DeSantis Is Offering Freedom From Diversity, Equity And Inclusion
The coup indictment pretty much pushed everything else out of the news yesterday but the Associated Press managed to slip in the fact that DeSantis’ Hitlerian Disney district board got rid of all diversity, equity and inclusion programs and staffers. “The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District said in a statement that its diversity, equity and inclusion committee would be eliminated, as would any job duties connected to it. Also axed were initiatives left over from when the district was controlled by Disney supporters, which awarded contracts based on goals of achieving racial or gender parity.”
Also on Tuesday, Henry Giroux looked at the way DeSantis twisted the word “Freedom”— something he also did when he helped found the “Freedom” Caucus in Congress— to redefine it to signify the opposite of empowerment. I hope everyone who reads DWT has also read Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Orwell demonstrated how an authoritarian regime could use language as a powerful tool to oppress society. The concept he employed is known as "Newspeak,” the fictional language created by the ruling party, designed to limit freedom of thought and narrow the range of expression, effectively reducing the capacity for individual and independent thinking.
Orwell showed how this language could achieve this goal by systematically altering the meanings of words and eliminating words that could be used to express rebellious or independent ideas. Many words are redefined to serve the interests of the party/state, often conveying the opposite of their traditional or common usage. The ultimate aim of Newspeak was to eradicate the possibility of unorthodox or subversive thoughts, thus making dissent and resistance to the regime virtually impossible. Let me give you a few examples in case the last time you read the book was in high school.
Thoughtcrime: Refers to any thought or belief that challenges or questions the ideology of the ruling party.
Doublethink: The act of holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously and accepting both of them, a concept that essentially captures the practice of believing whatever the party says is true, even if it contradicts your own experience or common sense.
Ministry of Peace: Refers to the government department responsible for war and military affairs.
Ministry of Love: The department responsible for maintaining law and order through torture and punishment.
I hope I’m being clear that Orwell was trying to show how language can be manipulated and controlled to shape people's thoughts and perceptions, demonstrating the profound impact that language has on human cognition and freedom of expression. It serves as a warning about the dangers of totalitarian regimes and the importance of preserving language and communication for individual liberty and independent thought. In Newspeak, the word "Freedom" would likely have been redefined to suit the ideology and goals of the ruling party, much the way the GOP uses it today. The party's objective was/is to strip away any notions of personal freedom or individuality and to maintain strict control over the thoughts and actions of the population. In Newspeak, "Freedom" might have been defined as something along the lines of: a state of being obedient to the Party's principles and fully embracing one's duty to the collective. It is the absence of any desire for self-interest or personal desires that could undermine the greater good as defined by the Party. True freedom is achieved when one wholeheartedly accepts the Party's authority and adheres to its ideology without question or dissent. In this altered definition, "Freedom" would be stripped of its usual connotations of personal autonomy, self-determination, and the ability to act and think independently. Instead, it would be synonymous with complete submission to the Party's doctrines and suppression of any individual desires or aspirations. The aim of such a redefinition would be to eradicate the idea that individuals could have inherent rights or liberties that exist beyond the control and authority of the ruling regime.
And that brings us back to Giroux’s essay on how DeSantis perverts the word and concept “Freedom’ within the context of the fascism he and his allies aspire to. “The U.S.,” he wrote, “has always had a tortured legacy regarding the kind of citizen it was trying to produce. Central to this history has been a struggle over the meaning of freedom, and which vision of freedom society should adopt. This historical and contemporary struggle has not escaped a contradictory and often poisonous appeal to politics. The call to freedom has been not only invoked as a force for inclusion and justice, but also historically as a force for racism, exclusion, elimination— and, as the slogan ‘Work sets you free,’ menacingly posted at the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp, made clear, death itself. Historically, its invocation in service of justice has often been offset by its use to legitimize all manner of injustices. It has been used not only by advocates of social justice but also by those speaking in the name of a crude authoritarianism and brutal acts of violence. The appeal to dictatorial freedoms has resulted in acts of genocide against Native Americans, the unspeakable horrors of slavery, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, and the imposition of massive degrees of misery among the working class and unemployed. It has also been employed as a synonym for market values by a range of academics, including Milton Friedman, who defined it as a pillar of capitalism.
The appeal to unjust freedoms continues in the present era to legitimate and promote censorship and widespread persecution, as well as to enshrine white privilege, systemic racism and bigotry. And while the long struggle for democracy is inseparable from the struggle over the meaning of freedom, its record as a rationale for domination has often been suppressed, overlooked and ignored among educators, liberals, conservatives and the mainstream media. More recently, several historians and theorists have made clear how notions of freedom have been, and continue to be, rooted in a racist ideology that privileges white power, are central to white racial identity, and normalize a broader culture of vilification and inequality— particularly when it is used and abused by a number of far right politicians often aligned with white supremacy.
The language of freedom in the service of authoritarianism as it is developing in the United States poses a grave danger to the struggle for democracy both at home and abroad. It has become a cover not only for a range of anti-democratic policies, but also as a rallying cry for both a full-fledged attack on democracy and for a political, economic and educational force in support of an emerging fascism. It is possible to understand how freedom becomes fascistic by looking at the interests served and the rights destroyed.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attaches the word “freedom” to almost every repressive policy in his political repertoire. His appropriation of the term is as disingenuous as it is authoritarian. He uses the term not only in the title of his book, The Courage to Be Free, but as a punch line in his campaign speeches. This false appeal to freedom also appears in his relentless self-congratulatory claim presenting himself as the “governor of the free state of Florida,” along with the laughable assertion that Florida is “No. 1 in education freedom … and No. 1 for public higher education.” Along with his flagrant misuse of the term “freedom” and how it contradicts the policies he promotes, he defiles everything from the First Amendment to a range of democratic rights and freedoms. As Branko Marcetic observes, regardless of DeSantis’s flagrant hypocrisy and falsehoods in using the term, he emblazons the word freedom without qualification on practically “everything he touches.”
…For DeSantis, freedom is used as political theater to incite his base, attack human rights and exhibit a contempt for democracy. In his ideology, freedom becomes a propagandistic instrument for a fascist politics. Many of his policies wrapped in the rhetoric of freedom are closer to the model of authoritarianism displayed by the racist demagogic Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán (famous for his disdain of “race-making”)— policies that are closer to fascism than democracy. The historian Heather Cox Richardson argues, “The political career of Florida governor Ron DeSantis is the epitome of Orbán’s ‘Christian democracy’ come to the United States. DeSantis has imitated Orbán’s politics, striking at the principles of liberal democracy with attacks on LGBTQ Americans, abortion rights, academic freedom, and the ability of businesses to react to market forces rather than religious imperatives.”
…DeSantis’s weaponization of politics and culture coupled with his punitive policies of punishment stand in dire opposition to his claim as a principled champion of freedom— a claim that should be forcefully addressed as a violation of civil and human rights.
DeSantis has implemented an avalanche of policies that negate his claim to be expanding freedom. His appeal to freedom, however, rings hollow when set against his abuses, and it serves largely as a cover for producing an ongoing set of fascist tactics. In his quest to outperform Donald Trump as the standard bearer of white supremacy and an upgraded fascist politics, he openly embraces the spirit of authoritarianism while exhibiting an unbridled contempt for the institutions and rights fundamental to a viable democracy. Relatedly, DeSantis is oblivious to history, historical memory, and analogies that provide crucial lessons regarding the abuse of freedom and its dangerous consequences— which he readily reproduces. For instance, he is silent, if not disturbingly complicitous, about how his attacks on Black power and “wokeness,” the censoring of the history of slavery, his honoring of Confederate monuments, and his voter suppression policies (designed to ostracize people of color from politics) echo a disgraceful period in U.S. history in which freedom was used to justify systemic racist oppression.
One example would be his seemingly lack of awareness regarding how his “campaign against wokeness” (read: egalitarian portrayals or treatment of Black, gay and transgender people) resembles the same racist rhetoric and white supremacist language asserted by the late governor of Alabama, George Wallace. It is worth remembering that in his 1963 inaugural address, Wallace infamously proclaimed in the name of freedom, as part of his war against racial justice, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Beneath DeSantis’s lack of historical consciousness is what Jefferson Cowie rightly calls a “dark and visceral current of freedom as the unrestrained capacity to dominate.” At work here is DeSantis’s impulse not only to forget but also to further suppress any understanding of freedom that serves as a cover for oppression. His abuse of freedom is most evident in a range of polices that strikingly reveal how oppression and freedom can mutually inform one another. Freedom has always been a contested term. But DeSantis has radically promoted it as a force for domination rather than a crucial form of empowerment. Under the banner of right-wing demagoguery, he has weaponized and emptied freedom of any critical substance and stripped it of its historical connections with struggles for social justice and policies designed to further democratic equality. There is more at work here than the corruption of language. There is also a lesson in how freedom can be hijacked as a platform for regimes of bigotry, hatred, censorship, unchecked self-interest and the celebration of unbridled power. Consider, for instance, the goal and impact of his polices in undermining the social contract, stifling dissent, producing “unjust relations of domination,” and imposing a culture of indoctrination, misery, cruelty and mass suffering.
DeSantis has implemented numerous policies that destroy both the spaces where freedom can appear and where the civic connections to freedom can be enacted. His attack on public and higher education amounts to a far right effort to turn them into indoctrination factories. He has outlawed classroom discussions of race, gender and sexuality in all grades in Florida’s public education system, and has imposed draconian measures on teachers’ speech, especially discussions regarding sexuality and gender identity, “effectively forcing children and teachers alike to stay silent about their families and lives, under the threat of lawsuits,” as Moira Donegan notes. DeSantis has instituted policies aimed at silencing “Black voices and eras[ing] the full and accurate history and contemporary experiences of Black people.” He has “banned schools from teaching a newly created advanced placement high-school course in African American Studies.” Under law HB 1647, he has censored books, and initiated a process that allows parents to object to certain books so they can be removed from classrooms and libraries. His Stop Woke Act is not simply about banning ideas, it is also about producing ignorance and learned helplessness in young people as part of a broader attempt to both depoliticize and deprive them of becoming critically engaged agents and citizens. As Barbara Ransby notes, DeSantis’s attack on critical education cannot be removed from his broader “full-on embrace of white nationalism and authoritarianism.” At work in DeSantis’s attack on public and higher education is a defense of ultranationalism, the crushing of dissent, and a version of repressive education that was implemented in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Pinochet’s Chile. Appropriate here is Freud’s equating of fascism with what he called a “brutalizing education” and a “retrogression into all but prehistoric barbarism.”
…As part of his claim to destroy leftism in higher education, he is waging a war on academic freedom, reminiscent of the McCarthy period in U.S. history— though, as the historian Ellen Schrecker argues, the current attack on higher education is much more dangerous and terrifying. Campuses today have become “sites of mistrust and fear” aimed at accelerating “the debasement of higher education [while] subordinating independent learning and critical thinking to the ‘adoration of a mythic [fascist] past’.” DeSantis’ indoctrination bandwagon makes a claim to academic freedom when in reality it is an unadulterated grab for power that destroys rather than elevates intellectual freedom and civil discourse at all levels of education.
…DeSantis’ war on freedom extends far beyond public and higher education. Under the banner of spreading freedom, he uses state power to attack any speech he does not like along with the institutions that are critical of his politics and policies. The latter is obvious in DeSantis’s attack on Disney and other corporations that publicly condemned his hateful rhetoric against LGBTQ people. Additionally, there is his use of repressive state power to curb free speech, including laws that attempt “to gain control over social media sites [seeking] to control what major companies can say and what speech they can broadcast.” He has attempted to weaken defamation laws, specifically the New York Times Company v. Sullivan decision, making it more difficult for “journalists to investigate and criticize public figures without fear that an unintentional error will result in [devastating] financial penalties.” DeSantis has also supported voting restriction laws, passed a draconian anti-abortion policy, and put into play the “Combating Public Disorder Act,” which restricts and targets the right of individuals to engage in free speech and assembly. Though temporarily blocked by the courts, the law was passed after a wave of racial justice protests took place in the U.S. and around the globe in 2020. The law was specifically designed to broaden prohibitions against civil disobedience.
Equally troubling is DeSantis’s attempt to use his authority to fill judicial, economic, corporate and educational positions with individuals willing to support his war on free expression. This policy is on full display in DeSantis’s takeover of New College of Florida as a prototype of far right leadership and pedagogy. He appointed new trustees, including the notorious anti-woke warrior, Christopher Rufo; fired the president of the college; and vowed to transform what was a progressive college into what amounts to a far right laboratory for forcing a dogmatic conservative Christian education on students and faculty.
