains in public schools: families of transgender children and teachers of “critical race theory.” 1 According to the dominant strain of Texas Republicanism, parents who affirm their kids’ gender identity are at once weak-willed social media sycophants and violent child abusers. Anti-racist teachers are unwitting victims of “woke decadence,” but they are also dangerous ideologues “attacking what it means to be American.”
These are the battle lines reactionaries chose for the 2021-2022 season, particularly as anti-mask / anti-vax mania winds down, and they seem to believe they are winning. The politicians who embrace one line of attack tend to also embrace the other. In Virginia, for instance, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin narrowly won his 2021 race after campaigning against the CRT bogeyman (though he may owe his victory to the breathtaking mediocrity of his corporate Democrat opponent) and has since fought to remove mentions of gender from sex education curricula.
As conservative bill mills churn out anti-trans and anti-CRT model legislation for Republican lawmakers to copy and paste into their dockets, some on the fascist vanguard are merging the two campaigns into a single line of attack. Christopher Rufo, the thinktank creature who claims credit for launching the CRT panic on cable news, seems gleeful at the development. Here’s how he summed up the recent clash between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the culturally liberal Walt Disney Corporation over Florida’s impending “Don’t Say Gay” law:
Ron DeSantis believes the government should not sexualize kindergarteners.
Disney believes America is fundamentally racist, separates employees into racially-segregated groups, and encourages them to support "defund the police."
Take your pick.
What we are seeing in statehouses across the country is more than just a culture war. The Texas mandate requiring priests and teachers to report trans kids to Child Protective Services was “designed to weaponize a child’s support system against them,” as M.K. Anderson wrote in The Bias last week. As thousands of Texas families have gone into hiding, one Dallas family told the Houston Chronicle this week they are being targeted by state terrorism from CPS.
“Have you considered how painfully necessary it is to have a stack of documents, drawings, photographs, and letters collected to prove that you love your kids, in case the state ever tries to take them away?” wrote parents Amber and Adam Briggle, who are fighting to protect their transgender son Max. “Parents of trans kids know this all too well.”
In less directly violent ways, 2 anti-CRT laws aim to turn teachers’ support systems against them too. Virginia parents are encouraged to narc on subversive teachers via the governor’s tip line; a wave of “curriculum transparency” bills seeks to allow constant public scrutiny of lesson plans; Texas school librarians have been tasked with tallying the price tag of forbidden books on their shelves; one bill proposed in Florida would even allow districts to install surveillance cameras in classrooms to monitor the content of their lessons.
Here in South Carolina, top Republicans in the state Department of Education could have predicted the anti-CRT and anti-LGBTQIA+ crowds would find common cause. I know this because I’ve read the emails 3 South Carolina Education Superintendent Molly Spearman received during the peak of the Fox News anti-CRT blitz in May-June 2021.
Here is part of an email Spearman received on May 25, 2021:
Hire new teachers/administration. Those that are NOT for CRT or the LQBTP – This should NOT be taught in school and any teacher that supports this should be fired and new teachers hired in their place.
Here’s one from June 2, 2021:
CRT is a Marxist theory and will only cause further division in the hearts and minds of people young and old. This cannot become a part of the curriculum in schools in SC. We must also keep LGBT teaching out of our school systems! I am not against equality and kind treatment of all, but we cannot allow these types of subject matter into our schools!
June 9, 2021:
My children attend public schools in South Carolina. At this time I am ashamed at how South Carolina schools are handling Critical Race Theory and transgenders in our schools. Although two bills have surfaced to combat both of these very important issues, neither was passed.
These were some of the constituent concerns fresh in Spearman’s mind when she published a blanket denunciation of critical race theory last June without pausing to define the term.
A South Carolina House committee has been holding hearings this month on five bills that would restrict the speech of teachers on matters of race and history. Bolstering the case for those bills, Spearman testified in a hearing that she had received “several hundred complaints” of “CRT being taught in the classroom.” (I’m looking into that.)
One of the bills, H. 4605, is a sort of omnibus repression act. In addition to banning teaching that causes “psychological distress” or “discomfort” to white students, the bill forbids teachers from requiring students to affirm the following concepts:
(a) the existence of genders other than male and female and gender fluidity;
(b) nonbinary pronouns, honorifics, or related speech;
(c) unconscious or implicit bias; or
(d) that race and sex are social constructs.
The bill includes elements of Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill, and it even mimics Virginia’s idea of a tip line where parents can report teachers to higher authorities for discipline.
Anjene Davis, a Charleston County educator (and friend of the Brutal South podcast), spoke during a 6-hour House committee hearing Tuesday in opposition to the anti-truth bills. I asked for impressions of the ordeal, and he wrote back: “In a nutshell, many of the proponents of these bills are still attempting to make the definition of critical race theory very fluid. There is also this stain of homophobia and transphobia that is emanating from proponents of these bills.”
