Pro-DeSantis midterm mailer did more than mock LGBTQ communities

Pro-DeSantis midterm mailer did more than mock LGBTQ communities

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis apparently does not like gender studies. This is not me being hyperbolic. Recent mailers sent out by the Republican Party of Florida in support of him reportedly claimed that the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness plan will force “hard working Floridians to pay back student loans for degrees like Gender Studies and French Poetry.”

In that same mailer, there was an apparent stock image of a nonbinary student graduating, with a speech bubble that read, “Thank you, Joe Biden and Charlie Crist, for making Floridians pay off my student debt.” HuffPost was the first to report on the mailer Wednesday. It and other publications rightly called it out for mocking the LGBTQ community.

With the increased cost of getting a college education and the crippling debt that comes with it, talks of a return on investment are a real conversation in higher education. But this is not what this campaign mailer is invoking.

As a curriculum theorist and intellectual historian, the denigration of the study of gender and the works of poets like Victor Hugo also stood out to me. 


People have always dismissed knowledge that they do not find valuable. When I was an undergraduate at Louisiana State University, the standard reference for made-up fields of study was “underwater basket weaving.” The discussions around “useless majors” reached a fever pitch during the Great Recession when people with certain non-STEM majors found it difficult to find employment in a rapidly imploding economy. 

With the increased cost of getting a college education and the crippling debt that comes with it, talks of a return on investment are a real conversation in higher education. But this is not what this campaign mailer is invoking. 

Republicans are belittling knowledge that they find threatening to the status quo that gives the lives of social conservatives meaning. Today’s Republican Party is certainly not the first to use such a tactic. Galileo, a physicist and astronomer, stood before the Inquisition in the 17th century because he challenged the Catholic Church’s belief that the sun revolved around the Earth. 

Back then, it was blasphemous for someone with proper credentials to stand up and say, “Hey, it turns out the Earth isn’t the center of everything.” Essentially that’s what’s happening in America now. Conservatives have deemed people with a certain level of authority to provide context and background for our changing world useless. In an America that’s rapidly diversifying regarding race, gender and sexual orientation, that’s how DeSantis and his backers are appealing to the people who feel like they are losing “their” country — largely white social conservatives. 

Let’s remember that in a debate with Crist last month, DeSantis asserted that the United States wasn’t built on stolen land and that kids shouldn’t be taught that it was despite one of the key events in Florida’s history being the Seminole Wars.

Interestingly, while DeSantis has tried to make a case for what’s fact and what’s fiction, he has aligned himself with a cultural movement spearheaded by conservative public intellectuals like Christopher Rufo, who made intellectual fabrications like critical race theory “teaches children to hate each other and hate their country” mainstream. 

Understanding how race has played into and continues to be a factor in our legal, political and economic systems is not hateful. Many conservatives want to pretend that America’s vile racist history is not in living memory for millions of people like my parents and grandparents. But we can’t appreciate the profound progress in race relations if we don’t acknowledge how awful things used to be and could return to being. 

To play on the words of Ben Shapiro, I call this movement the “feelings over facts” orientation, and it has been positioned as a bulwark against indoctrination by disciplines that focus on race, gender and art. This is the not-so-subtle implication of the mailer supporting DeSantis. 

For everyone who doesn’t believe gender studies is threatening, the student in the photo the mailer used is just a new nonbinary college graduate. The young adult will identify the way they choose and dress the way they choose because gender is fluid according to the social sciences. For Florida Republicans, however, this individual has been reduced to a young man wearing makeup and nail polish — a warning to conservative voters of what studying about gender and the arts could do to their sons and daughters.

This constant culture war is the source of the continued vitriol directed at scholars like The New York Times Magazine’s Nikole Hannah-Jones for “The 1619 Project” and Ibram Kendi for his book “How To Be an Antiracist.”

The culture war’s threat to academic freedom in Florida is also playing out in court. In a lawsuit, professors have argued that the governor’s “Stop WOKE Act,” which restricts how race-based conversations are had, violates their freedom of speech. Lawyers for the Florida Board of Governors of the State University System have claimed that academic freedom does not exist for public universities because what is taught is an extension of government speech. They also asserted that “Professors Do Not Have a First Amendment Right To Override the State’s Curriculum.”

If the courts agree, then the state may effectively get to decide which areas of study get to be majors and minors. Given DeSantis’ antipathy toward Black history, pronouns and sex education, it is safe to assume which disciplines would be defunded out of existence at Florida’s public universities.

It certainly goes against his expressed commitment to “intellectual diversity.” But, of course, that only matters if the commitment to such diversity is there in the first place. In the end, students — from pre-K to graduate school — shouldn’t be shamed for wanting to seek knowledge that helps them know the world as it exists (and existed). Whether it is learning about pronouns or classics like Angela Y. Davis’ “Women, Race & Class” and Hugo’s “Les Contemplations,” everyone has the right to knowledge that can help them develop their own opinions about the human condition. It’s a shame that social conservatism disagrees.

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