Jim Mamer Original Politics

Ron DeSantis’ Strategic Delusions

American history continues to be rewritten as the conversation around education heats up.
Governor Ron DeSantis speaking with attendees at a “Unite & Win Rally” at Arizona Financial Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona. Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost

Stupid statements attributed to conspicuous politicians are common. But they are not always accurate. I’ve learned to check.

It didn’t take long, for example, to find out that Sarah Palin did not say that she could see Russia from her house or to discover that Al Gore never said that he invented the internet. But then came Ron DeSantis.

About a week ago, in answering a question about school curriculum, DeSantis correctly said that “In Florida we are required to teach slavery, the post-reconstruction, segregation, and civil rights; those are core parts of American history that should be taught. But it should also be taught accurately.”

He added that “… it was the American Revolution that caused people to question slavery. No one had questioned it before we decided, as Americans, that we are endowed by our creator with unalienable rights and that we are all created equal. Then that birthed abolition movements.”

There is so much wrong in these last two sentences that I doubted the Florida governor would have said it, but a search for verification confirmed the reports. Thankfully his remarks were recorded.

There are two issues here. First, are his facts accurate? Second, if they are not, why were they said? In an essay on “The Use and Abuse of History,” Howard Zinn wrote, “The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying. It is omission or deemphasis of important data.” There is no evidence that DeSantis is omitting or deemphasizing historical data; he is simply lying. 

The evidence is plentiful that the governor’s claims are false. In “American Negro Slave Revolts,” originally published in 1936, historian Herbert Aptheker estimated there were 250 revolts, uprisings, and conspiracies both before and after the United States became a nation.

Revolts began soon after people were enslaved. The first recorded rebellion in North America occurred in San Miguel de Gualdape, a Spanish colony on the coast of present-day Georgia, in 1526, before any of the founders were born.

The beginning of the American abolitionist movement arrivesd in 1688, when Quaker colonists in Pennsylvania denounced slavery with the Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery

The rebellions continued. On September 9, 1739, in the colony of Carolina, enslaved people carried banners that proclaimed “Liberty!” That began what is known as the Stono Rebellion. which ended with more than 50 dead.

In 1766 the enslaved, African-born, Olaudah Equiano purchased his freedom from a Quaker named Robert King, after which he moved to England, where he became active in the abolitionist movement. No Declaration of Independence was needed to tell him slavery was wrong. 

That same year, in an early version of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote a passage that condemned slavery, but it was cut from the final wording. At the time of his death, Jefferson still owned more than 100 enslaved people.

Clearly Ron DeSantis was wrong in suggesting that it was the American Revolution that caused people to first question slavery, but I suspect that the governor knows that. After all, before attending law school at Harvard, he graduated from Yale with a degree in history and then spent a year teaching history at the Darlington School in Georgia.

So, why did he say it?  Determining why Gov. DeSantis said what he said is not simple. Could it be that he actually hopes to convince as many as possible that the Declaration of Independence led to abolition? Or could it be that by suggesting that “no one” had questioned slavery before the American Revolution might allow others to claim that “credit” for abolition should only go to white men? Maybe, but there are other possibilities.

DeSantis is not alone in the attempt to create a new and more comforting creation story for the United States. So, I suspect something more coordinated is going on.  

Although current attempts at an ahistorical revision of the American past are, according to the author Chris Mooney are mostly the work of a very conservative right-wing, even President Biden has said that the Declaration of Independence meant that “in America, we’re all created equal.” So, the desire for a more convenient American Genesis is, at least, slightly bi-partisan.

Soon after the Civil War, northern and southern states created very different stories about how to teach that war in schools. Advocates of the southern version planted the seeds of the Lost Cause which, among other things, minimized the role of slavery in causing the war.

Because of the decentralized structure of education policy in this country, the fight over curriculum is dispersed among states and among local school districts so it can be difficult to keep track of the various challenges to what and how things are taught. In February of 2022, Education Week published a list of the subjects that various lawmakers want banned from classrooms.

These include multiple efforts to prevent teachers from talking about diversity and inequality in “divisive” ways (although “divisive” remains undefined). There have also been multiple attempts to prevent even the discussion of race, which include bans on teaching that the United States is, or has been, a racist country.

