'Anti-woke' crusaders came for my grandfather 50 years ago
Photo by Gülfer ERGİN on Unsplash
On April 22nd, 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 7 (popularly called the “Stop WOKE” Act). Christopher Rufo then took to the podium. After praising the Governor and the bill, Rufo denounced Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools on three points: CRT segregates students based on race, teaches white heterosexual males that they are fundamentally oppressive, and paints America as a place where racial minorities have no possibility of success.

While the bogeyman of CRT is a new iteration, Rufo's objections fit into the long history of the politics of American education. Like his predecessors, Rufo misrepresents ideas critical of conservative hegemony in order to maintain it. “I am quite intentionally,” Rufo tweeted, “redefining what ‘critical race theory’ means in the public mind, expanding it as a catchall for the new orthodoxy. People won’t read Derrick Bell, but when their kid is labeled an ‘oppressor’ in first grade, that’s now CRT.” But if the public does read Bell, they will see the fallacious humbug Rufo has concocted. “America offers something real for black people,” Bell writes in Silent Covenants, “...the pragmatic approach that we must follow is simply to take a hard-eyed view of racism as it is, and of our subordinate role in it. We must realize with our slave forebears that the struggle for freedom is, at bottom, a manifestation of our humanity that survives and grows stronger through resistance to oppression even if we never overcome that oppression.” Rufo’s deliberate obfuscation of CRT furthers the American lost cause of white resentment. Attaching the politics of education to the politics of whiteness places Rufo’s actions within a longer historical pattern.

In 1972, Search for Freedom: America and Its People came up for review at a public hearing in Texas for statewide textbook adoption. Noted Texan conservatives Mel and Norma Gabler derided the fifth-grade social studies text for several reasons. First, they alleged, it questioned American values and patriotism. Second, it encouraged civil disobedience. Third, it championed Robin Hood economics (taxing the rich and giving to the poor). Fourth, it committed blasphemy for comparing the ideas of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King with those attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Fifth, it glorified Andy Warhol and, worst of all, only mentioned George Washington in passing but devoted six-and-a-half pages to Marilyn Monroe. After the hearing, the Texas legislators agreed with the Gablers’ objections and effectively banned the textbook from Texas classrooms. Because of Texas's outsized role in textbook adoption, the textbook did not make it into any other classrooms.

William Jay Jacobs, my grandfather, wrote the book.

My personal connection to this history helps me see how Rufo carries the Gablers’ legacy into the twenty-first century. Acting as guardians of the American republic, Rufo and the Gablers turn complex ideas into soundbites and use those soundbites to make claims about radical indoctrination in schools. They portray this indoctrination as so dangerous that censorship is the only possible solution. The Gablers and Rufo, in their way, share Plato’s conviction that “the young are not able to distinguish what is and what is not...for which reason, maybe, we should do our utmost that the first stories that they hear should be composed as to bring the fairest lessons of virtue to their ears.” Should any story question or contradict the conservative virtues the Gablers and Rufo hold so dear, “it becomes [their] task, then, it seems, if [they] are able, to select which and what kind of natures are suited for the guardianship of a state.”

In a modern democracy, though, which “lessons of virtue” and who “select[s] which and what kind of natures” should be taught to the young are open for public debate. The Gablers and Rufo have therefore worked to manipulate ideas, and how the public perceives those ideas, to justify both conservative curricula and their roles as legitimate guardians of the common-sense virtures of the American republic.

After the 1972 Search for Freedom hearings, as the right questioned the left’s patriotism and labeled any dissent as anti-American, the Gablers took to the press, seeding sensational soundbites. Headlines shouted: "The Sexy Textbook!" and "More MM than GW!" Mel and Norma then headed to "The Phil Donahue Show" and "60 Minutes" with my grandfather's textbook in hand. Proclaiming themselves as neutral textbook evaluators, they held the book up to the screen and claimed that my grandfather had swapped Marilyn Monroe for Martha Washington as mother of our country. But as my grandfather wrote in a retort,

"Marilyn" made for a good laugh. Yet what better contemporary symbol have we of the potential for barrenness in the American dream when, stripped of its inherent idealism, it is reduced to a mindless groping for money and fame? The Marilyn Monroe sketch raised questions for young readers about mass "spectatorism" and the commercial packaging of human vulnerabilities. It illustrated that not every story beginning with "Once upon a time" necessarily will end with the hero (or heroine) living "happily ever after."

Rather than juxtaposing the moral of my grandfather’s story with their objection, the Gablers simply skipped over my grandfather’s critical rendition of the American dream and turned it instead into made-for-TV moral panic. They used live television to warn the American public that dangerous ideas were in their textbooks. The Gablers posture—as common-sense Americans shocked by outrageous lessons—spoke to conservative Americans and encouraged them to join their effort to prevent subversive ideas from entering classrooms.

Before Rufo spoke on the podium with DeSantis, he began his crusade on Fox News with Tucker Carlson. On live television, Rufo claimed that CRT “has pervaded every institution in the federal government.” He further proclaimed, “I’ve discovered… that critical race theory has become in essence the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy and is now being weaponized against the American people.” With a captivated, frown-eyed Carlson watching, Rufo explicated findings from three “investigations” that purported to “show the kind of depth of this critical race theory occult indoctrination and the danger and destruction it can wreak.” First, he presented snippets from a seminar led by Howard Ross, who asked treasury department employees “to accept their white privilege...and accept all of the baggage that comes with this reducible essence of whiteness.” Second, Rufo described a weekly seminar on intersectionality held by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which aimed “to determine whether you are an oppressor or oppressed.” Third, Rufo detailed a “three-day re-education camp,” sponsored by the Sandia National Laboratories, to “deconstruct their white male culture and actually force them to write letters of apology to women and people of color.”

