On Textbooks and Cartoons in Texas
The nationwide uproar over the Texas State Board of Education's (SBOE) decision to reform the history curriculum began with the release, last July, of proposed new standards for the writing and production of textbooks, and for student understanding. With a school enrollment closing in on five million, Texas practices "statewide adoption" of textbooks, which makes it a leading force in educational publishing. And the state board of education, which has a conservative majority, had chosen a new direction, emphasizing pro-capitalist values and the role of Christian principles in the foundation of the American republic.
Predictably, liberal-left political interests, and the mainstream media, in Texas and across the country, went berserk. The board was accused of removing Thomas Jefferson from the curriculum, of promoting the Confederacy (to which Texas belonged), and of justifying McCarthyism. All such claims were wrong—as anybody who consulted the online draft of the standards could discern. Jefferson had not been removed from consideration as a major participant in the creation of the republic; the Confederacy had not been favored over the Union.
The critical howls over the treatment of McCarthyism were particularly interesting. The board's new language called on students to be able to explain how the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy, as well as those of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the arms race, and the space race, "increased Cold War tensions." But the board of education further mandated for study "how the later release of the Venona Papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government."
This appeared to strike Texas liberals as an outrageous intrusion of right-wing ideology. Yet the role of the Venona decryptions of Soviet secret intelligence by American code-breakers, in identifying Soviet agents at work in official institutions, has never been questioned by historians of any political sympathy since Venona was released beginning in 1995. Discussed many times in these pages, the importance and veracity of the Venona documentation is almost never challenged—although some recusant leftists still try to deny its evidence on Alger Hiss, or submit it to an "anti-anti-Communist" interpretation.
Critics were even more exercised by the proposed inclusion of previously unmentioned people and institutions. These include "the causes, key organizations, and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association." The Houston Chronicle editorialized against "too much mention of figures such as former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and conservative organizations such as the Moral Majority and none (or not nearly enough) of influential individuals and groups on the political left." In fact, Newt Gingrich was never mentioned in any draft of the standards.
The board of education held a public hearing on the new standards in March, and a second hearing in May. On both occasions, supporters and opponents could present their views: Conservatives hoped that the board would deliver a final vote on adoption or rejection; leftists and race politicians sought delay. On May 19, I watched as more than 200 witnesses showed up in the hearing room in the state capitol. Two examples, among the presentations offered by opponents, are especially illustrative of the drive-by political manners employed against the board.
Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP, had come from his headquarters in Baltimore to complain about the downgrading of the human debasement of African slaves. According to Jealous, language referring to the "triangular trade" among the English colonies on the eastern seaboard, the Caribbean, and Britain had excised the horrors of slavery.
Of course, the "triangular trade" has been taught in American public schools at least since I was in California's system a half-century ago, as the import of slaves to the New World, their harvesting of sugar, tobacco, and other commodities, and the sale of these or their by-products (such as molasses and rum) in Europe. Jealous was caught by the gimlet-eyed Terri Leo, secretary of the board. She asked him if he had, in fact, read the proposed curriculum changes and could cite the language he found unacceptable. He was compelled to admit that he had not, and could not. Whereupon she pointed out that the new language summons students to explain "the plantation system, the Atlantic triangular trade, and the spread of slavery." Jealous had been caught in a criticism by inference—or, more bluntly, by dependence on second-hand talking points.
Later Paul Henley of the Texas State Teachers Association, a powerful public employee union, assailed the board, blasting the replacement of a reference to Santa Barraza—a Texas woman of Hispanic origin, alive and well, who paints folkloric representations of the U.S.-Mexico borderland—with the late cartoon animator Tex Avery (1908-80) on a list of Texas-born contributors to the arts. Most of them, like Barraza, are obscure; Avery is not. According to the intense, rancorous Henley, Tex Avery was "the cartoonist behind racist characters like the Indian Princess, Uncle Tom, and Speedy Gonzales." He declared that Texas's inclusion of Avery in its curriculum represented "either a lack of research or racial prejudice."
As it happens, Tex Avery was a leading figure in the Warner Bros. cartoon studio, which began, at the close of the 1930s, to produce such icons of American humor as Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, and Daffy Duck, epitomizing a madcap, surrealistic view of life. Avery directed many of the best Warner Bros. cartoons, and worked on three that were eventually withdrawn from public distribution because of offensive images of African Americans. But Avery's involvement in that affair is generally unknown, as is his limited involvement with Speedy Gonzales: In bringing up Speedy Gonzales, Henley sought to appeal to the sensitivities of Hispanic board members.
Henley railed against Tex Avery, progenitor of Elmer Fudd, whom Henley sought to imitate, as well as Bugs, Daffy, and a very politically incorrect Porky (especially because he was fat). I was naturally reminded of other cartoon controversies, including the recent specimens portraying the Prophet Muhammad. Henley seemed determined to demonstrate that the mentality of the Texas left and its functionaries is little different from that of Islamist fanatics who try to kill cartoonists. Ideological rigidity and humor—especially anarchic amusement of the kind found in Warners cartoons—are natural enemies.
The board voted, 9-5, to adopt the new standards.