Changes to social studies textbooks in Texas proposed by conservatives have resulted in a partisan uproar and generated interest far beyond the Lone Star State.
Christian-nationalist zealots are rewriting US history, airbrushing slavery and enshrining creationism in Texas schools.
Don McLeroy, chairman of the Texas State Board of Education from 2007 to 2009, is a “young earth” creationist. He believes the earth is 6,000 years old, that human beings walked with dinosaurs, and that Noah’s Ark had a unique, multi-level construction that allowed it to house every species of animal, including the dinosaurs.
He has a right to his beliefs, but it’s his views on history that are problematic. McLeroy is part of a large and powerful movement determined to impose a thoroughly distorted, ultra-partisan, Christian nationalist version of US history on America’s public school students. And he has scored stunning successes.
If you want to see a scary movie about this movement, consider taking in Scott Thurman’s finely-crafted documentary Revisionaries, currently making the festival circuit, which records the antics of McLeroy and a hard right majority on the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) as they revise the textbook standards that will be used in Texas (and many other states).
The first part of this documentary deals with the familiar “science wars”, in which one side seeks to educate children in the sciences, and the other side proposes to “teach the controversy” in order to undermine those aspects of science that conflict with its religious convictions. But it’s the second part of the movie where the horror really kicks in. As I explain in more detail in The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, the history debate makes the science debate look genteel. While the handful of moderates on the SBOE squeals in opposition, the conservative majority lands blow after blow, passing resolutions imposing its mythological history on the nation’s textbooks.
Cynthia Dunbar, a board member who has described public education as a “subtly deceptive tool of perversion,” and who homeschooled her own children, emerges as a relentless ideologue. During the hearings, she yanks Thomas Jefferson from a standard according to which students are expected to “explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas … on political revolutions from 1750 to the present,” and replaces him with the 13th-century theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Moderate Republican board member Bob Craig points out that the curriculum writers clearly intended for the students to study Enlightenment ideas and Jefferson in this part of the standard, not a mix of Protestant and Catholic theologians, but the resolution passes anyway.
Dunbar isn’t very subtle about her agenda. In one scene, the filmmakers track her to a prayer rally in Washington, DC, where she implores Jesus to “invade” public schools.
The board goes on to remove the word “slavery” from the standards, replacing it with the more benign-seeming “Atlantic triangular trade.” They insist on calling the United States a “constitutional republic” rather than a “democracy” – largely because they want students to think of their country as Republican, not Democratic. So convinced are they of the timeless superiority of American/Republican values that one of them introduces a standard asking students to “explain three pro-free-market factors contributing to European technological progress during the rise and decline of the medieval system.”
Historical figures of suspect religious views (like Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin) or political tendency (like union organizer Dolores Huerta) are ruthlessly demoted or purged altogether from the study program. Meanwhile, the board majority makes room for an eclectic array of ancillary figures from the revolutionary period, such as Charles Carroll and Jonathan Trumbull. What these marginal figures have in common, other than being dusted off from high shelves and promoted by the board, is the fact that they were loud defenders of orthodox Christianity.
Even by their own admission, the board members were hopelessly unqualified to make judgments about the history. So they appointed a committee of academic “experts” to vet the standards. The committee was a model of “bipartisanship” in the modern era. For their part, the moderates on the board appointed credible historians, professors at Texas universities; one was defended by a moderate Republican board member as “a good Republican … not some kind of crazy liberal.”
The conservatives, on the other hand, appointed Peter Marshall of Peter Marshall Ministries, a group that seeks to “reclaim America for Christ” and is “dedicated to helping to restore America to its Bible-based foundations through preaching, teaching, and writing on America’s Christian heritage and on Christian discipleship and revival.” They also appointed pseudo-historian David Barton, the former vice-chairman of the Texas GOP and founder of the Black Robe Regiment. The latter, sinister-sounding organisation is an association of “concerned patriots” whose goal is to “restore the American Church in her capacity as the Body of Christ, ambassador for Christ, moral teacher of America and the world, and overseer of all principalities and governing officials, as was rightfully established long ago.”
