The Populist Right is trying to roll back the gains made the Black Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Gay Movement and is trying to prevent Gender Self Determination being legalised. Central to their strategy are attempts to a play one group of oppressed against another. This has led to the emergence of what have been termed “culture wars”. Some on the Left have bowed before this pressure and argued against taking on the Right in these “culture wars”. In effect, this means stepping back from the long battle against oppression and alienation and for national and personal self-determination, in the misguided belief that shunning what they call “identity politics’ and promoting working class unity over economic issues is an adequate way of defeating the Populist Right.What we need is working class unity in diversity, and support and solidarity with every group challenging oppression, and this means challenging the Populist Right in every sphere.
We are posting two articles which deal with aspects of the Populist Right challenge. The first is a review by rs21 member, Colin Wilson of Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment (authors: Agnieszka Graff and Elżbieta Korolczuk). The second article is by Tatiana Cozarelli of Left Voice (USA) and examines the Populist Right’s attacks on critical race theory and transgender kids in the USA.
1. COLIN WILSON (rs21) REVIEWS ANTI-GENDER POLITICS IN THE POPULIST MOVEMENT
On September 26th 2021, a Swiss referendum produced an overwhelming decision in favour of same-sex marriage, while German voters elected two trans women to the country’s parliament – the first openly trans people to take their seats there. But there’s a stark difference between these advances for LGBT people and developments in some Eastern European countries. In Poland, local government bodies covering about a third of the country have declared themselves to be ‘LGBT-free zones’. The hard right Fidesz government in Hungary have abolished legal recognition of trans people, effectively forbidden same-sex couples from adopting children and banned the depiction of homosexual relationships in materials targeted at or accessible to children, conflating homosexuality and paedophilia. Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment helps us understand these developments in the former Warsaw Pact countries, their links with the far-right internationally, and gives an inspiring example of people fighting back.
The grim truth, however, is that millions of people have been mobilised across Europe – West to East – by a movement which opposes ‘gender’, seeks to defend ‘the family’ and claims that children are in danger and must be protected. Throughout Europe, this movement is part of the populist right – in France, the 2013 ‘Manif pour Tous’ brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets against marriage equality and was supported by the French far right, while a 2019 ‘World Congress of Families’ took place in Verona and featured hard-right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini as its star speaker. So, as Graff and Korolczuk make clear, growing homophobia and transphobia in Eastern Europe don’t have their origin in the ‘backwardness’ of a region supposedly still blighted by decades of ‘communism’ and so unable to advance into ‘enlightened modernity’. These ideas originate from, and are promoted by, networks of powerful people in the West. The Catholic church has consistently opposed equality for women and LGBT people, and Pope Francis – despite his undeserved reputation as a liberal – continues to do so. In Poland, the ‘anti-gender’ movement has the additional function for the Catholic church of shifting public discussion away from child sexual abuse by priests, widespread in that country as elsewhere. Homophobic and transphobic claims are supported by the hard right internationally – as in the cases of Trump and Bolsonaro – which spreads its ideas through a well-funded and coordinated network of campaign groups and think tanks. These are the people, incidentally, with whom some British so-called leftists and feminists are aligning themselves.
What exactly are those hard right ideas, and why do many people find them credible? As Graff and Korolczuk make clear, a key factor in Eastern Europe is the experience of neoliberalism since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As they put it, ‘what most Poles and Hungarians hoped for in 1989 was [a] system akin to the Swedish welfare state of the seventies… What they got, however, was closer to the American model in the eighties’ and the slogan ‘every man for himself’. Rather than Polish people experiencing the living standards of workers in Hamburg, Paris or London, over 2 million Poles emigrated in search of work. Multinationals set up factories in Poland, staffed by workers who were as educated as Western Europeans but paid less. Accession to the EU was part of this same picture. Countries such as Poland and Hungary were presented with the accumulated body of EU laws and told to enact them in their own states, including laws about LGBT equality. The European Commission didn’t consult with LGBT people in those countries about what they wanted and needed – these reforms happened over their heads.
It’s in this context, which the populist right describe as a kind of ‘colonisation’, that hard right ideologues make the claim in Eastern Europe that ‘gender’ is being promoted by a corrupt international capitalist elite, who impose their ideas on innocent and authentic ‘ordinary’ people, including the poor and the helpless. There is a remarkable cynicism in the way that such leaders, part of well-funded international networks, can claim to represent the disadvantaged. It’s much easier to understand why Polish or Hungarian workers might find these claims attractive. They have seen communities eroded and everyday lives become more unstable. Social forces they identify with stability – the nation and the ‘traditional family’ where parents both control and protect their children – seem under attack. As Nicolas Bay, an MEP of the far right Front National, has put it, neoliberals ‘support fragmented individualist “nomadic man” [as] only [an] economic actor who produces and consumes. We support a different vision of a man, not consumer but embedded in family… It is family that protects the weakest and old people.’
