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The real meaning of "freedom" for Ron DeSantis and his ilk
It's the freedom to dominate. And lord have mercy on anyone who disagrees.
I’ve been meaning to write about an excellent book I read over the winter break, Freedom’s Dominion, by the historian Jefferson Cowie. The book recounts the history of Barbour County, Alabama, from the 1830s, when members of the Muscogee Nation were expelled en masse from their homes and land there, through the rise of native son, George Wallace, as a major national political figure in the 1960s.
Cowie is most interested in tracing a particularly influential notion of freedom through time, specifically as understood by people like Wallace and many of his forebears in Barbour County. Beginning with the expulsion of the Muscogee Nation, through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the New Deal era and the Civil Rights movement, Cowie shows how nonwhites were repeatedly subject to repression at the hands of generations of Barbour County Whites. And when the federal government intervened to try to stem that repression, Wallace and his ancestors railed against the federal government’s tyrannical incursions and its attempt to rob them of their fundamental freedoms. As Cowie makes clear, the wellspring of those most cherished freedoms was the freedom to dominate.
When White Alabamians began stealing land to which Muscogee Indians had legal title, the federal government under President Jackson tried (temporarily) to protect the Indians’ land rights. But land hungry Barbour County Whites kept right on stealing and violently displacing Native Americans, while at the same time screaming bloody murder that they were victims of government oppression. After the Civil War, Barbour County Whites didn’t wait long to strip Black members in their community of their newfound freedoms, including their right to vote. When the federal government deployed tepid and ultimately ineffectual means to secure the Black franchise, Barbour County Whites used the familiar two-step approach - violence and other illegal means to undermine Blacks’ right to vote on the one hand. And furious denunciation of the federal government’s tyrannical denial of their rights on the other.
When George Wallace took the oath of office as Alabama’s governor in 1963, he vowed to protect “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” By 1967, when he was trying to rebrand himself in order to run for President, Wallace insisted he was no racist. His only real beef, he repeatedly told journalists and voters across the country was opposing “abject slavery to government.” And what was the source of that enslavement, the ultimate denial of freedom? It was, first and foremost, the federal government’s efforts to enforce the newly passed Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in places like Alabama, and to deny the good people of Alabama the right to run their schools, elections and communities as they saw fit.
Some might call this hypocritical in the extreme. But Cowie wants to make the point that it reflected an ardent belief among its proponents, who believed they had a God given mandate to take what they deemed rightfully theirs. Freedom, in this conception, was not something all people should have equal title to. Instead, only the select could reasonably lay claim to it. It was this logic that justified the “Lost Cause” of the Civil War, on the grounds that the sacred principle of “states’ rights” was inextricably linked to the belief that some people, by dint of their natural superiority, had the right to own others. By this logic, anyone who thought otherwise was unalterably hostile to and a sworn enemy of that sacred “freedom.”
I bring this up because I think it’s useful context for understanding so much about the fundamental issues roiling our politics today, including our so-called culture wars. More specifically, it helps to explain the actions of and support for the GOP’s rising star, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. His war on “wokeness” - which most GOP-controlled state governments are pursuing in one form or another - is really a stand in for a multi-pronged attack on the rights of groups DeSantis doesn’t like. The highly controversial Stop WOKE Act, to take one high profile example, now under legal challenge (more on that below), is part of a larger attempt to make illegal the teaching of Black history and other subjects in ways DeSantis disfavors.
In defense of those efforts, DeSantis and his allies have claimed that they are defenders of free speech and that DeSantis’ actions are valid responses to the real threats to speech - those emanating from university professors and the woke left. Indeed, the Stop WOKE Act has also been dubbed by its proponents as the IFA, the Individual Freedom Act.
In an article on DeSantis’ machinations, New York Magazine political columnist Jonathan Chait notes that “there is a critique of the academic left rooted in free-speech norms that posits that many schools have had an atmosphere of ideological pressure that discourages or punishes professors who violate left-wing taboos.” Chait himelf has been a frequent critic of the academic left on precisely these grounds. But, Chait says, “this is not the belief system animating DeSantis’s academic mission. He is not seeking to protect or restore free speech, but to impose controls of his own liking.” Indeed, Chait argues, “DeSantis’ maneuvers to control education are ideological, consistent with his uses of state power: They follow a post-liberal vision eschewing any pretense of neutrality.”
