People hold signs at the Milwaukee Teach the Truth rally in June 2021.
People hold signs at the Milwaukee Teach the Truth rally in June 2021. Credit: Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association (MTEA) / Flickr

January 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day and a school board in Tennessee decided to mark it by banning the prize-winning graphic novel Maus, which portrays a Polish-Jewish family’s experience of the Nazi genocide.

McMinn County school board members object to the harsh and disturbing subject matter of Maus. They do not think Tennessee youngsters should be subject to explicit images of Nazi concentration camps. 

McMinn County is not alone. 

That county’s book banning is part of a national U.S. movement. There are widespread efforts throughout the U.S. to stifle education about slavery, racism, and systemic discrimination because it could make [white, Christian] children “feel bad.” 

We have not seen much of this sort of aggressive white backlash here in Canada, yet. But it is there, beneath the calm surface. More on that later.

In the U.S., many states have passed laws limiting the way schools can teach U.S. history. 

The Tennessee law includes standard boilerplate about the equality of all peoples, but adds a number of ideologically driven rules.

The law says that Tennessee’s state government will financially penalize school districts if they teach that any “individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive.” 

Tennessee schools must also avoid making any students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.” 

The law goes further and invents the notion that the U.S. is a pure form of “meritocracy.” 

Schools may not besmirch the country’s elevated status by saying U.S. meritocracy “is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex.”

Similarly, the Tennessee law prohibits schools from teaching that “this state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.” 

And Tennessee schools are not permitted to even suggest that in the U.S. “the rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.”

Downplay the role and legacy of slavery

The Tennessee law does not mention what is known as critical race theory, a scholarly enterprise which aims to put slavery, Jim Crow, colour bar laws, police brutality, continued economic exploitation and social discrimination in a broad historic context. Many other state laws, such as those of Florida, do.

The Florida laws, and those of a number of other states, explicitly forbid teaching about the year 1619, when the colonies that would become the United States of America first imported enslaved people from Africa.

Starting in 2019, the New York Times undertook a widely praised 1619 project. 

The project characterizes 1619 as the true foundational year of the American republic. The newspaper created a variety of multimedia materials on the 1619 theme, to explore the hitherto largely ignored story of American slavery.

In response, many state governments have specifically prohibited all of their schools from using any of the Times’ 1619 project’s material.

One of those states is Florida. But Florida has gone even further. 

After enacting legislation last fall to prevent schools from telling Florida children the full story about slavery and racism in the U.S., in December the Florida state government introduced a new and sweeping measure called the “Stop the WOKE Act.” 

This new law directly targets critical race theory, which, the Florida government claims, divides people and teaches children to “hate their country.” 

In true Orwellian fashion, the Florida government says its newest effort to censor disquieting historic truths will “empower” students with the “freedom to draw their own conclusions.”

Florida echoes Tennessee and other states when it characterizes the teaching of the factual history of the United States as “a direct attack on the emotional well-being of our children.” 

Censorship extends to public school libraries 

We find this solicitude for children’s emotional well-being throughout large swaths of the U.S. when it comes to the books public libraries are permitted to stock.

Oklahoma is considering legislation that will tell public school libraries they should not carry “books that address the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity … sex-based classifications, sexual identity, or gender identity …” 

In Texas, Michael Krause, a member of the state legislature who is running for attorney general, has asked school districts to provide lists of books in their libraries that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” 

Among the nearly 1,000 books Krause wants banned are William Styron’s 1960s classic about a slave revolt, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Canadian Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

One school district in the city of San Antonio removed over 400 books in response to Krause’s inquiry. 

Texas governor Greg Abbott, who, like Florida governor Ron DeSantis, forbids school districts from requiring students and staff to wear masks, fully supports Michael Krause.  

Indeed, Abbott proposes that the state of Texas should criminally prosecute librarians who refuse to rid their shelves of banned books.

Meanwhile, in Canada

So far, there are only faint efforts of this U.S.-based movement in Canada. 

There have been struggles over sexual education and social studies curriculums in Ontario and Alberta. 

At one point, the Ontario Conservative government seemed ready to pander to groups that wanted to dilute a sex-ed program introduced by the previous Liberal government, but it backed down.

The Alberta Conservatives proposed a social studies curriculum that consigned Indigenous people to the past, but it too has backed down. The Alberta Conservatives still, however, insist schools must teach that climate change has both natural and human causes. 

Mostly, the organized white backlash we see in the U.S. remains below the surface here in Canada. Those who followed the controversy surrounding the very public resignation from the CBC of one journalist, Tara Henley, could conclude, however, it is not far below the surface.

Some readers might remember how, when Henley left the CBC in a huff early in January of 2022, she made public a letter in which she accused the corporation of being too “woke” and excessively concerned with issues of race and diversity, to the detriment of more notionally important matters.

Henley was fêted and interviewed by the National Post, Fox News in the U.S., right-of-centre American podcaster Megyn Kelly, and the Daily Mail in Britain. Others, even some who ideologically agreed with her, pointed out that Henley’s condemnation of the public broadcaster was virtually fact-free. 

In his Canadaland podcast, Jesse Brown, not always the CBC’s biggest fan, challenged Henley to get specific, and she wouldn’t – or couldn’t.

It was disquieting, however, to witness the parade of white Canadian men who were quick to endorse Henley on social media. They wrote in dark terms of how the CBC has bent over backwards to bring on Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour, and, ergo, no longer represents average Canadians.

CBC’s most recent annual report says visible minorities make up less than 15 per cent of its total staff – a fact that does not seem to matter to the public broadcaster’s anti-woke detractors.

One former CBC-er pointed to one of the few concrete facts Henley cited, to wit, that the CBC had once carried a story about the artist Ally Gonzalo’s portrayals of the bakla or trans Filipino community in Winnipeg. Henley argued such stories took resources away from coverage of more important matters, such as the housing crisis in Canada. 

My response to this criticism was two-fold. First, I asked: what is wrong with the story Henley mentions? It seems perfectly legitimate, and well-executed to boot. And two, what we are talking about is one story, and one story does not a network make. 

Brown directly challenged Henley’s claim that the CBC’s single story about a trans Filipino somehow crowded out coverage of more important stuff. He asked her to prove her point, but she was at a loss for an answer. 

CBC managers have said virtually nothing about this kerfuffle. They have wisely chosen not to give Henley’s devoid-of-facts accusations the oxygen they do not deserve.

What is more important about the whole affair is not what Henley had to say; it is the resonance her screed has had with so many otherwise rational folks. 

In the U.S., many people harbour the beleaguered sense that the world is changing too fast for them and for people like them. It is an uncomfortable feeling which nourishes book-banning and teacher-muzzling. 

Well, there are many here in Canada who have that same uncomfortable sense, the same misplaced nostalgia for the “good old days.” For the time being, at least, on this side of the border that sentiment takes a more measured, polite – Canadian – form. 

That could change, however, if that feeling rises from beneath the surface and takes on a less polite shape.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...