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Opinion Ron DeSantis, ‘Don’t say gay,’ and the new GOP ‘snitch culture’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

The GOP proposals sweeping the country that restrict the teaching of race have an obvious purpose: to make teachers feel perpetually on thin ice, so they shy away from difficult discussions about our national past rather than risk breaking laws in ways they cannot themselves anticipate.

But there’s another, more pernicious goal driving these bills that might well succeed politically precisely because it remains largely unstated. The darker underlying premise here is that these bills are needed in the first place, because subversive elements lurk around every corner in schools, looking to pervert, indoctrinate or psychologically torture your kids.

Firmly establishing this premise as true — as the basis for moral panic — is itself the key to this broader campaign. Two developments in the school wars drive this home.

First, a new battle has erupted between the White House and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), now that DeSantis has signaled support for what critics are calling the “Don’t say gay” bill advancing in the Florida legislature. The bill would restrict classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, and President Biden just slammed it as “hateful.”

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Second, a new GOP proposal in West Virginia would establish a tip line for parents to report teachers caught proselytizing about critical race theory. After a similar tip line was instituted in Virginia, this suggests the mania for mechanisms to rat out offending teachers may be spreading.

The Florida “Don’t say gay” bill prohibits school districts from encouraging “discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” that is not “age appropriate” or “developmentally appropriate.”

In response to critics who argue this would stigmatize LGBTQ people, supporters insist it wouldn’t prohibit such discussions if they arise. But the bill doesn’t define what is “age-appropriate” or “developmentally appropriate.”

This is likely to leave teachers fearing that if they do engage such a discussion, parents might decide it’s not age-appropriate and object. DeSantis underscored the absurdity here, declaring it’s “entirely inappropriate” for teachers to have such conversations, which seems to give away the bill’s goal of making teachers feel on thin ice when such discussions do come up.

In that regard, it’s important to note that the bill also would allow parents to bring legal action against school districts, in which courts could “award damages.” As a PEN America report documents, many proposals across the country require punitive action against teachers and give parents such a right of action.

They also suffer from vague drafting. Some would prohibit teaching materials that merely “include” various “concepts,” such as the notions that the United States was “founded” as a “racist” nation and is “irredeemably” racist, or concepts that might cause “discomfort,” or even “anti-American” ideologies. It’s reasonable to think certain civil rights and abolitionist tracts might run afoul of such directives.

Which brings us to the new West Virginia bill, which would require the state to set up a tip line for parents to report sightings of teachers who smuggle critical race theory (the idea that racial disparities are baked into law and institutions) into discussions.

The chief sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Michael Azinger (R), gave away the game in an exchange with a local news outlet. Azinger suggested that “negative” teachings of U.S. history must be monitored, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Then this happened:

REPORTER: You don’t think that racism played a part in U.S. history?
AZINGER: If you want [to ask] a loaded question, you can do that.

It’s a “loaded question” to ask how far teachers can go in discussing our racial past in the face of state restrictions on these discussions? The vagueness is the whole point.

Here’s the rub: It’s the combination of this vagueness and punitive mechanisms such as rights of action and tip lines that is the problem. And proposals for tip lines are proliferating.

It goes without saying that there’s nothing wrong with parents being kept apprised of what’s happening in classrooms, and having input into it. But that’s not what’s going on here. Instead, precisely because teachers might fear that they can’t anticipate how they might run afoul of the law — while also fearing punishment for such transgressions — they might skirt difficult subjects altogether.

The deeper idea here is to advance the underlying premise that parents should fear a shadowy, hard-to-define, menacingly all-pervasive subversive element within. A bill in New Hampshire puts this into writing, barring advocacy of “subversive doctrines,” which is supposed to make you fear your child is at risk of being exposed to them.

Florida-based strategist Rick Wilson, who has broken with the GOP and knows from within how Republicans prosecute such culture wars, calls this a new “snitch culture” that’s taking hold of his former party.

“They want teachers to be scared in the classroom,” Wilson says. “We’re going to see test cases … all over this country.” As Wilson notes, the entire point is to put the base on high alert for “apostasy.”

The roots of this run deep. As a great episode of the “Know Your Enemy” podcast details, calls for maximal parental choice and control in schools have been used by the right for decades as a smoke screen to sow fears and doubts about public education at its ideological foundations. The move from restricting race discourse to more “snitch” lines is perfectly in sync with that history.

If you pay close attention not just to the language of these bills but also to the unstated premises they are trying to advance, you can see this happening all over again.

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