…Modern ideas of freedom do not always guarantee liberty or serve the cause of justice. Not only have diverse appeals to freedom been used to suppress the rights of people of color, marginalized women, and workers, they have also been used to shred the social contract, deaden the promise of democracy, and cause large-scale, untold misery and suffering. As Elisabeth Anker notes, these are “ugly freedoms” far removed from principled ideas, connected more to tyranny than emancipation, and which reproduce impoverishing and punishing modes of governance that have put into play policies that entrench poverty, reproduce staggering levels of inequality, reward the financial elite, and condemn public life to the ruthless laws of the market. DeSantis’s notion of freedom becomes synonymous with a politics of unfreedom as is evident in his denying of abortion rights, and his use of the power of the state to punish anyone who criticizes his policies, including teachers, librarians, politicians and even Disney. Under such circumstances, not only is DeSantis’s illusory claim to freedom delegitimized, it becomes a template for a range of disastrous social, political and economic policies. Moreover, his claim to be the high priest of freedom collapses into a public and social space that is morally obscene and politically fascistic. In a scorching indictment, William Kleinknecht lays out DeSantis’s miserable record of governance, making clear that he “starves programs geared toward bettering the lives of ordinary citizens so he can maintain low taxes on the wealthy and corporations.” It gets worse. He is worth quoting at length:
Omitted from the public debate about DeSantis’ policies is almost any discussion of his actual record of governance — what exactly he has delivered to the citizens of his state, especially those without seven-figure incomes and lush investment portfolios. Even a cursory dip into the statistics of social and economic well-being reveals that Florida falls short in almost any measure that matters to the lives of its citizens. More than four years into the DeSantis governorship, Florida continues to languish toward the bottom of state rankings assessing the quality of health care, school funding, long-term elder care, and other areas key to a successful society. Florida may be the place where “woke goes to die”— as DeSantis is fond of saying— but it is also where teachers’ salaries are among the lowest in the nation, unemployment benefits are stingier than in any other state, and wage theft flourishes with little interference from the DeSantis administration. In 2021, DeSantis campaigned against a successful ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage, which had been stuck at $8.65 an hour. Under DeSantis’ watch, the Sunshine State has not exactly been a workers’ paradise.
…Under neoliberal and fascist notions of freedom, matters of agency, choice and dignity are incapacitated by a lack of health care, ruinous poverty, long-term unemployment, low wages, lack of housing, lack of free time, and other constraints that deny true freedom. Freedom, when driven by capitalist values, easily aligns itself with hate, bigotry and violence, often finding its endpoint in fascist politics — clearly exemplified in the presence of Trump, DeSantis and the MAGA reign of the Republican Party. A radical conception of freedom must first and foremost address the staggering levels of inequality in wealth and power, the poisonous legacy of systemic racism and an anti-intellectual culture that turns reason monstrous. That is, the left and other progressives must make clear to the U.S. public what the poet Adrienne Rich called the “concrete reality of being unfree, how continuous and permeating and corrosive a condition it is, and how it is maintained through culture as much as through the use of force.”
The broad left needs to promote a notion of freedom as an emancipatory force, one that connects policies, education, power and politics to the realities of everyday lives. This should be a language in which people can both recognize themselves and use it to fight against the ideological and economic conditions that strip them of control over their lives and democracy itself. We cannot let neoliberal fascist politicians such as DeSantis reduce the meaning of freedom to the lethal forces of free markets, white freedom and the politics of disposability. As Rich observes, “Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of capital.” Freedom is a crucial category to be used in the fight for justice and equality. Ugly freedoms have now moved from the margins to the centers of power on both the national and state levels; they must be exposed and fought at every political level and with all the political and educational tools that are available. With the spread of fascism in the U.S. and across the globe, this is no longer one political undertaking among many. It is a necessary and fundamental project that should create the conditions for bringing together diverse and often fragmented elements on the left in order to create a mass, multicultural working-class movement in the struggle for a socialist democracy. The threat of fascism is too great and dangerous. The future depends on that struggle winning.