In the futile and hopeless hours of familiar gridlock after the most recent mass shooting in Nashville, the social media meme war that serves as proxy for our political process launched again into overdrive. Some themes were familiar: Republicans love guns more than they love children; the party that purports to revere life seems unwilling to do anything to stop mass murder. But there was a newer, bitter twist to many of the posts, connecting the GOP’s 2023 war on books, education, sexuality, and teachers to its unwillingness to protect children in schools.
These complaints were doubly poignant, noting, as they did, that Republicans seem to believe that public school teachers who can’t be trusted to curate classroom libraries are fit to be armed with guns. Others commented that no child has yet died from reading a book about Rosa Parks, and yet the GOP maintains that the problem of mass school shootings is unfixable. The central thread was that Republicans are prepared to intervene in every last aspect of public education—from book bans to curriculum laws to surveillance of educators—but will never lift a finger to prevent or decrease mass murder of small children in places that are meant to keep their bodies safe, above all things.
The flaw in these arguments is that they assume there is hypocrisy at work when social conservatives set out to micromanage what children learn in public schools, yet evince not a lick of remorse or regret about the fact that children are being slaughtered there with military-strength firepower they want readily accessible throughout the nation. That alleged hypocrisy, however, is readily explained by larger and more chilling trends in conservative policymaking.
It’s not simply that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Rep. Thomas Massie and Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Rep. Andy Ogles all love their guns more than they love other people’s schoolkids (although that is abundantly clear). It’s not merely that in America, being in the pocket of the NRA and gun manufacturers remains a more vital political imperative for many elected officials than the health and safety of their constituents. (Also true). It’s not even the fact that empty “thoughts and prayers” has become such a necessary and sufficient political response to mass carnage that it is now teeming with meaning. No, the real reason conservatives can comfortably reconcile dead schoolkids with book bans is far more frightening.
It starts with the fact that these lawmakers don’t actually believe in public education in the first place. As my colleague Molly Olmstead has pointed out, when Rep. Tim Burchett was asked after the shooting how Congress ought to respond to the American carnage, he said both quiet parts out loud: “It’s a horrible, horrible situation,” the Tennessee Republican said. “And we’re not gonna fix it.” Then, when asked what could be done to protect his own little girl, he added, with a fatalistic shrug, “Well, we home-school her.” (Burchett generously acknowledged that “some people don’t have that option.”) Crucially, Burchett is not alone. As Olmstead reminds us, there is an “increasingly powerful force in American politics that is pushing home-schooling as the cure to any and all school problems: the parental rights movement.” Meanwhile, “government schools,” as they were rebranded in an op-ed in the Federalist after the Uvalde shooting last year, are not to be trusted by that same parental rights movement. As articulated in that same Federalist piece: “The same institutions that punish students for ‘misgendering’ people and hide curriculum from parents are simply not equipped to safeguard your children from harm.” You see, to the right-wing movement, it’s the schools that have failed across the board, and not the politicians. By these lights, for an elected official it makes perfect sense to both ban books ostensibly encouraging “critical race theory” in classroom pedagogy and also do nothing about the fact that your children might be shot dead in their classrooms: Both are arguments against the continued existence of public schools.
But there’s another more pernicious layer, beyond just a long game to end public education and push families toward home-schooling and religious charter schools. This further wrinkle is deeply connected to the war on women and girls that is now playing out grimly and purposefully around the country. The aims are actually the same when tween girls in Florida can be barred from mentioning their periods while also being abandoned to the whims of a mass shooter: that is to ultimately return women and girls to what the Christian nationalist movement views as their rightful place, the home. Hence the proposed laws that teachers should use pronouns that correspond with a student’s gender assigned at birth, bans on abortion and birth control, bans on sex education, and the absence of any safety nets for when those children are born, all of which will inexorably result in more young women finding themselves pregnant, poor, and consigned to taking care of babies. This, too, was always the long game. As Tressie McMillan Cottom tweeted this week in response to Burchett’s home-schooling comment: “In case you haven’t completely guessed the Republican game, their school shooting solution is women. At home. In the private sphere. And charters but mostly women at home. It’s all reproductive justice.” The more you think about the response of social conservatives to mass shootings in school, the more you come to realize that the creeping vibe here is that young women of childbearing age don’t really belong in public schools in the first place, and that to the extent that they are there, they’re only really welcome until it’s time to be re-confined to the home.
The third aspect of the social conservatives’ education agenda is the most frightening of all. It’s not simply to ensure that public education is a poor and diminished alternative to home-schooling and religious schools. It’s not just to message that girls should stay home. It is to incorporate the right’s wider embrace of vigilantism directly into every aspect of American life, especially schools.
To the extent that DeSantis’ school agenda in Florida stands for anything, it’s clearly connected to the Texas-style S.B. 8 bounty system allowing vigilante punishment of those deemed by a jury to be abortion helpers. In the DeSantis version, any one parent is empowered to adjudicate, enforce, and punish forms of public education they do not approve.
Examples of this new parental vigilantism abound. For instance, earlier this month, a lone parent in St. Petersburg, Florida, objected to a child’s exposure to a 1998 Disney film about Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old girl who was the first Black child to integrate a New Orleans elementary in 1960, and so the film was not shown to the entire classroom. Or, in another case brought to national attention by Charles Blow at the New York Times, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was banned from all district high schools at the whim of one objecting parent. (This was the same district where The Wonderful World of Disney: Ruby Bridges, featuring Chaz Monet and Kevin Pollak, was banned.) Or the principal forced to resign in Florida because three parents found their children’s exposure to Michelangelo’s statue of David threatening, because at least one of them deemed it “pornographic.” Once again, the memes wrote themselves, but claims of hypocrisy or irreconcilable motive actually obscure the larger trend. The parents who say their parental rights allow them to censor and even veto what every child learns in the classroom are the very same folks who make arguments about putting more guns into classrooms, into the hands of teachers, and indeed into the hands of children themselves. These arguments are not in tension with one another. They are perfectly consistent: Government cannot keep your children safe from inevitable “woke” ideologies, and “government schools” cannot keep your children safe from inevitable gun violence. If this is true, then only parent vigilantism is the cure. This is Kyle Rittenhouse in kindergarten, nothing more and nothing less.
It’s not in any way hypocrisy to suggest that as long as public education exists in America, any one parent, under color of “parental rights,” can demand that Toni Morrison never glances off the brain of any child in the room while also ensuring that a bullet may someday lodge in their brain. The solution in both cases is to buy and use more guns, with a side of prayer, as what once passed for concern for the vulnerable is replaced by ever more subjective—and ever more violent—self-help.