In the eyes of the religious conservative movement, America’s best days are always in the past. They bemoan the modern era of activist government, heightened sensitivity, and moral complexity, and look back fondly to an imaginary golden age where the wealthy could do as they pleased, the state bowed down to the church, and men were real men and women and minorities were subservient. And when inconvenient reality threatens to show that the United States was never the shining city on the hill that they imagine it once was, they’re only too happy to erase those troublesome facts.
You can see this tendency in the furor over the College Board’s recent revisions to the curriculum for Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH). The new framework, intended for elite high-school classes taken for college credit, puts less emphasis on memorizing names, dates and battles. Instead, it encourages students to think critically about difficult issues in America’s history: the displacement and genocide of Native Americans, slavery as the basis of the antebellum economy, the exploitation of immigrants and their labor, clampdowns on individual rights in wartime, and more. In short, it asks students to consider the perspective of people who’ve been on the other side of American progress, and to evaluate our history and national mythology with informed judgment, rather than mindless adulation.
Naturally, conservatives in school boards and state legislatures all across the country were livid to hear of American history discussed in anything other than reverent terms. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution angrily denouncing the new framework, and many municipalities in red states and counties have sought to ban it from public schools.
For instance, last year in Jefferson County, Colorado, a conservative school board majority passed a resolution calling for the history curriculum to remove any material that would “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law”, and to instead promote “benefits of the free enterprise system [and] respect for authority”. School board member Julie Williams said that the APUSH framework would turn students into “little rebels” (because real patriots sit down, shut up and do as they’re told).
Fortunately, the people of Jefferson County – both students and teachers – responded magnificently, staging mass protests, sickouts and walkouts to defend their right to learn freely. Taken aback by the uproar, the school board backed down, voting to scrap its planned curriculum changes.
But Colorado isn’t the only place where conservatives have tried to whitewash American history. The APUSH curriculum has also come under Republican attack in, among other places, Tennessee, where state senators called it “agenda-driven” and “revisionist”; in Oklahoma, where the legislature wants to outlaw public schools from offering AP History at all; and Georgia, where lawmakers are demanding that the College Board change the course back to the way it was.
What these conservative school boards and lawmakers want taught is history as hagiography: a rose-tinted view of the past in which America can do no wrong and has only ever been a force for good in the world. There’s no room for complexity or nuance in their simplistic worldview.
Ironically, this takes away the best reason to study history: because it’s the means by which we can make the country better. We believe that America can progress, that it can become a more perfect union, and studying the past is how we make that happen. By learning about the mistakes of the past, we’ll know how not to repeat them.
The dark side of this is that, when you have a static and unrealistic view of the past, you’ll likewise be hobbled when it comes to planning for the future. After all, if our ancestors knew best, then that means we should always do things the way they used to be done if we want to recapture our former glory. The idea that a changing planet might compel a shift in our way of life, that the old ideas might no longer work and we might have to adapt to new circumstances, they view as a heresy to be rejected at all costs.
There’s no better illustration of this than Florida, the home of two of the three front-runner Republican presidential candidates, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, and the state that’s most at risk from the looming disaster of climate change. A huge and radically different future is barreling down on us, and Florida is in the crosshairs. Even just the amount of sea-level rise that’s already locked in could be enough to submerge the southern half of the state, including Miami and the Everglades.
Constructing sea walls and dykes won’t work, both because there’s too much coastline to protect and because the land is porous limestone that allows the ocean to bubble up from below. Miami already has serious problems with beaches eroding away, wells turning salty, streets that routinely flood at high tide, and pumps that strain to keep the water out of low-lying, canal-riven neighborhoods. No other place in the world demands more urgent and drastic adaptation if catastrophe is to be avoided.
Yet the state of Florida has a staunchly conservative government whose only response is to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Its congressional representatives, Rubio and Bush among them, abide strictly by a policy of vacillation and ducking the issue. According to a shocking report in the Washington Post, Florida has gone so far as to ban state employees from even uttering the term “climate change”:
“We were instructed by our regional administrator that we were no longer allowed to use the terms ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ or even ‘sea-level rise,'” said Trotta. “Sea-level rise was to be referred to as ‘nuisance flooding.'” (source)
Florida’s elected leaders deny that this was their policy, but numerous scientists and disaster-management officials working for the state say otherwise. And they also report that when they’ve tried to discuss climate change or its consequences, they’ve been harshly rebuked and sometimes retaliated against by superiors wielding shockingly ignorant arguments:
“I mentioned sea-level rise, and I was treated to a 15-minute lecture on Genesis by one of the commissioners. He said, ‘God destroyed the Earth with water the first time, and he promised he wouldn’t do it again. So all of you who are pushing fears about sea-level rise, go back and read the Bible.'”
Nor is Florida the only state where head-in-the-sand denialism holds sway over reason and science. North Carolina, which likewise has a long, exposed coastline vulnerable to rising seas and stronger storms, actually passed a law banning the state from taking future climate change into account when predicting how sea-level rise might affect coastal development and flood insurance rates. The law, which Scientific American’s Scott Hutler mocked as “making sea level rise illegal“, says, in part:
These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly… but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.
Even in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, the virus of climate-change denialism has taken hold. While coastal storms aren’t a danger here, a warming Midwest puts the state’s forests in peril: wildfires, droughts and destructive storms could become more frequent, and nonnative pests like the gypsy moth may be able to spread further with year-round warmer weather. Yet the state Board of Commissioners of Public Lands just voted to ban its employees “from engaging in global warming or climate change work while on BCPL time.”
It’s all too easy to imagine the disasters that could result from this terrifying combination of historical ignorance and religious fundamentalism. What makes it all the more outrageous is that these disasters, if they happen, will have been entirely unnecessary, entirely avoidable. They won’t happen solely because of natural forces that we can’t control, but because of the voters and politicians who cling tenaciously to false ideas and refuse to heed the evidence.
There’s no inherent reason why conservatism has to be anti-intellectual, but today in America, it very much is. The conservative party has been wholly taken over by a faction that’s fanatically opposed to critical thinking, science and even the very idea of objective truth. They want to censor knowledge about both the past and the future, to preserve their idealized fantasy about a past world that never existed and a future world that never will.