In interviews with the publication, various state representatives said these new bills are “designed to prevent teachers from telling children what to think, encouraging them to see divisions, or asking them to adopt perspectives that are different from those of their parents on issues like policing, Black Lives Matter, gender identity, and human sexuality.”

Recognizing that revolts of enslaved people and support for abolition preceded the American Revolution doesn’t take anything away from the work of the founders, nor does it cancel out Jefferson’s clearly aspirational statement that “All men are created equal.” Teaching an accurate history should never be interpreted as an attempt to make students disagree with their parents, “hate their country” or “change history.”

All of this, whether it be the call by the Trump administration to teach a patriotic history; or the attempts to ban discussion of race or racism in the United States; or the attempts to diminish the role of slavery as a cause of the Civil War; or the attempts to hide what happened to the native peoples, whether that be as victims of genocide or as victims of the version of a “cancel culture” practiced by the federal Indian boarding school system. All of this is an attack on truth and reason. And all of this is a shameless and dangerous attack on history itself.

Jim Mamer

Jim Mamer is a retired high school teacher. He was honored as Social Science/History Teacher of the Year in 1992 by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). He was a Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984.

20 comments

  1. I’m sorry but your cheap shot at DeSantis is a non-starter.
    Academia is lovely but it doesn’t run a state. Our governor is outstanding as a gov of the people.
    If I didn’t know better I might think this article was a kick-off to a slow roll smear campaign.
    Stick to your academia!

    1. Mick, How is this a “cheap shot” or a “smear campaign”? Is there anything factually inaccurate in the article that you can point to? I’m wondering what you think makes DeSantis an “outstanding … gov of the people”? Is it that he spent Fla tax dollars for a political stunt of flying asylum seeking refugees from Tx to MA under false pretences?

    2. 1) The analysis Mr Mamer made about DeSantis is accurate, true and ethical. Plain and simple truth is never a cheap shot?
      2) DeSantis is a Florida politician but he has placed himself on the national stage and intends to become even more so; his efforts at influencing the national debate on many things that effect all of us makes him fair game to examine and critique, even have personal opinions about.
      3) By every demonstrable objective standard De Santis espouses policies and personal opinions, (cynical and craven opportunism or not) that are anti-democratic, anti-social, anti-equality, anti-humanity, even anti-christian, so to what measure of “outstanding” as a governor are you using?

      1. To a fascist, (and today, almost all American politicians are such), ‘the Truth’ and ‘Facts’ are indeed a ‘Cheap Shot’. The only thing is ‘The Big Lie’, and anything that contradicts The Big Lie has to be attacked and suppressed.

        How dare you even try to discuss ‘Truth’ when it perhaps hurts and diminishes ‘the Great Leader’?

        You see this quite commonly on both sides in America. Note for instance the companion piece also on today’s ScheerPost about the similar attacks on a journalist from ‘the Hill’ who is fired (by the other side) for the same crime of slandering by speaking the truth.

        Welcome to America.
        Where “The Truth” is now “Banned in America.”
        That is the one thing that all political parties now firmly believe, and will strongly attack anyone who dares to challenge this brave new world of theirs.

        Of course, ‘democracy’ can not co-exist with lying candidates. Which is the only type now allowed on American ballots. You have to prove your ability to lie, and lie big, to even qualify. I suppose we should be happy to still be allowed to choose the hair style of the Liar we want to ‘represent’ us. Do we want old and near bald with short hair? Or Sir Orange Hair? Of DeSantis’ flat black hair style? Either way, Next Stop is Corporate Slavery for the short time remaining before Armageddon.

    3. They’re already attacking the governor’s hurricane response as too slow. “Some Say” has become the key source of criticism. “Some Say” the evacuation order was too late, electric is still down after nearly a week etc, etc. All this unfounded and unrealistic criticism simply a developing political smear against DeSantis.

  2. You can add Dr. Gerald Horne’s work, which argues that the founders fear that Great Britain might abolish slavery in their colonies (which they did in 1835) also led to the American revolution because of the potential loss of their property in enslaved persons.

    As it turned out, Britain set up a complex system of compensation for slaveholders in the Caribbean colonies that in effect meant that slavery devolved more than simply being abolished.