Princeton Professor Keith Whittington is another frequent critic of the academic left and what he calls the “wokesters” who has nevertheless sounded the alarm bells on DeSantis’ “assault” on academic freedom. The Stop WOKE Act is both intentionally extraordinarily broad and almost impossibly vague. As Whittington explains, it seeks to ban teaching that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates or compels” certain understandings of race. Already, in part due to the vagueness of the law, many instructors in Florida are avoiding teaching about race altogether. Whittington notes that the University of Florida has issued guidance about what “instructors may not suggest or assert.” To avoid running afoul of guidance about what one may or may not “suggest” in a classroom is a nearly impossible task, unless you avoid the topic or anything remotely related to it entirely. Whittington also explains that jurisprudence around professors’ speech rights in the classroom at state institutions is “murky.” But, he points out, Florida’s defense of the Stop WOKE Act is absolute - that politicians essentially have the right to fire any professor who doesn’t espouse what politicians want them to.
In November, Federal Judge Mark Walker issued a temporary injunction against the law, on the grounds that it violated the first amendment’s prohibition against viewpoint discrimination and was overly vague. Tellingly, in his opinion, Judge Walker wrote that the law constituted Orwellian “doublespeak” when it asserted “the State has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of ‘freedom.’”
DeSantis has also used police state tactics to dissuade certain people from voting. In a 2018 ballot initiative, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved reinstatement of voting rights for most convicted felons who’d served their prison terms. DeSantis and the GOP-controlled Florida legislature engineered an end run around that initiative in 2019 by creating new and often opaque hurdles to reinstatement of those rights. To that end, DeSantis has mobilized a new law enforcement task force. To tout their work, in a high profile stunt last August, DeSantis announced the arrest of twenty people, most of whom are Black, on charges that they voted or attempted to vote illegally. Every litigated case to this point has undermined the basis for these prosecutions, primarily because most of the people Florida is hounding received voter registration cards or other information from Florida election officials suggesting they were eligible to vote. DeSantis has poured absurdly disproportionate resources into pursuing a “problem” that every valid analysis shows to be essentially non-existent - in-person voter fraud. But DeSantis doesn’t care about that. His clear and obvious goal is to intimidate those who are legally eligible to vote into not doing so, for fear that they will be prosecuted and sent to jail. All, of course, in the name of “free and fair” elections, as backers of that 2019 end run touted their work.
Here's one more example of DeSantis’ war on basic freedoms in the name of freedom. Last year, DeSantis signed a law stripping the Disney Corporation of its special tax status. One can debate whether it should have had that status in the first place. But corporations get them all the time, and the GOP has not in recent decades generally shown itself to be a stalwart opponent of corporate rights and privileges, I think it's fair to say. But the reason Florida withdrew Disney's special status is clear: Disney spoke out against another law DeSantis signed, the “Parental Rights in Education Act,” disparagingly known as the “Don’t Say Gay" bill. Indeed, DeSantis himself said he was stripping the benefit from Disney because it expressed “woke” opinions and “tried to attack me to advance their woke agenda.” That motivation violates clearly established Supreme Court precedent about deploying official reprisals to punish protected speech. So, one might say, by DeSantis’ logic, Disney had to be punished to protect (certain) parents’ basic rights and freedoms.
So-called “free speech” warriors, including Elon Musk, Andrew Sullivan and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, each of whom has been a cheerleader for some or all of DeSantis’ agenda, claim in one way or another to espouse a viewpoint neutral fealty to free speech. There is, however, no serious viewpoint neutral defense of DeSantis’ actions. Indeed, he’s indisputably among the most overtly hostile opponents of free speech, as well as other basic liberties, in the United States today.
But if you understand that DeSantis is, self-consciously or not, drawing on a particular strain of American freedom, one that has been used to justify oppression for ages, you’ll have a better basis for understanding what motivates DeSantis’ agenda. Indeed what oozes from DeSantis’ demeanor and his puffed out chest in every public appearance is the conviction that he has a right to dominate his enemies, and that anyone who believes otherwise is both a deserving target of his wrath and an opponent of the only kind of freedom DeSantis and his most ardent supporters really believe in. In this respect, DeSantis is very much a Trump mini me, except that he’s using the powers of the state in a more systematic and thoroughgoing way to try to achieve his vision of “freedom” in his sphere of authority than Trump was ever able to accomplish in his.
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