Rufo ended his diatribe with a call to action: “conservatives need to wake up that this is an existential threat to the United States...I call on the president to immediately issue this executive order and stamp out this destructive divisive pseudoscientific ideology at its root.” With his hyperbolic language, his tying CRT to anything that criticized the power of white American males, and his call for conservatives to “wake up” to defeat an “existential threat,” Rufo put his telegraphed approach to work.

The Carlson interview aired on the first of September; by the 4th a memo was sent by the Trump administration stating, “...according to press reports, employees across the Executive Branch have been required to attend trainings where they are told that ‘virtually all White people contribute to racism or where they are required to say that they ‘benefit from racism’.”

Extracting CRT from the halls of academia and claiming to find its pernicious presence across all federal agencies, Rufo and Carlson brewed moral panic to transform CRT into an existential bogeyman who was coming to destroy white America. In both cases, the Gablers and Rufo used television to gain support for their cause. They turned critical ideas of American society into a demon that must be slayed. By inflating distant employee training sessions and fifth-grade social studies textbooks into a vast anti-white, anti-American conspiracy, they encouraged viewers to see schools as a nearby battle front, they could, and must, fight on.

In an article titled “Ideological Book Banning is Rampant Nationally,” published in the Washington Post on October 16th, 1983, Alison Muscatine reported the following:

"Our children are totally controlled," said Norma Gabler, displaying a social studies textbook that devotes six pages to Marilyn Monroe but that makes only three references to George Washington. "Can you imagine a sex symbol being given more time than the father of our country? I don't think it's fair that our children be subjected to this kind of information. They are being totally indoctrinated to one philosophy.”

To try to fight the alleged indoctrination, the Gablers created the Educational Research Analysts—an explicitly Christian conservative organization--to review, revise, and censor any textbook that ran counter to their vision of what American children should be taught. In their attempt to guard the American child from subversive stories, the Gablers claimed children were being “totally indoctrinated to one philosophy.” Their censorious actions, however, did more to indoctrinate American children to one way of seeing the world than did my grandfather’s parable on Marilyn Monroe. Citing indoctrination, the Gablers justified their censorship to preserve their version of America as the only legitimate story American children should read.

Although Rufo himself has not censored textbooks, his actions led to legislation that did. The Florida Department of Education published a press release labeled “Florida Rejects Publishers’ Attempts to Indoctrinate Students.” In 5,895 pages, the department details two reasons for rejecting 41 percent of the textbooks that were reviewed. The textbooks either followed Common Core Standards (which the Florida Department of Education rejects), or the textbooks included CRT (defined, of course, in Rufo’s expansive terms). Like the Gablers, the Florida textbook evaluators assume controversial ideas in a text will indoctrinate the children reading them. Again, the Gablers and Rufo posture as guardians standing against a radical activist agenda, not as censors. They both throw their hands up, sit, and watch as other citizens act upon their calls to censor ideas. And when others call them censorious zealots, they simply dodge the charges by claiming they themselves did not censor ideas, even though their actions clearly encouraged others to do so.

In an exposé on the Gablers, Mel details how they understand this guardianship. “‘When they eliminate good books and put garbage in, they are the censors,’ he said. ‘All we do is point it out’.” Because they only reported the textbooks to the Texas Education Agency, the Gablers did not see themselves as censors. Semantically, they may be right. Practically, however, the Gablers’ actions effectively “canceled” certain ideas. Forget merit; for the Gablers, an idea should only be taught if it fits into an understanding of “good books” that happens to coincide with their conservative worldview. The good books argument is akin to the argument Plato’s Socrates makes in the Republic. Namely, those who have the power and guard the republic are the rightful persons to decide which stories and thereby which virtues the future guardians should learn. The problem is, however, neither the Gablers nor any other single entity in a modern democratic state has the sole right to decide what the next generation ought to know.

On Twitter, Rufo evoked this exact line of reasoning. He wrote, “there are no ‘book bans’ in America. Authors have a First Amendment right to publish whatever they want, but public libraries and schools are not obligated to subsidize them. Voters get to decide which texts—and ultimately, which values—public institutions transmit to children.” Rufo is right, to a point. The voters do make those decisions but do so, presumably, by understanding good faith arguments on both sides of an issue. But Rufo’s sensationalized, bad faith reporting—which turned CRT into something it is wholly not—prevents voters, especially children, from seeing both sides of the issue and forming their own opinion. Positioning himself as defender of America, Rufo’s reporting turns progressive ideas into anti-American rhetoric to excite the conservative base to enact censorship.

Let me be clear, the difference between the Gablers and Rufo is one of degree, not kind. The Gablers aimed at textbooks while Rufo aims at a broad and diffuse set of ideas and practices that are now dubbed “wokeness.” The Gablers raised hell at textbook adoption meetings while Rufo raises hell on the internet. Both position themselves as protectors against supposedly subversive ideas. Both (along with Plato), however, fall into the same faulty assumption. Critical or not, ideas do not simply transmit to children. Children, like adults, can reason. Thus, children--not just books, not just ideas--shape how they understand the world they live in.

In his response editorial, my grandfather leaves us with a prescient insight:

Meanwhile, it’s comforting to know that the issue of book banning continues to generate controversy. It means that at least someone, somewhere, still takes the written word seriously as a means of influencing the minds of young people.

Max Antonio Allen Jacobs is a PhD student at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, where he studies the history of education. Max also teaches middle school philosophy at George Jackson Academy.