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Florida's Bright White Flag: A Message From the President​

Clir News No. 152

April-March 2023

Resisting cowardly legislation, our stories must continue to be told.

Headshot of Charles Henry in the style of a paintingBy Charles Henry
President, CLIR

The heart of our humanity is storytelling. It is fundamental to understanding our place in the world. It helps us navigate our lives and, at its best, describes aspects of our nature that would otherwise be fleeting and fragmented. Storytelling evolves with us, subject to our perceptions, culture, and individual experience. Our stories—the very good ones—breathe as we breathe, and sometimes expire. Often, they nurture new understanding, which eventually finds its home in a revelatory recounting.  Little surprise, then, that controversies sometimes also attend particular stories.

A recent example of the power, complexity, and dynamic of storytelling is the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibit featuring the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, ending World War II.   In 1995, the Enola Gay was to be the centerpiece of a 50th-anniversary exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum, in Washington. But the plan sparked exceptional reactions before the exhibit even opened.

As a polished aluminum fuselage, it is unremarkable. As a symbol of a devastating war, and of the delivery of a weapon of enormous destruction, as a figurative threshold of a new era of global anxiety, it is extraordinary. In the ensuing controversy over how it would be presented, many organizations weighed in. They focused word by word on the proposed descriptive text, voicing concern about bias and privileging of different, sometimes contending points of view; and arguing about the analytical interpretation.  A museum director resigned; objects were moved to different locations (from a federal agency to a local university, which was thought a safer haven for debate and interpretative variations).  Eventually this museum mounted a more anodyne exhibit which nonetheless drew more than a million visitors in its first year.

The Enola Gay exhibit thus became another story, subject to further debate, rethinking, exploration, and analysis. The “many voices, many rooms” approach reflects our better humanity: the responsibility to represent an accurate story; our spirited engagement with history; and our acknowledgement of the complexities of memory, a shared history yet personally embroidered with individual   experiences, preferences, and distinctive thoughts.

Our cultural heritage is in part a rich array of the accumulated stories of our humanity. It is not a static, prescribed, or bunkered legacy but one that must admit to current perspectives, contested readings, the glorious motion of active and engaged minds. To keep our legacy, and us, vital requires communities responsible for our heritage’s administration, preservation, access, and reuse. Over time we have created secure institutions to perform these vital tasks. These include galleries, libraries, archives, and museums, which CLIR for over 60 years has proudly represented. We are always interested in legislation that supports–or corrodes– the ability of our citizens to integrate with their cultural legacies, a major source of self-definition and core to a healthy, functional society.

The proposed 2023 Florida House Bill 999 falls squarely on the corrosive side.

Click Here to Read Florida House Bill 999

Typical of ideological diktats, it is a porridge of misleading statements.  But, also typical of its genre, is about suppressing certain kinds of storytelling while privileging others, couched in the guise of courses and curricula but really censoring certain ways of knowing and methods of expression. Deemed incorrect in this bill: Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, Intersectionality, and principles that include diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as content of a theoretical and exploratory nature. These frameworks are to be excluded from courses, programs, hiring practices, and campus activities. Politically correct: testimonial from exceptional individuals, evidence of individual achievement, and entrepreneurial vision.

In this framework, narratives that employ systemic analysis or diverse perspectives, that reach across disciplinary boundaries for greater inclusivity, and strive to accurately explicate the larger determining effects of ideas, however contrary to the original intent, are subject to coercive retaliation. Discredited myths of lone achievers, entrepreneurs who work without any safety net or collaboration, and other cartoonish fantasies are acceptable. The State becomes a theme park of insidious design.

Because this legislation targets methods of inquiry and interpolation and not simply “coursework,” our cultural institutions and those of us responsible for their sustainability are direly threatened. Our work is to reveal, promote new discovery, repurpose our heritage in ways that are productive, and sometimes disturbing and provocative. Our exhibits, online tools, displays, and basic organization of knowledge encourage new voices and insight. All that we do is meant to augment our capacity for understanding a professional mandate antithetical to a reductive, demeaning ordinance.

These are our children. This law would reach across generations to cage them, who only want, in their benevolent diversity, in wonder at the world around them, absent of craven judgment, innocent of the corruptive pandering that plagues their elders, to sing.

Too often in circumstances like this there is the tendency to see ourselves as victims of an ignorant, authoritarian assault. That posture can discourage a more concerted and strategic response. Let us speak truth to power: House Bill 999 unquestionably plants a bright white flag against a rising tide of color, difference, nuance, rigor, empathy, and accuracy. Let us interpret the Floridian white flag for what it is, following centuries of tradition: a surrender, a retreat with extreme cowardice from all these challenging but essential markers of an honest life.

Take this to heart: our doors will stay open, our exhibits will enlighten, our programs will allure and guide us out of this punk sedition. Any attempt to thwart, or close, or punish these activities or persons will be noted, resisted, archived, and become yet other stories that future generations will learn from, who will marvel with sadness at the pain and waste of what was attempted.  They will be moved, assuredly, with resilience and purpose, to reclaim and inhabit what, in a withering, indifferent (maybe caustic) sunshine, almost died.

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