Another person who stuck around to the bitter end of Tuesday’s hearings was Corazon Stegelin, a 26-year-old native Charlestonian.
Stegelin, who uses they/them pronouns, started off by explaining that they are intersex and nonbinary — basic facts about their identity that they would not be allowed to discuss in a state-funded facility under items (a) and (b) of the bill. When Stegelin took a sex education class in high school, the teacher was prohibited from talking about LGBTQIA+ people except in the context of sexually transmitted infections.
“Do not legislate us out of public life,” Stegelin said to the committee members Tuesday.
Stegelin is a volunteer gender justice advocacy fellow with the South Carolina Women’s Rights & Empowerment Network (WREN) and a member of the Themme Fatales, a group of advocates who use variations on they/them pronouns. I called them yesterday to hear more about the fight.
Stegelin said there were some telling moments during the hearings in the Statehouse this month, like when a speaker claimed the + symbol in LGBTQIA+ stood for pedophiles and nobody on the committee corrected the record. At another point, a Republican on the committee questioned a teacher about whether they would share their political beliefs with a class (the answer was no) and whether they would disclose their sexual orientation to the class (the answer was yes).
“[She] definitely looked like she had cornered this testifier and gotten the response that she wanted, equating someone’s political ideology — which is a choice — to someone’s sexual identity — which is not a choice,” Stegelin said. “It definitely seemed to push the rhetoric that the queers are pushing some sort of agenda. It was unsettling.”
I asked Stegelin what they made of the confluence of attacks on the teaching of Black history and the rights of LGBTQIA+ people. They had some ideas:
“I wonder if there was some sort of notion in the creators of these bills that if they were pushing only racism, it wouldn’t get through — but here, let’s tack on the LGBTQIA+ community and outrage a different set of folks, and maybe get everything passed through that way,” they said.
“I think the fact that they are bucking so hard against BIPOC and LGBTQIA folks maybe means that we are making progress.”
Looking back on the United States in the 1970s, the German liberation theologian Dorothee Sölle saw a global capitalist superpower with its confidence wounded by an oil crisis and a military defeat in Vietnam.
“The extreme Right has a ready answer for all that: it demands a politics of strength, not of justice. The conservatives united by blaming liberalism for all the problems it neither could solve nor wanted to solve,” Sölle wrote in her seminal 1990 essay “Christofascism.”
Christofascism was a term she coined to describe the civil religion that blossomed alongside neoconservatism. She watched a lot of televangelists in the 1980s, spent a lot of time pondering the popular theologians of the era, and came up with a list of values that defined Christofascism.
The first value was “the moral superiority of the United States,” which justified the country’s role as a nuclear-armed, napalm-spewing military juggernaut. The second value was hard work and, in the inverse, the demonization of those “welfare queens” and “unemployables” who were perceived as not working hard enough.
The third pillar of Christofascism was the family:
The third value in the new Christofascist civil religion is the family and, within it, the role of the woman. Being religious means keeping women in the place ordained for them by God. A patriarchal ideology of the family complements an attitude of extreme hostility toward labor unions and a rejection of all social measures. Reagan was a master at playing on the deep-seated anxieties of people caught up in massive technological change. He exploited their fear of inflation and of the loss of jobs and turned it toward a different point — namely, sexuality. It is not the nuclear bomb that threatens our survival; it is love between two men or two women that endangers everything we have achieved! The moral scandal of our time is not the starvation of a million children in the Third World, thanks to our masterly economic planning, but the abortion of unborn life! Unemployment is not the problem; pornography is!
Today we in the U.S. are entering a period of imperial decline after losing another long, brutal, pointless war in Afghanistan, perhaps accompanied by another oil crisis like the one in the 1970s. The civil religion that will numb some of us through the coming years may share the values Sölle observed in Jerry Falwell’s Cold War heyday. It remains to be seen what heresies stick.
One throughline is the fantasy of a persecuted majority. Looking at the modest but rapid gains of marginalized and minoritized groups, certain comfortable, cisgender, Christian white people insist that they are the real victims. The slightest shift toward equality can feel like dispossession to people who once held all the power.
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In this essay I’ll be referring to “critical race theory” not in the sense intended by legal scholars, but in the vernacular sense invented by conservative pundits in the year 2020. My working definition of the latter is “concepts that make white parents feel uncomfortable.”
School board members and teachers have been reporting credible threats of violence since the anti-mask and anti-CRT crusades began in earnest last year.
Last year I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request and received all of the emails Spearman’s office sent or received containing references to CRT between May 20 and June 9, 2021. Her office charged me $79.50 to read them, which several readers graciously pitched in to pay. You can read all of the emails and a summary of my findings here.
This February, Spearman testified in a House hearing about anti-CRT bills that she had received “several hundred complaints” of “CRT being taught in the classroom.” I filed a FOIA request to see them, and her office sent me an invoice for $318. If you happen to know a good FOIA lawyer who wants a slam dunk case … hit me up.