  3. Jim:

    I think you’re nitpicking here. Of course, there was opposition from the Mennonites and Quakers long before the Revolution and as Aptheker’s study documented, there were slave revolts since the colonies were first settled. But the Declaration was a significant milestone in our history that was at odds with the reality of chattel slavery that existed and set us on a course the eventually led to the Civil War that is still with us today. It was used by the abolitionist movement as a rallying cry. To say that DeSantis is lying is not a fair assessment.

    1. “It was the American Revolution that caused people to question slavery. No one had questioned it before we decided, as Americans, that we are endowed by our creator with unalienable rights and that we are all created equal. Then that birthed abolition movements.”

      I’m not crazy about anyone running for President at this point but to think a possible Presidential candidate would say something this embarrassingly ill-informed is hardly a “smear” or “nit picking.” Have we really set the bar this low??

      1. Chris,

        This country elected that icon of eloquence, G.W. Bush twice, the second time after the WMDless invasion of Iraq. The bar’s been lying on the ground a long time, my friend.

      2. @ Gary, October 5, 2022 at 9:03 am

        Dear Gary. Actually, America did not ‘elect’ George W. Bush. The 2000 election was clearly a stolen election. There was an actual statewide audit of the votes in Florida, and it showed that Al Gore won FLA by a very small margin. Al Gore won the 2000 election. The audit was conducted by major media organizations, who at that time were supporting Bush and his war. This is back when the media was not so openly partisan, but still clearly conservative and very corporate. (This is back when Mr. Scheer was dismissed from the LA Times for criticizing Bush). It was a far more credible ‘audit’ than the ‘Cyber Ninjas.’

        It is also doubtful that ‘Dubya’ won in 2004. In that year, it was Ohio that had some very suspicious things going on. Ranging from large precincts in Cleveland having to vote on a single voting machine, to some Republican counties reporting very unbelievable turnout numbers. All which lead to yet another very close ‘win’ for the Republican machine.

        To me, as an old American, America would have to prove to me that it is even capable of staging an honest election . That’s true for everywhere in America, but it is doubly or triply true for Florida.

  4. Are students taught that the U.S. has initiated wars against Iraq, Libya, and others? Overthrown democratically elected governments of other nations, and installed thugs? Incarcerating Americans of Japanese descent into concentration camps in WWII? President Andrew Jackson of the $20 bill forcing Indians off their lands and marching them west?

    1. Allen, I used to teach with Jim at the same school and am still there. In our history department (where I have been for the past 20+ years) we certainly have and do cover all of those topics, among others. I can’t speak for other public high schools. Unfortunately, I suspect the answer is probably that this doesn’t get covered in very many high schools.

      1. Or colleges, particularly schools of education. Praxis exams weed out those who lack ‘the correct attitude’ when it comes time to finding a teaching position.

  5. Politicians are professional liars who work for the interests of accumulated capital. Of course, that is just my opinion. This opinion is not irrelevant as I rarely meet anyone who disagrees with it. For me, that idea originated with my grandparents who were born around the U.S. Spanish War years. Because I was a young product of U.S. public education, I thought they must be mistaken. Then I began to read history other than my school texts. Boy, they underestimated the level of tyranny we were and are at in this country. The common man and woman understands lies and tyranny without knowing every detail and nuance. I salute them.

  6. Unfortunately, this goes beyond just stupid statements by politicians. According to the Fla dept of Ed, you cannot teach about structural racism in the US. To stay within the guidelines you would have to teach that all American institutions have always been perfect and democratic and the only problem might have been some individual acts of racism by a few bad people. By Fla state guidelines, you cannot teach that “… that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.” And, as a teacher you “may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence. Instruction must include the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments.” (https://www.fldoe.org/core/fileparse.php/19958/urlt/7-4.pdf) So that seems to cut out the deeply institutionalized system of slavery, 3/5 compromise, the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution, Jim Crow, the necessity of the Voting Rights Act of 65, etc, etc. I spent the first 10 years of my life in the Soviet Union and this is exactly how we were taught history: that the USSR was a perfect society with the most democratic institutions that provided for equality and rights for all, and that the founders were perfect, brilliant men! Very ironic. Obviously, that is not history, but propaganda.

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