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Stalinism Finds a Beachhead in Idaho

By Marty Trillhaase / The Lewiston Tribune

“The physical eradication of Stalin’s political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence.” — David King in the introduction to his book The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia / Open Culture

A debate has flared up recently about ‘Critical Race Theory’ or ‘Social Justice’ being taught in schools in the US. I personally think that much of the ‘controversy’ regarding this is largely ‘manufactured’ or ‘contrived’ and pushed by politically-motivated and well-funded special interest groups under the guise of ‘freedom’ or ‘limited government’ as part of a larger effort to de-fund public education and privatize it (I cover this in more depth here: Manufacturing Controversy in Idaho).

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is nothing new and has been around for decades, but it seems to have been suddenly thrust into the mainstream debate within the last year or so and branded as public enemy #1 by its critics who call it Marxist ideology or some sort of communist conspiracy ‘pushed’ by liberals and Democrats in an effort to make students ‘hate America’. I don’t doubt that liberals and Democrats tend to be more supportive of CRT, but to confuse it with Marxism or some sort of nefarious plot is just silly in my opinion.

I’m not an expert in CRT, but from what I have read and researched, it’s essentially about honestly critiquing the role race and race relations have had in shaping our culture and history, and learning to identify and address how this history has contributed to implicit biases and shaped our society. My understanding of it, is that it’s essentially about becoming ‘literate’ in our country’s history of race relations and racism—both the good and the ugly. To me, it seems to be an attempt at honesty—honesty in teaching the truth about past history, no matter how uncomfortable that might be.

Some of the more uncomfortable truths about America’s history run counter to the ‘myth’ of America. I would argue that what has ‘traditionally’ been taught in schools as history is in fact a largely inaccurate or one-sided portrayal that aims to bask and celebrate certain things while downplaying or ignoring others. I think that a large majority of people that oppose CRT take issue with the fact that it doesn’t always agree with this ‘mythical’ America which often manifests itself in irrational jingoism, where any criticism or any discussion of past transgressions is immediately regarded as ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘hating freedom’.

The USA has a history of slavery. Fact. The USA has a history of marginalizing and depriving indigenous people of their rights, lands, and lives (i.e. The Trail of Tears). The US has a history of exploiting and treating migrant workers poorly (i.e. Chinese laborers who built the country’s railroads). The USA interned citizens of Japanese descent in camps during WWII. The USA has a history of segregation and Jim Crow laws. Racist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan have (unfortunately) enjoyed immense social and political powers at certain times in the country’s history. There is also a history to be celebrated, like the efforts to end slavery, and the Civil Rights movement. But that doesn’t mean that the long-term effects of segregationist and racism-based policies have magically vanished. Though the laws might have been changed, the marginalisation of groups of people has a huge effect on them, with consequences that can last decades, even centuries. I think CRT is an effort to acknowledge this, and to teach the truth about the bad and the ugly, along with the good and the progress that has been made.

The way I see it, one of the main aims of education is to learn to think critically, and evaluate. I’m not saying that CRT is perfect and that we shouldn’t discuss/debate it. I think there are a great many debates to be had. But, we should teach the good along with the bad. What I find ironic is that a lot of critics of CRT accuse it of ‘censorship’ or of being anti-American. They would prefer if only the mythological version of America is taught, where the USA has only ever been a beacon of freedom and righteousness, with absolutely nothing wrong having ever been done and absolutely nothing uncomfortable to talk about ever happening in its past. This is in fact the very Stalinesque sort of censorship they’re supposedly crusading against, where schools can only teach flattering things about US history and never anything uncomfortable or negative.

Yet again, I’ve stumbled on an opinion piece that makes this point very well. In it, Marty Trillhaase points out how the push to remove the teaching of anything awkward or uncomfortable concerning race or race relations in schools is akin to the ‘memory holes’ in Orwell’s 1984. He highlights several examples of ‘uncomfortable’ aspects of Idaho’s history, and how some would wish to suppress or ‘airbrush’ over this history rather than learn from it.

Idaho is a beautiful state with wonderful people. I went to high school here and recently moved back to be closer to family and take advantage of the more affordable cost of living. The vast majority of Idahoans I believe are well-meaning, well-intentioned people who seek to do the ‘right thing’. True patriotism is not about airbrushing over the past or current flaws of where you live. It should be about acknowledging them—painful as that might be—and learning from them. This is how improvement and progress is made. Problems aren’t fixed by pretending they aren’t or never were problems in the first place.

Like any place, Idaho does have its ‘baggage’, including an unfortunate history of neo-Nazi and white-nationalist activity. Trillhaase touches on this, and I’m reminded of this personally whenever I see racist and white-nationalist propaganda and flyers plastered around town here. That’s proof enough for me that perhaps we should be doing more to educate students on the sorts of issues addressed in CRT, not less. Racism has not magically gone away, and to pretend that everything is now perfect in this regard and that there are no outstanding issues to address is just silly in my opinion, perhaps even Stalinesque. CRT is not ‘revisionist’ history. It might just be the solution to addressing it.

Trillhaase’s short op-ed piece makes this point very well.