Stopping “Woke”

Ron DeSantis, George Orwell and Helen Keller

by Arthur Schwartz

There is a real contest going on about who is the scariest politician in this country. For a long time it looked like Donald Trump and his call to arms of racists, bigots and “white nationalists” couldn’t be beaten for that title. But Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, while not expanding his electoral base, has taken a whole new path, a path littered by book bannings, extreme anti-abortion actions and an effort to chase LGBTQ people back into the closet. Who could imagine Disneyland becoming a warrior for the rights of gay people?! Or teaching kids that slaves learned “useful skills” while getting whipped in Southern plantations before the Civil War?!

I want to add only two meaningful comments by others to the debate. The first is a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker, where he declared large portions of DeSantis’ “Stop Woke Act” unconstitutional. The second, reaching into the lessons of Orwellian doublespeak from 1984, he wrote:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen and the powers in charge of Florida’s public university system have declared that the State has then unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of freedom.” To confront certain viewpoints that offend the powers that be, Florida passed the so-called ‘Stop-W.O.K.E. Act,’ in 2022—redubbed (in line with the State’s doublespeak) the “Individual Freedom Act.” The law officially bans certain viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints. Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only viewpoints that the State approves. This is positively dystopian. It goes without saying that “[i]f liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

NY EVENING POST, 10.5.33. Courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind.

In 1933, just before the Nazis took power in Germany, supportive university students burned more than 25,000 books. This is what Helen Keller wrote in response to the book burnings:

“History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them. You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds.”