The Florida Strong-Man

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Honoré Daumier, Ancient History: The Stable of Augeas, 1842. The Cleveland Museum of Art.


During his re-election campaign last Fall, Florida governor Ron DeSantis seemed like he was everywhere. He didn’t make it to Micanopy (pop. 600) where my wife and I live, but he did manage to claim credit for a local internet upgrade he had nothing to do with. Now, barnstorming nationwide — without yet announcing his candidacy for president — DeSantis wields his “anti-woke” agenda like Hercules his broom in Daumier’s satire, cleaning the Augean stables. In this case, however, Hercules is piling up bullshit, not sweeping it away.

Not content with limiting abortion, restricting the franchise for Black and brown people, ostracizing trans athletes, silencing discussion of gay issues in schools, criminalizing public protest, alienating the state’s biggest private employer (Disney), and kidnapping lawful asylum seekers in San Antonio and flying them to Martha’s Vineyard, DeSantis is targeting higher education. Last week, he blackmailed the heads of Florida’s 28 state and community colleges to ban any course of study “that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality.” The prohibition came just days after the Governor’s hand-picked university chancellor, Ray Rodrigues, asked the college presidents to submit a detailed tally of spending on programs related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, or critical race theory. “Those are some swell colleges you have there,” DeSantis and Rodrigues evidently threatened the presidents, “it would be a shame if anything happened to them.”

Earlier in the month, DeSantis also replaced the majority of the governing board of New College, the innovative and highly ranked liberal arts institution in Sarasota in order to turn it into a conservative redoubt focusing on “the classics.” (Do they really think students today will learn Latin declensions?) One of the new trustees is Chris Rufo, a far-right activist and former fellow of the Discovery Institute, which denies evolution, and the Claremont Institute, whose leading light is John Eastman, one of the main Jan. 6 coup plotters. Rufo has led the national campaign against critical race theory, describing it as “the perfect villain” that will enable the far right to take over “state agencies…and then create rival power centers within them.”

For good measure, the Florida Department of Education, led by DeSantis’ appointee Manny Diaz, issued a ruling last week that high school students in the state can no longer enroll in advanced placement courses in African American Studies. Such courses, the department ruled, “significantly lack educational value” by emphasizing “intersectionality” which (supposedly) “ranks people based on their race, wealth, gender and sexual orientation.” The targeted course was developed in part by Henry Louis Gates Jr., former chair of Harvard’s department of African and African American studies, and the best known and respected scholar of African-American literature in the world. Florida high school social studies teacher Marlon Williams-Clark, who was asked to pilot the new course, told the NYTimes last August: “I think people need to understand that critical race theory is not an element of this course. [It is] a comprehensive, mainstream course about the African American experience.” Williams-Clark hoped by his disavowal to avoid state injunction, but nothing he said could have prevented it; this was never about the validity of historical and pedagogical theory. It was about power and political ambition.

Critical race theory and intersectionality

Critical race theory, bugbear of racists and instrument of Republican advancement nationwide, is the idea – promulgated by Derrick BellKimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris and others — that from the time of the founding of the United States, whiteness granted its possessors social status and unearned economic resources. Those benefits were passed on to succeeding generations, preventing non-whites from attaining an equivalent social, political, and economic standing. The value of whiteness is apparent today in the continuing gap in wages between Blacks and whites, wealth accumulation, incarceration rates, vulnerability to pollution and climate change, and decreased life expectancy.

Given its strong, empirical basis, critical race theory stands on secure historical ground and has done for decades, though under different names and according to different authors. In his book Black Reconstruction in America (1935) W.E.B. Dubois made arguments very similar to the critical race theorists:

“It must be remembered that in the post-Civil War South] the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness….White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.”

In subsequent essays and books by authors including James Baldwin, Alexander Saxton, David Roediger, Noel Ignatiev, Gerald Horne, and Theodore Allen, DuBois’ intersectional analysis of racism and class consciousness was extended both historically and thematically to include the long history of settler colonialism in North America, Black and white minstrelsy, and the conflict and sometimes cooperation of African American and successive immigrant communities — Irish, Chinese, Italian, Jewish, Polish, Korean and others.

There is thus nothing controversial, at least among historians and other scholars, about the basic premise of critical race theory. Racial whiteness has for four centuries offered a measurable advantage to those that possess it, and disadvantage to those who lack it, though the definition of “whiteness” has sometimes changed. The other term that attracts far-right opprobrium is “intersectionality.” Its rhetorical basis may be the very classics honored by the Florida Department of Education. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (act iv, scene 5), King Claudius says: “When troubles come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” Bad fortune, disease, destruction, and oppression compound one another, Shakespeare says. In our time, empirical evidence indicates that racial discrimination engenders unemployment, poverty, poor health, incarceration, broken families, homelessness, and gender violence. When activists challenge one form of oppression, therefore, they must reckon with several others; their perspective must be wide or intersectional, and their willingness to collaborate generous.

Will DeSantis’ attacks on academic speech stand?

DeSantis’ prohibition of the teaching of critical race theory and intersectionality in grades K-12 constitutes educational malpractice, but it has a secure, legal basis. While speech outside the schoolhouse is protected, speech within it is not. That was the determination in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006), an important Supreme Court case determining that governments have the power to control whatever they have “commissioned or created.” That means that schoolteachers can pretty much be told what to say and what not to say to their pupils.

