1776 Commission Art

President Trump’s “patriotic education” is a pack of fascist lies meant to indoctrinate children. 

Readers of my prior work may detect a consistent theme of anti-fascism in my writing. This frequent anti-fascism is not born out of some obsession with fascism but is rather my own personal attempt to consistently remind readers of the persistent and ongoing threat that fascism poses. It is my firm belief that the public must be constantly aware of the dangers posed by fascists if they are to organize any meaningful defense of their community or broader democratic society.

Now that I’ve got your attention, allow me to explain my use of the word fascist. In every analysis and explanation of what fascism is, there is one almost universal consensus among scholars: fascism is notoriously difficult to define. 

According to Robert Paxton — an expert on the history, nature and development of fascism — in his seminal work “The Anatomy of Fascism;”

“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” 

Umberto Eco — a philosopher who grew up in fascist Italy — states in his essay “Ur Fascism” one of the core pillars of fascism is a cult of tradition. While all states by necessity glorify national heroes to a certain extent, this cult of tradition comes into play alongside another of Eco’s pillars of fascism: criticism as treason.

This note of criticism being unpatriotic brings me to what the meat of this story is meant to be, the current battle over what we teach our children. For more than a year, conservatives and the broader American right have been complaining about the 1619 Project

Much of this criticism seems to boil down to one basic concept that none but the most virulent racist is willing to say out loud: that they take issue with the premise — and fact — that this country was not in fact built by wealthy white slave owners but rather, that it was built by and on the backs of African slaves. 

The day before the election, in an apparent attempt to rally his base, Trump signed an executive order mandating the creation of a 1776 Commission to provide a patriotic education in American history. The 1776 commission is a direct backlash against the national reckoning with our country’s racist past and with the 1619 project itself. 

While the executive order claims that our Founding Fathers have come under attack in recent years, this is not true. They are simply being treated as the men they were: flawed, complicated men who held contradictory beliefs about human liberty. The Trump administration simply sat on this executive order, waiting to release it ahead of the election to galvanize his nationalistic, xenophobic, nuance-averse base.

What makes this worse is that the telling of American history in schools has always been intensely “patriotic.” Nearly fifty years after the end of the Vietnam War, the war is still not widely taught in American schools. 

The Vietnam War was an unmitigated national humiliation for the United States. Even worse, by the end of it, the war’s unpopularity led to veterans not receiving proper care.

I believe that with an overly “patriotic” editorial bent towards our teaching of history, the lessons to be learned from Vietnam will more than likely be tossed in a metaphorical trashcan and set on fire. This will furthermore entrench the current state of forever-war in Afghanistan and our broader occupation of the Middle East — something Trump lies about opposing.

The past and present state of American history are already excessively patriotic and this 1776 Commission will serve only to twist that patriotism into a rabid and blindly uncritical nationalism. This already patriotic teaching of our history currently downplays the contributions of and sidelines labor, women, people of color and the left.

In recent years, the year 1776 has increasingly become a rallying cry for American fascists. Just the other week during the “Million MAGA March” — which appears to have attracted less than a million people to the streets of D.C. — infamous conspiracy theorist and all around crazy person Alex Jones gave a rabid tirade about big-tech, Biden and Chinese “communism” in which he declared “this is 1776,” leading to his audience of fascist thugs to chant “1776” to thunderous applause.

Without a doubt, the year 1776 was a momentous one in the history of this nation, but that symbolism has been tainted by a rabid fascist disease of the mind that blindly upholds the wealthy white slavers who founded this country as gods whose word is sacrosanct. I see no avenue at this time to reclaim ‘76 as simply a date in history.

Even though Trump will be leaving the White House in January, I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that an incoming Biden administration would necessarily be opposed to this “patriotic education.” I haven’t found any strong statement from either the candidate or the campaign on what is taught in the schools we pay for. There is, however, a great deal of harm that the incoming Biden administration must address and correcting potential damage to the education system may be overlooked.

The notion that teaching any subject can simply be banned by the state should fill every freedom-loving American with righteous indignation. The actual act of overt academic censorship happening right now in America should fill anyone who truly values freedom with utter rage.

Encouraging the teaching of practices critical of both the past and present is not within the interests of the status quo, as critique will inevitably produce a desire to change things too substantially for the powers that be to accept. 

This backlash against the very idea that we ought to look at our past and present critically so as to better understand our world is deeply dangerous. Until a month ago, I was an education major. 

My change in course was motivated by a number of factors, one of which was my own disgust at the very thought of having to teach lies to children. With the future of American history curriculum so bleak, I resolved that I would not and could not serve as a cog in a system that would inevitably create a new generation of fascists ready to kill and die for the American Empire.

What the American right seems to fail to understand is the very basic notion of criticism itself being a form of patriotism. Criticizing one’s own government is, in my view, one of the most patriotic things a person can do. The framers of the constitution would agree with me, which is why they enshrined the rights to freedom of speech and protest in the Constitution.

I would contend that closing one’s ears to criticism as well as being unwilling to form your own criticisms is not patriotism but a betrayal of the very ideals of our nation. In a democratic society, criticism of one’s country is, at its core, an attempt to improve the country. A denunciation and rejection of constructive criticism serves only to hold us back. It worsens the flaws that keep this country from healing the divisions created by a history of slavery and oppression.

There are, of course, legitimate critiques to be made of the 1619 Project. Numerous historians have made a wide array of critiques of the project and engaged in a dialogue with the project’s authors. Wrapped up in the legitimate critiques of the project is a further debate about who gets to tell American history.

Ultimately, there is no right answer to the question of who gets to tell the story of our nation and its people. But regardless of who tells the story or how it’s told, what is crucial is that students learn the truth.

Nick Finan is a sophomore political science major. Reach him at nickfinan@dailynebraskan.com