As Graff and Korolczuk explain, ‘the current attack on “gender” would not be such a success if right-wing populism did not address the real needs and grievances of many families in Europe’. The other striking point here is that this is a populist politics, or claims to be such – anti-capitalist, for the many and against the few. It’s a right-wing populism – it favours only those ‘ordinary people’ who come from ‘our’ country and live in ‘traditional’ families. But for those people, it provides a sense of legitimation. What’s more, in Poland the hard-right Law and Justice Party provides families with not just legitimation but hard cash. Since 2015, families are paid 500 złoty (about £93) each month for each child, government spending on childcare tripled between 2015 and 2018, and public spending on pro-family policies rose as a share of GDP by over two-thirds between 2015 and 2017. In Hungary, every married couple gets an interest-free €30,000 loan if the woman is aged 18 to 40 and pregnant, as well as subsidised loans to buy or build a house, and grants to buy a bigger family car.
This can seem an alarming prospect. We’re used to right-wingers like the Johnson government, who espouse pro-family and transphobic rhetoric but then attack actual working-class families, for example by removing the £20 Universal Credit uplift. The obvious response from the left is to point out they are hypocrites who don’t deliver – and that’s a harder case to make if a far-right government gives families monthly cash or an interest-free loan. But Graff and Korolczuk highlight that even in these situations, resistance is possible. In October 2016, for example, in response to a proposed ban on abortion, over 150,000 people took part in protests in 200 cities and towns across Poland. Protesters ostentatiously walked out of church services, challenging not only the government but also the Catholic church – previously identified with democracy and Polish national identity, but in the eyes of many protesters now with the abuse of women and children. This movement involved many working-class women and other ‘ordinary’ people who had not been activists before, increasing their confidence to speak and campaign. Such protests mobilised righteous anger against distant political elites – but this was a genuine, grassroots, left populism as opposed to the fake right-wing variety with its concealed international links and financing.
Protests in defence of abortion rights took place on a similar or even larger scale in the autumn of 2020, after a major attack, so far successful, in the form of a legal ruling that the Polish constitution protected the life of a foetus. As Graff and Korolczuk comment, the 2016 protests formed part of the wave of women’s struggles that inspired the book Feminism for the 99 Percent by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser – and they exemplify one of its key ideas, that rather than defending the ‘diversity’ espoused by neoliberal corporations, we need a feminism integrated with struggles for economic justice and against racism, homophobia and transphobia. Likewise, the more campaigners for LGBT freedom in Eastern Europe seek help from their ‘powerful friend’ in the EU, the more they inadvertently endorse right-wing claims, which a left populist approach could undermine.
Graff and Korolczuk’s book, all in all, is a valuable contribution to helping us understand our enemy as we struggle to build the movement we need. It can be downloaded for free here.
26th October 2021
This article was first posted at Review | Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment
also see article Reproductive Racism by Sophia Saddiqi in Race & Class, October 2021
2. TEACHERS UNIONS MUST FIGHT THE ATTACKS ON CRITICAL RACE THEORY AND TRANS KIDS
Schools have become the center of right wing attacks. Attacks on trans kids and the teaching of history are likely to become the center of Republican’s midterm election strategy. Teacher’s unions need to fight back.
In the past few months, school boards around the country have been overrun by crowds of right wing parents and community members protesting against trans kids in bathrooms, trans kids on sports teams and against the teaching of “critical race theory” in school. This is the center of the new Republican strategy for the midterms: focus on schools. This isn’t a concern coming up organically for families. After all, Fox News mentioned “critical race theory” 1,300 timesin less than four months. And Glenn Youngkin, the new governor-elect of Virginia, hung his electoral campaign on attacks on trans kids, and critical race theory (CRT).
But this isn’t just a Virginia issue; anti-trans and anti-CRT laws are being passed around the country and the Republicans believe they have found a winning issue. That means the attacks are only going to keep coming.
These are attacks on schools, on students and on teachers. We need a national struggle by teachers’ unions to fight this right wing offensive in schools.
The Attacks on Trans Kids
Attacks on trans kids in schools take many forms, from the right to bathrooms to the right to play on sports teams. Eight anti-trans sports bans have passed in the past few months in Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Montana, West Virginia, and Texas. These laws ban trans kids from playing sports on teams that correspond to their gender. Texas’s law was publicly litigated, and trans kids came in to plead their case. 8 year old Sunny Bryant told the Texas State Legislature: “My first visit to the Capitol should have been on a school field trip, not defending my right to exist, but if I don’t show up, you won’t see the real stories. Kids like me whose futures will be crushed, opportunities taken away even before I’m given a chance to try.” Her powerful testimony didn’t stop the bill—it passed in Texas, and others like it passed in multiple states across the country.
In Tennessee’s anti-LGBTQ education bill, passed earlier this year, school districts are required to notify parents before “providing a sexual orientation curriculum or gender identity curriculum” in any kind of instruction, including but not limited to education on sexuality. According to the Human Rights Campaign, “A district will be forced to notify parents, provide curriculum materials, and allow parents to opt students out of learning about important modern and historical events, from the A.I.D.S. epidemic to the Stonewall riots to even Supreme Court jurisprudence.”
