Photo by Jonathan Meyer via Pexels.

America is going through a phase where an uncomfortably large percentage of voters tolerates willful stupidity and ignorance uttered by politicians, thought leaders and social media influencers who have figured out that history isn’t our strong suit.

In recent weeks, Marjorie Taylor Greene, an extremist Georgia Republican re-elected to the House of Representatives, has called upon her fellow Americans via tweet to consider a “national divorce” that would, in her mind, divide the country into red states and blue states with different governing priorities.

“We need a national divorce,” the recent divorcee tweeted. “We need to separate red states and blue states and shrink the federal government. Everyone I talk to says this. From the sick and disgusting woke culture issues shoved down our throats to the Democrat’s [sic] traitorous America Last policies, we are done.” 

Many are quick to dismiss Greene’s secessionist ramblings as the spitballing of someone who has heard rumors of the Civil War, but never quite grasped its significance in American history.

Because the stakes are so high when it comes to the actual governance of this country, it is a mistake to dismiss Greene’s historical illiteracy as the prattling of an uneducated eccentric who managed to get herself elected to the U.S. Congress twice.

As Americans, we have to face the fact that Rep. Greene isn’t flying solo into the dark heart of American ignorance. She represents a constituency of millions nationwide who believe in a smorgasbord of conspiracy theories that would result in the abolition of public schools, the rolling back of civil liberties and the elimination of voting rights for five years for “liberals” who move to red states to escape the tyranny of the U.S. Constitution.

While Greene is the blunt force tip of the spear of an anti-intellectual/anti-woke revolution, most of the heavy lifting in the culture wars is being done at school board meetings. 

That’s where hyper-conservative activists and the parents they’ve successfully recruited to their cause demand that public schools adopt a K-12 curriculum that thoroughly whitewashes history. Their stated goal is to shield “impressionable” students from historical guilt about slavery, the genocide of indigenous people and the lingering effects of structural evil as practiced throughout American history. 

This version of “patriotic” American history turns out to be a saccharine morality tale dominated by white men wearing powdered wigs. The one concession to diversity is Lincoln freeing the slaves followed by a guest cameo by Martin Luther King reciting cherry-picked lines from his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a possible 2024 Republican presidential candidate, has mounted an “anti-woke” reform campaign he and the conservative legislature have imposed on schools in that state. It has already resulted in hundreds of books being removed from school library shelves by teachers and librarians in an abundance of caution in an increasingly oppressive atmosphere. 

The highly symbolic fight over the fate of Black History Advanced Placement courses in Florida schools shows the willingness of opportunistic politicians to stir historical ignorance for all it is worth. It may be cynical and divisive, but it is also smart politics in a country where too many aggrieved white citizens are ready to jettison democracy in exchange for a few more decades of power.

Rep. Greene’s national divorce fantasy has been widely mocked by polls on both sides of the political divide. Only one influential Fox New pundit has embraced it so far, but there’s no doubt there is growing enthusiasm for a more politically segregated future on the right side of the ideological divide. 

Greene’s inability to connect the dots of her national divorce idiocy to the secessionist fever dreams of the 1850s that led to the Civil War is not just a failure of imagination — it represents the failure of our politics to take the education of the citizenry seriously. How is it possible that millions of Americans take such goofiness seriously given our history? The answer is obvious — Americans don’t know much about history.

In a properly functioning democracy, we would never have heard of Marjorie Taylor Greene, much less observe in horrified fascination her ascent up the ranks of the GOP.  In a properly functioning democracy, a responsible, historically accurate view of both Black history and American history wouldn’t be under assault by opportunistic politicians during Black History Month, either.

Dear readers: I hope you’re enjoying the change of pace in my weekly column in NEXTpittsburgh as much as I am. I’m also co-hosting a new podcast with my friend and fellow journalist Natalie Bencivenga. “In Other News” is now streaming on our website and YouTube, plus Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts.    

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.