Putin rewrote Ukraine’s history. Ohio Republicans are rewriting American history
Professor writing on whiteboard in empty lecture hall. Getty Images.
Americans are united in denouncing Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, including how he has justified it with a warped view of Ukrainian history and has crushed Russian dissent. Meanwhile, in Ohio, Republicans recently held hearings on legislation promoting a warped view of American history while crushing potential dissent. Unlike Ukrainians, we’re not under deadly assault, but do not rest easy: The bells of authoritarianism are tolling for us all.
Legislation pending in the Ohio Assembly, similar to anti-”critical race theory” and anti-”divisive concepts” measures proposed or passed in 37 other states, provides a whitewashed official interpretation of American history. It includes clauses that would destroy the careers of teachers daring to teach otherwise, and punish school districts and universities that allow alternate interpretations. With Republicans dominating the Ohio General Assembly and Republican Mike DeWine as governor, the bill is likely to pass on party-line vote and be signed into law.
True, the legislation allows for the teaching of America’s founding documents, and, in theory, permits the study of ethnic and racial groups in the nation’s past. What distinguishes this bill is that, apart from the “divisive concepts” element, it prescribes what students should learn about American history.
“Slavery, racial discrimination under the law, and racism in general are so inconsistent with the founding principles of the United States,” the bill declares, “that Americans fought a civil war to eliminate the first, waged long-standing political campaigns to eradicate the second, and rendered the third unacceptable in the court of public opinion.”
It does not take an historian to find this statement’s flaws. That the Civil War resulted in the ending of slavery does not eliminate the possibility of racism in the nation’s founding, more than 70 years earlier. Were that the case, then today’s anti-discrimination laws would “prove” that legal segregation did not exist in 1940s America. Moreover, if racism was so antithetical to American history, then it’s hard to explain why so many Americans fought for the Confederacy or opposed the Civil Rights movement.
Now, if you were to ask an historian (thanks for asking, I’m flattered!), I’d suggest a few questions.
If slavery was inconsistent with the American founding, why were more people in bondage after the Revolution than before independence? How do we understand the Revolutionary-era Virginians who angrily opposed emancipation, because, in these white men’s view, their right to own other human beings was what the Revolution was all about?
What are we to think of the Constitution allowing slavery until the 13th Amendment (1865), or George Washington using the power of the presidency to try to recapture Ona Judge, who bravely escaped from his ownership; or that eight presidents and hundreds of members of Congress owned other human beings while in office? If you’ve got more time, I’ve got more questions.
Yet, the American Revolution fertilized a blooming of antislavery, too. During the 1770s and 1780s, thousands of people, Black and white, wrote, sued, preached and petitioned for the freedom of all people regardless of race. By 1787, germinated by such efforts, the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in the Northwest Territory — including what would become the state of Ohio — and six northern states had either abolished slavery or passed gradual abolition laws.
The American Revolution was neither racist or anti-racist, but a complex process in which three million people contested what they wanted their new nation to be, often in impossibly tangled ways. Consider Benjamin Rush and William Grubber. Rush signed the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Grubber was a cook. At the same time Rush campaigned against slavery and railed against racism, he owned Grubber.
Like democracy, history is messy, discordant, and often uncomfortable.
But Ohio Republicans propose to enforce their flat interpretation of our past. The bill would empower parents and students to target potential offenders. Teachers could have their license suspended for a year, their careers effectively ruined. University faculty, denied tenure, could lose their jobs. School district and university funding could be docked.
Authoritarianism relies on rulers’ ability to enforce a worldview at odds with reality. Republicans’ weaponizing of the past poses a threat far less dire than Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling. But if our purpose in opposing Putin in Ukraine is to stand up to authoritarianism, then we should resist authoritarianism at home, too.
That includes defeating Putin-like efforts to impose a singular, distorted view of history and silence those of us willing to ask uncomfortable questions. Today, they’re coming for teachers and professors. Don’t ask who’s next, dear reader. Maybe it’s you.
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