Barton is known for fabricating quotes from America’s founders, or taking them out of context to build his case that America was established as a so-called “Christian nation.” And here’s the gruesome kicker: the Texas board actually ignored advice from its own, balanced committee whenever it contradicted the agenda of the far-right majority.
Sometimes, the most important characters in a story are the ones who don’t show up. In the Texas battle over history, the heroes who went missing were the kind of people and organizations that might have defended the teaching of history in the way that the scientists mobilized to defend the teaching of biology. The scientists are reasonably well-organized. When creationism rears its paleolithic head in state legislatures or on school boards, it faces the opposition of organizations such as the National Association of Biology Teachers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Center for Science Education, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, and others.
Defenders of biological sciences can also fall back on court rulings such as Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District and Edwards v Aguillard, which prohibit teaching of creationism. They also have a wealth of popular treatments of scientific issues to draw upon, such as explanations of evolutionary theory by Richard Dawkins and other scientists.
History, however, is often left to fend for itself.
To be fair, in the Texas proceedings, some historians and activists made valiant attempts to contain the damage. Kathy Miller, spokesperson for the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based research and advocacy group, was allocated several minutes for her impassioned defense of religious and political neutrality in public education. Professor Steven K Green, director of Willamette’s Center for Religion, Law, and Democracy, used his five minutes in front of the board to remind them that “the supreme court has forbidden public schools from ‘seeking to impress upon students the importance of particular religious values through curriculum.’” The board majority smiled and looked away.
So, where are history’s defenders?
Part of the problem here has to do with a common fallacy about history. We think of history as a “soft” subject. We know that it always involves some degree of interpretation, that the “narratives” are always “contested”, and that the answers are never so obviously right or wrong as they are in science. We also know that there have been leftwing versions of the history that are just as distorting as the rightwing propaganda served up by McLeroy and friends. But it’s plain wrong to think that we can only throw our hands in the air and conclude that history is whatever anyone chooses to say it is.
Some academics have gotten too used to speaking only with one another. Many could do a more forceful job of seeking to protect the public from disinformation. When I was researching my book, I came across plenty of academic historians who were dismissive about David Barton in private; but few were willing to go public, or to invest the effort in refuting him in detail.
Barton recently came out with another piece of propaganda, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. To their credit, a pair of professors who identify themselves as conservative Christians, Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, have stepped forward to debunk Barton’s latest exercise in their book, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President. But that hasn’t stopped Barton’s book from becoming a bestseller.
Maybe, we find it easy to underestimate the harm that bad history can do. McLeroy and his cohorts desperately want students to be taught that America is beyond criticism. It’s greatness, they believe, stems from the values, principles, and methods of America’s conservatives, and the only safe path to the future is to suppress or eliminate whatever does not conform to their image of a purified America. These “revisionaries” are far from the vision of the US bequeathed by the same founders whom the far right claims to revere.
The “glory of the people of America” as James Madison actually said, is that they broke free from the “blind veneration” of the ways of the past and learned how to draw on the “lessons of their own experience” in order to build the world anew.
AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry of Texas was indicted on two felony counts on Friday by a state grand jury examining his handling of a local district attorney’s drunken driving arrest and the state financing for a public corruption unit under the lawyer’s control.
The indictment was returned late Friday in Austin.
The investigation centered on Mr. Perry’s veto power as governor. His critics asserted that he used that power as leverage to try to get an elected official and influential Democrat — Rosemary Lehmberg, the district attorney in Travis County —...
Manny Fernandez | The New York Times 15 Aug 2014 Hits:636 Texas
Far-right Texas Republicans prospered in the first US primary of the year as it was confirmed that Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott will square off in the battle to be the state’s next governor. Davis parlayed the national celebrity garnered from her epic filibuster last June into a high-profile bid to become Texas’s first Democratic governor in two decades.
On Tuesday night the state senator from Fort Worth comfortably secured her party’s nomination. Texas attorney general Abbott easily won the Republican contest to replace Rick Perry, who is stepping down as...
Tom Dart | The Guardian 05 Mar 2014 Hits:770 Texas
Ted Nugent, the old rocker from the Seventies, is now just plain old… and off his rocker.
