If you’ve followed politics at all recently, then you’ve heard of Ron Desantis’s heinous Stop WOKE Act. And if you haven’t (lucky you), it’s the Florida governor’s effort to eliminate any exploration, discourse, or understanding of racial history and dynamics in Florida public institutions. The results so far have been the emptying of shelves at public schools, the firing or harassment of teachers, and the wholesale elimination of diversity initiatives, from DEI work to Black history courses.
If those results sound disturbingly dystopian to you, well, you’re in good company. The first and natural comparison to this anti-diversity edict is Nazi Germany, where book bonfires were a common occurrence. The biggest bad guys of the 20th century censored or destroyed any information that challenged the philosophy of the regime, including works that demonstrated the falsehood of racial superiority or questioned the strictures of gender.
But while it is very tempting (and easy) to compare Ron DeSantis to the Nazis, we have plenty of closer-to-home examples that pack the same punch.
Yes, ok, I am going to talk about slavery and the Civil War again. If you feel annoyed, just remember that DeSantis wouldn’t even want you to hear this.
Before slaveholders set the country on fire with their temper tantrums, those same men spent decades denying reality and anyone who pointed it out. In the late 1830s, southern states made it illegal to share abolitionist material after some edgy activists sent a bunch of pamphlets to planters, excoriating their systemic abuse of enslaved laborers. The response was super level-headed and reasonable, with mobs stealing and torching mail in Charleston, states aggressively enforcing awful penalties for teaching literacy to enslaved people, and calls from the President (Andrew Jackson, of course) to publish the names of anyone who willingly accepted abolitionist material in the South so they could be collectively punished.
Celebrated Yale grad and South Carolina Senator, John C. Calhoun introduced legislation to ban antislavery materials from the federal mail system and to prevent Congress from discussing abolition at all. His efforts wouldn’t be enshrined in law, but would lead to a rules-based “gag rule” in the House and Senate that would prevent debate over anti-slavery petitions for eight years in the lower chamber and 14 in the upper house.
All of this suppression relied – like the Stop WOKE Act – on the supposition that the free flow of this information would weaken support for oppression. Calhoun was particularly animated on this, believing that widespread discussion or documentation of slavery’s ills—even exclusively among white people—would ultimately lead to the demise of the “peculiar institution.” And to be fair to one of the worst humans this country has ever produced: He was right.
It turns out that discussion and dissemination of antislavery materials educated people about the horrors of the practice. But even more than that, the efforts to stifle discussion about it — whether it was the banning and burning of Uncle Tom’s Cabin after its 1852 publication or the marathon vote to prevent John Sherman from being Speaker after he offhandedly endorsed a book detailing the damage of slavery on poor whites’ economic possibilities — made opponents look completely hateful.
To protect their power, southern slaveholders and sympathizers wanted the whole country to play by their rules. Not only did they want their portion of society kept ignorant and happy with the status quo, they wanted everybody to agree with them, celebrate them, and expand slavery—or STFU.
This is the real danger of Ron DeSantis’s strategy: It isn’t limited to Florida. Instead, he’s offering a blueprint for anti-diversity efforts across the country, and a preview of what it would mean to have him in the Oval Office.
So while he’s picking up a strategy with its roots in some of the worst atrocities in history on both sides of the Atlantic, the creeping consequences will have an uniquely American flavor. We don’t need to bring up Nazis to count the costs of this censorship. Ron DeSantis doesn’t want you to know it, but we’ve had discussions like this right here in the good ole U.S. of A, and the losing side—the wrong side—is the one he and his ilk are standing on.