In Virginia, a sexual assault case became the centerpiece of a transphobic right-wing smear campaign. It was originally spun as the tried-and-true transphobic narrative of a trans person sexually assaulting a helpless girl in a bathroom. In reality, the student who committed the sexual assault does not identify as trans. But this didn’t stop the Right from using this story to whip up fear of trans people and bringing back “bathroom bill” rhetoric which keeps trans people from using the correct bathroom—subjecting them to greater threats of violence. School board meetings have become the center of these battles in Virginia and all over the country. Just a few days ago, a California school board meetingwas bombarded by religious leaders and right-wingers who spoke out against the right of trans kids to use the bathroom.
Clearly, the right wing is up in arms about sexual assault only when they can employ it as a weapon against trans students — certainly not when Brett Kavanaugh or Donald Trump does it. Glenn Youngkin is only concerned with sexual assault when it can win votes by creating fear around the spectre of trans kids in schools.
Attacks on Teaching about Racism
In the minds of right-wing bigots, protecting trans kids and the teaching of “critical race theory” go hand in hand, threatening innocent children all over the country. Small groups of right-wingers have taken school board meetings by storm to shout about this issue—it’s an issue that surfaced in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections, as well as in many local school board elections. While right-wingers call it “critical race theory,” what they are actually protesting is the teaching of basic U.S. history in schools.
Some of the people storming school board meetings aren’t even parents at all. Take Mladen Chargin, who attended a school board meeting in rural Nevada, despite having no children in the school system. Chargin argues that “the only purpose [of Critical Race Theory] is the division and destruction of the United States. That is the purpose.” In West Bend, Wisconsin, a woman who spoke before the school board called CRT “divisive, biased, radically left Marxism designed to further alienate our American children from each other.”
Already, schools are banning CRT in states including Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, New Hampshire, Arizona, and South Carolina. In actuality, Critical Race Theory is a legal framework that students have discussed in university classrooms for the last 40 years. But that’s not what these bans are about. These laws bar teaching the ugly truth of American history and the resistance of oppressed people, parts of history that are already woefully absent from school curricula.
As a report by America’s Promise Alliance shows, “While police violence, protests, and calls for racial justice have occupied the public discourse in communities across the country, many students continue to lack access to opportunities to discuss race and racism within their classrooms.” Only 56 percent of students said they discussed race and racism “sometimes or a great deal.” Only about three in five students reported that their school curriculum represented nonwhite communities “sometimes or a great deal.”
And as “critical race theory” gets banned from schools, discussions of racism will become even more marginalized.
English teacher Mike Stein told Chalkbeat Tennessee that as a result of the new law, “history teachers can not adequately teach about the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. English teachers will have to avoid teaching almost any text by an African American author because many of them mention racism to various extents.”
Critical race theory took center stage in both the Virginia and the New Jersey gubernatorial races. In Virginia, Youngkin promised to outlaw the teaching of critical race theory, saying, “There’s no place for critical race theory in our school system, and why, on day one, I’m going to ban it.”
Teachers Unions Should Fight
These right-wing attacks are attacks on teachers—on the ability to teach accurate history in the classroom. They are an attack on oppressed people: on trans students who will be denied basic rights at school, and on students of color who will continue to receive a disgustingly whitewashed version of history.
These laws are having the intended chilling effect: teachers are scared of losing their jobs. The laws against teaching about LGBT issues and critical race theory are written so ambiguously that they can essentially be used for anything. Teachers are already being fired, and many more are scared to lose their jobs. In Tennessee, a high school teacher was fired after teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “The First White President” and showing a video of the spoken-word poem “White Privilege.” A Black principal in Texas was recently suspended without explanation after a former school board candidate complained that he was promoting Critical Race Theory and held “extreme views on race” and “the conspiracy theory of systemic racism.”
And these attacks aren’t going anywhere.
Now that Youngkin has won the Virginia gubernatorial race, largely by employing the fear of trans kids and critical race theory, these attacks will only multiply. They are the centerpiece of the Republican electoral strategy going into 2022, and they will be at the center of Donald Trump’s possible presidential campaign. While the Democrats will gladly denounce the Republicans, they haven’t taken any significant action to defend trans rights or the teaching of true history in schools. Instead, the Obama administration had its own version of attacks on the study of history. Under Race to the Top there was a huge expansion of the use of racist standardized tests with a focus on Math and Reading. As a result, history continued to be cut from curricula across the country.
Teachers’ unions must put up this fight, for teachers, for students and for the future of the education system. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association represent millions of teachers. They loudly proclaimed that Black Lives Matter last year during the uprising. But now, they must step up. The AFT and the NEA—both national education unions—must put up a national fight, uniting with LGBTQ+ rights groups and other community organizations that address immigrants’ rights, racism, and Black liberation. These are issues that unite us and it’s time to organize in our workplaces and it’s time to take the streets. The right wingers to attend school board meetings are minuscule compared to the united power of teachers’ unions and community organizations invested in trans rights and the teaching of history in school. It’s time to show it.
Teachers’ unions must fight for teachers’ as well as students’ rights. They should demand that all students have equal rights and protections in schools, including the right to an education that does not brainwash students with pro-American propaganda, but tells the truth about oppression and exploitation.
3rd November 2021
This article was first posted at Teachers Unions Must Fight the Attacks on Critical Race Theory and on Trans Kids