A political novelty act for the far right and a front man for the National Rifle Association, Nugent regularly spews venomous, vulgar, race-laced, abusive hate speech about liberals, Democrats, gun laws, and creeping communism. In January, for example, he tongue-lashed President Obama, calling him a "communist-raised, communist-educated, communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel."
So, naturally, this scurrilous lout was promptly invited to come to Texas by the leading Republican candidate for governor. It seems that Greg Abbott, currently...
Jim Hightower | Jim Hightower.com 05 Mar 2014 Hits:369 Texas
A Texas judge has struck down that state's ban on gay marriage.
U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia did not say gay marriages could be performed immediately. Instead, he stayed the decision, citing a likely appeal.
"Without a rational relation to a legitimate governmental purpose, state-imposed inequality can find no refuge in our United States Constitution," Garcia wrote in his decision. "These Texas laws deny Plaintiffs access to the institution of marriage and its numerous rights, privileges, and responsibilities for the sole reason that Plaintiffs wish to be married to a person of the same sex."
The state's gay marriage ban was challenged by two gay couples -- one seeking to marry in Texas and one seeking to have their marriage, which...
Aaron Blake | The Washington Post 26 Feb 2014 Hits:486 Texas
The Nov. 5 constitutional amendment election is the first statewide election which requires Texans to present a photo ID when they vote in person. Early voting started Oct. 21 and ended Nov. 1. So far, the election has gone smoothly, but there is some bad information brewing about what you may or may not need at the polls, specifically that the name on your approved ID and the name on your voter registration must match exactly. As one county election official put it, that’s just an urban legend.When it comes...
John Steen | Wilson County News 03 Nov 2013 Hits:530 Texas
State Sen. Wendy Davis of Texas will run for governor next year, two Democratic sources familiar with the planning confirmed to CNN.
The Democrat, who gained national fame after her 13-hour filibuster over a controversial abortion bill, was already scheduled to make an announcement about her political future on October 3. But until Thursday it wasn't certain whether she would be running for governor or run for re-election to her state Senate seat. Politico first reported Davis would run for governor.
Wendy Davis: From teen mom to Harvard Law to famous...
Peter Hamby and Ashley Killough | CNN 03 Oct 2013 Hits:632 Texas
The Texas billionaire's foundation has come through with a major gift to the beleaguered women's health provider
Thousands of women have lost access to vital healthcare since Texas dismantled its Medicaid-funded Women’s Health Program in 2011 because Planned Parenthood acted as a service provider under the program. As a result of these cuts, and the persistent targeting of reproductive health clinics by anti-choice lawmakers, many clinics have been forced to close in recent years, leaving Texas women without low- and no-cost options for reproductive healthcare.
Enter: Ross Perot.
The Perot Foundation of Dallas, which was founded...
Katie McDonough | Salon 31 Aug 2013 Hits:1111 Texas
The U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday that it will challenge Texas’s Voter ID law, saying it violates the Voting Rights Act, as well as the Constitution’s 14th and 15th Amendments.
In a separate case, the Justice Department will also join in a challenge to the state’s GOP-drawn redistricting plans.
The decisions come just weeks after the Supreme Court struck down part of the act that determines which jurisdictions require the Justice Department to approve any electoral changes before they become law. Texas had previously been subject to the so-called “preclearance.”
Justice Department officials...
Aaron Blake | The Washington Post 24 Aug 2013 Hits:677 Texas
In the wake of yesterday's epic fail on transportation funding it looks like state legislators are headed back to Austin for a third month-long special session, and it won't be cheap. As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports this morning, each extra month the legislature's in session costs $800,000, bringing the likely toll on taxpayers to $2.4 million.
Much of this could have been avoided, of course. Lawmakers could have done what they're elected to do and finished their business in the spring. Failing that, they could have set aside inflammatory topics...
Eric Nicholson | The Dallas Observer 30 Jul 2013 Hits:813 Texas
The Texas anti-abortion bill, which threatened to close nearly all of the abortion clinics in the state and prompted an 11-hour filibuster by state Sen. Wendy Davis (D), is dead, The Austin American-Statesman reported.
Lawmakers had to vote on Senate Bill 5 before the special session's end at 12 a.m. local time. However, protesters halted the proceedings 15 to 20 minutes before the roll call could be completed.
The crowd of demonstrators in the capitol cried "Shame! Shame!" when Davis' filibuster was halted by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who ruled that her...
Huffington Post 26 Jun 2013 Hits:815 Texas
On Saturday, as Texas hosted the National Rifle Association’s annual convention, the Texas House passed 12 gun bills to make it even easier to obtain and possess firearms in the state. The onslaught of legislation contains provisions to allow college students to carry handguns in class and to block any theoretical federal bans on assault weapons or high-capacity ammunition. The 12 bills, a veritable goody bag for gun rights advocates, passed easily in the Republican-dominated House.
Texas lawmakers introduced about twice as many gun bills this session as last year, generally...
Aviva Shen | ThinkProgress 06 May 2013 Hits:945 Texas
Texas teachers were up early on the first day of spring break working on their lesson plan. But it wasn't for their students.
The educators need to convince budget-conscious lawmakers that last session's cuts in school funding need to be restored. They hope to put a human face on the problem of overworked classroom teachers and how it's affecting our children.
Montserrat Garibay with the teachers’ group Education Austin says, "Unfortunately many of these legislators have never been in a classroom so educating them is very important to us...
Fred Cantu | KEYE-TV 13 Mar 2013 Hits:1173 Texas
Texas lawmakers are stepping into a debate about whether Austin should require companies to pay a “living wage” to construction workers to qualify for economic development deals.
State Rep. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas, said a group of minority contractors told him they would have difficulty paying the $11-an-hour living wage to the laborers they hire, making those contractors less likely to get a piece of the publicly subsidized projects. Sheets filed legislation last month that would bar cities from mandating any wage requirements as part of economic incentive packages, such as the ones...
Tony Plohetski and Marty Toohey | The Statesman 05 Mar 2013 Hits:1090 Texas
Adamantly opposed to expanding Medicaid coverage under President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had seemingly squelched efforts this legislative session to insure an additional 1.1 million low-income Texans under the Affordable Care Act.
But a determined campaign, targeting legislators with public pressure and private persuasion, has kept the issue alive by framing Medicaid expansion as an economic bonanza and tax-relief opportunity that would bring $79 billion in much-needed federal money over 10 years.
The arguments, pitched to Republican ears, have carved out a...
Chuck Lindell | American-Statesman 18 Feb 2013 Hits:1080 Texas
The party is launching a full-scale offensive in the Lone Star with the aim of slowly turning the GOP stronghold into a battleground state
Democrats, bolstered by President Obama’s victory last fall, have now set their sights on a prize even more valuable than the White House: the state of Texas.
The party is launching a full-scale offensive in the Lone Star with the aim of slowly turning the GOP stronghold into a battleground state. According to Politico, a coalition of groups is creating a grassroots...
Laura Gottesdiener | AlterNet 01 Feb 2013 Hits:1276 Texas
This is the kind of story that people look back on after a tragedy and say: Well, that was a bad idea.
The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas…
A bill recently introduced in the Texas state house aims to reward employers who violate Obamacare, offering subsidies to any company that uses religious objection as an excuse for denying…
Registered Nurses, members of the National Nurses Organizing Committee-Texas/National Nurses United (NNU) -- the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in the country, with 185,000…
More than 1,500 Texas nurses won new contracts through their first ever collective bargaining agreement yesterday. They joined National Nurses United, which is the argest union of registered…
A federal court on Tuesday agreed with the Department of Justice that redistricted voter maps in Texas did not comply with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and that…
A federal appeals court ruled late Tuesday that Texas can cut off funding for Planned Parenthood clinics that provide health services to low-income women before a trial over…
Last week, more than 3,200 janitors in Houston called an end to their five-week strike.
The cleaning contractors initially offered a total wage increase of $.50 an hour phased in over…
Score another victory for the Tea Party.
One-time long-shot candidate Ted Cruz completed his once nearly unthinkable upset Tuesday, winning the runoff for the Republican Senate nomination in Texas over David…
Are you willing to pay more taxes and higher health insurance premiums so Gov. Rick Perry and other Republicans can try to score points against President Obama? Never mind.…
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