The Wrong Kind of Eraser

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Texas Board of Education Votes to Remove Hillary Clinton from Social Studies Curriculum (snopes.com)

The annual “Person of the Year” issue put out by Time magazine is frequently misunderstood. Its title makes it sound like an accolade, an award given to someone who has done good, but as Time itself has noted on multiple occasions, it chooses the recipient of the title based merely on the influence that person has had on world events over the previous year. A quick look through the recipients of this title in the years preceding World War II will quickly dispel any notions people may have about the title being some kind of unqualified honour, although there have been certainly been several recipients of the title who deserve praise the world over for their lives and their actions.

Some may argue that discussing the bad actions of people only serves to draw attention to them, when it’s better to simply ignore these people for fear of inspiring copycats. This argument is most often heard these days in regards to shooters who cause mass casualty events, and on that kind of comparatively small scale, that may be true; however, we’ve always been exhorted that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and that advice points to the exact reason why it’s so important for us to study those people who inflicted so much devastation and carnage on the world in their lifetimes. It’s perhaps unsurprising that we’ve reached this point in American history after sustained attacks on our education system have led to generations of diminishing historical literacy.

Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton — and I’ve made my feelings about her known here on several occasions — there are two things that are objectively true about her: She’s one of the most polarizing political figures of my lifetime, and she’s an important historical figure in recent American history. From radically redefining the role and expectations of the president’s spouse, to being the first woman to win the popular vote in a presidential election, Clinton has been such a fixture in American politics (and broader American culture) for over a quarter of a century, and as her upcoming media appearances prove, she’s not going away any time soon, for better or for worse.

The answers to the question “Why is Texas removing all mentions of Hillary Clinton from its mandatory curricula” kind of go without saying, but it’s important to contextualize them in regards to the broad, nakedly political changes Texas Republicans made to their curricula earlier this decade. In addition to forcing conservative orthodoxy and ideology on Texas schoolchildren, right-wingers across the country can take advantage of Texas’ actions by making schools in their cities and states buy textbooks specifically designed for Texas state requirements (with or without informing school boards, parents or students about this); for more about this chicanery, please see my Socratic Sense episode about textbook controversies. This is why every move made by Texas conservatives in regards to state school curricula must be recognized as an attempt to change curricula nationwide, because that is precisely what happens every time Texas makes these kinds of changes.

Of course, there is also a highly symbolic element to removing Clinton from state curricula, one that can best be summarized by the whole “owning the (fill in the blank)” trope that has become so common in this political era. Much like actions by national, state and local conservatives since Donald Trump became president, these actions are calculated to generate outrage among non-conservatives, especially (in this case) the Clinton faithful. In an age where so many conservatives have based their judgment of a political action’s efficacy on how much that action ticks off their political opponents, the outrage among Clinton diehards to this news is like a drug to many conservatives, and with the 2018 midterm elections so close, and fears of Republican voters being demoralized by recent right-wing scandals growing, there’s definitely an argument to be made that bringing up the spectre of Clinton is a good way to energize the conservative base in the leadup to Election Day.

This action raises a very important question, though: After all the work that right-wingers have put into demonizing Clinton, work that (if the 2016 election taught us anything) was wildly successful, then why hide Clinton from students’ eyes? Instead of removing Clinton from the curricula, why not teach all the scandals that conservative media have invented around Clinton for the past quarter-century, from conspiracy theories about the death of Vince Foster to the ponderous pablum about what happened at that one consulate in Libya six years ago?  Given their sheer numbers, Texas Republicans could easily mandate that all students in Texas, and in cities across the nation, learn the right-wing narrative about Clinton from their textbooks, without reading a scintilla of the good that Clinton might have done in her life. Why not just keep Clinton in school curricula, but as the ultimate scapegoat she’s become for such a wide swath of the American public?

The only reasonable answer to this question is that conservatives, in Texas and otherwise, know that their narratives about Clinton don’t hold up to even the scrutiny of young schoolchildren. It’s incredibly effective at mobilizing and energizing the right-wing base, sure, but their power quickly disintegrates when they’re examined by those who don’t already have a pathological hatred of Clinton,  Even conservatives in Texas know that young children would sniff out that kind of treatment of Clinton in their textbooks, which is why the better option for them is simply to erase Clinton from their history books — literally.

On one level, it’s difficult not to see this action as a sign of weakness on the part of Texas conservatives, an admission that they are unable to, as the old saying goes, stick to their guns when it comes to the stories they’ve been creating around Clinton for nearly three decades now. At the same time, though, the potential this has to damage the education of schoolchildren across America makes this no laughing matter. Like or hate Clinton — and I’ve repeatedly made it clear that I’m no fan of hers — there is no denying that she is an important figure in modern American history. For Texas Republicans to insist otherwise only lends credence to the possibility that all the politicians and pundits who’ve pilloried Hillary for nearly thirty years are, to borrow another old phrase from that part of the country, all hat and no cattle.

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