Free speech protections, however, are much more robust for college and university professors. That’s because courts have historically been deferential to the principle of academic freedom, treating it as essential for the creation of a marketplace of ideas. The most recent federal case law upholding those rights dates to 1967. There is no telling how the current U.S. Supreme Court would decide the issue; however in Florida, protections for academic freedom are far more robust than elsewhere. To begin with, freedom of speech is protected in the Florida State Constitution. More importantly, it’s protected by contract. Both the University of Florida Faculty Handbook and the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the United Faculty of Florida and the University of Florida Board of Trustees guarantee academic freedom:

“[Article] 10.1 Policy. Academic freedom and responsibility are essential to the integrity of the University. The principles of academic freedom are integral to the conception of the University as a community of scholars engaged in the pursuit of truth and the communication of knowledge in an atmosphere of tolerance and freedom. The University serves the common good through teaching, research, scholarship/creative activities, and service. The fulfillment of these functions rests upon the preservation of the intellectual freedoms of teaching, expression, research, and debate. The University and UFF therefore affirm that academic freedom is a right protected by this Agreement in addition to a faculty member’s constitutionally protected freedom of expression and is fundamental to the faculty member’s responsibility to seek and to state the truth as he/she sees it.”

If that weren’t explicit enough, the document goes on to say:

“The University recognizes that internal and external forces may seek at times to restrict academic freedom, and the University shall maintain, encourage, protect, and promote academic freedom.”

And just in case anybody still doesn’t get it:

“Faculty members shall have the freedom to:

(1)  Freely engage in scholarly and creative activity and publish the results.

(2)  Present and discuss, frankly and forthrightly, academic subjects, including

controversial material relevant to the academic subject being taught.

(3) Select instructional materials, define course content, and determine grades within general department guidelines.”

Given that the current Florida Supreme Court is all Republican, half of whose members were hand-picked by the far-right Federalist Society, the outcome of a challenge to academic freedom remains uncertain. But it would require the skills of a contortionist to bend over backward far enough to support Governor Ron DeSantis in his current, anti-woke, anti-education crusade.

The Florida Führer

For a man with all the warmth of Adolf Hitler and none of his rhetorical skills, Ron DeSantis displays extraordinary conceit. He holds forth on critical race theory, intersectionality, trans identity, immigration, and voting rights, as if he knew anything about them. In fact, his ignorant harangues are attempts to bring critical intellectuals to heel and polish his swastika, that is burnish his far-right credentials. The word that comes to mind in this context is “Gleichshaltung”, the German term for “bringing into conformity” or “Nazification.” The goal of the Nazi regime from Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933 to the passage of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935 was to bring all organs of state and civil society into conformity with the will of the Führer. Control of the press, regimentation of everyday life, elimination of expressive freedoms, destruction of constitutional safeguards, control of trade unions, establishment of a dictatorial (one party) state and an end to the civil rights of minorities (especially Jews) were all key aspects of Gleichshaltung.

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Kurt Tucholsky, Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles, Berlin, 1929. Cover design by John Heartfield.

The Florida governor and his cronies hope that faced with budget cuts, loss of tenure protection, and the threat of retrenchment, independent and progressive faculty will come into conformity; and if they don’t, that the educational bureaucracy, state legislature, and courts — supported by an aroused or at least complaisant public — will eliminate them. After that, DeSantis and the Republicans can proceed unhindered in their work of creating a one-party state with little possibility of dissent from grouchy professors or their students. But for DeSantis, even failure can count as victory. If he can show the most rabid 35% of the national electorate – the fascist, MAGA, Trumpist faction – that he is the most far-right Republican candidate for president, he has a good chance of winning the nomination. Once that is secured, De Santis will take his chances in the general election. It’s a rare Republican who doesn’t come out and vote for his party’s presidential candidate, no matter who it is, as the last two elections showed.

Ron DeSantis might as well wear a politicians top hat and an iron cross, carry a sword and a truncheon, and sing “Deutschland, Deutschland, Über Alles,” like the figure in John Heartfield’s photomontage above. He was a Harvard JD who enlisted to serve in the Navy’s Judge Advocate Corps at Guantanamo Bay. His exact work at Gitmo has been kept secret, but he was there in 2006-7, at precisely the time when some JAGs – but not him — were decrying the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that denied prisoners the chance to file writs of habeas corpus challenging their continued detention without trial. The following year, he joined the Navy SEALS and worked as the legal advisor to their Commander in Fallujah Iraq. Fallujah was the site of heavy fighting and frequent U.S. killings of civilians between 2003 and 2006. By 2007 when DeSantis was there, the U.S. goal was to turn defense of the city over to Iraqi defense forces (Operation Alljah). Navy SEALS were engaged in night raids to capture and kill insurgents. There is no available information on DeSantis role if any, in these training missions or raids.

DeSantis’ military background is arguably the basis of his hold-no-prisoners approach to politics: illegally firing elected officials who disagree with him, organizing a special police force – answerable only to him – to arrest 20 former felons (poor and mostly Black) who inadvertently violated Florida voting law; kidnapping and transporting asylum seekers; seeking a permanent ban on future mask or vaccine mandates; and passing draconian laws and administrative edicts controlling what professors can and cannot say in the classroom and on campus. The reputation of Florida’s university system, no less than the freedom of speech and thought of its residents – and all Americans — is dependent upon a movement to stop the would be Übermensch from gaining the White House in 2024.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. He can be reached at: