Discover more from Persuasion
When “Liberty” Means Censorship
A grassroots conservative organization is taking on public schools.
Moms for Liberty, an activist organization founded and led by conservative women, has emerged in the last two years to oppose, in the name of “parental rights,” what it sees as leftist indoctrination in public schools.
There are worthwhile arguments to be had about contemporary gender ideology and about how to respond to the history and legacy of race in America—about how to address these issues in public institutions like schools and where to draw the line between necessary instruction and ideological indoctrination. In a nation with 50 million children in thousands of school districts, there will be no shortage of controversial examples to be debated.
But a thoughtful debate is not what Moms for Liberty has offered. Instead, it has become the driving force behind a sweeping wave of book bans and politicized restrictions on teaching.
It is a curious outcome for a group with such a libertarian-sounding name. How did Moms for Liberty come to be one of the nation’s chief censors?
The origin of Moms for Liberty was not in the culture wars over race and gender, but in the Covid culture war. It began in Florida as a rebellion against rules requiring masks for public school students. When Tina Descovich, the group’s co-founder, lost her bid for reelection to the Brevard County School Board in 2020, she joined Tiffany Justice, a former school board member from a neighboring county, to start an activist organization with the purpose of opposing pandemic measures in schools. In early 2021, they formed Moms for Liberty.
It was the pandemic that provided Moms for Liberty with the opportunity to mobilize and radicalize conservative parents. As Descovich explained, “If you miss this opportunity, when [parents] are really engaged … it’s going to be hard to engage them in the future.” When the debate shifted from masks to vaccines, Moms for Liberty appealed to anti-vaccine sentiment on the right. A new chapter in Orange County, California was launched toward the end of the movement’s first year and cited the state’s vaccine mandate as a reason for the chapter’s creation. Anti-vax crusader Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was scheduled to be a star speaker at the Moms for Liberty national summit earlier this year before backing out at the last minute.
While the anti-mask cause summoned a great deal of violent fury, it was perhaps too small and temporary for a national movement that had ambitions to persist beyond the pandemic. Yet this issue established the kind of energy that has characterized Moms for Liberty ever since: an upwelling of anger, a distrust of experts, and a volcanic hatred of “the establishment.”
From masks, Moms for Liberty moved to other causes that fit with this outlook, becoming the driving force behind a wave of challenges to school curricula and particularly to school libraries stocking books with any kind of content relating to sex, gender, and race. A revealing microcosm of its national effort can be seen in a running battle over the schools in Williamson County, Tennessee. I talked recently with Williamson County School Board member Eric Welch, who has become a target of Moms for Liberty despite being a conservative, a Christian, a military veteran, and—as he tells me—a guy “with a dog named Reagan.” Welch, who stressed that he speaks for himself and not the board, explained that the county had never had partisan school board elections before, because education wasn’t considered a partisan issue. Not anymore. Being a member of the school board is usually a thankless job that involves a lot of tedious discussions about administrative policy and budgets. Now it has become a political hot button that attracts partisan activists.
The big Moms for Liberty demand came in the form of a letter from Williamson County chapter chair Robin Steenman demanding the removal of books from the public school curriculum and changes to the manual given to teachers to accompany these readings. What are these objectionable books? They include Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story—the story of the first black girl to attend a newly integrated school in Louisiana. Among the complaints about the book is that it shows Norman Rockwell’s famous depiction of Bridges in his painting “The Problem We All Live With.”
That’s right: Norman Rockwell is too subversive for Moms for Liberty.
The letter demands an end to the “negative psychological effect” and “emotional trauma” that might come from learning too much about the history of segregation. There is a certain irony that conservatives have spent years complaining about overly sensitive “snowflakes” who demand to be shielded from opposing views and need “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”—yet here are conservatives demanding a safe space to shield children from basic facts about the struggle for civil rights. Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich has denied that Steenman made any such demands, but you can read the letter for yourself.
The upshot of the Moms for Liberty approach is to impose a heckler’s veto that empowers the most paranoid and hypersensitive. The group slammed a video about seahorses, where the male actually does carry the eggs until they hatch, as an attempt to “normalize” the notion “that males can get pregnant” and “suggest that gender is fluid.” A picture book about African-American tap-dancing pioneer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was denounced as “Critical Race Theory” for referring to the realities of racial prejudice and segregation in the early 20th century. A book on Galileo, the 17th century Florentine who was tortured for promoting his scientific discoveries, was denounced because it makes the Catholic Church look bad and therefore “makes kids question tradition.” The levels of irony are very thick here.
Rather than producing more parental engagement with the schools, Moms for Liberty’s national culture-war approach serves as a substitute for such engagement. Welch mentioned that the complaints he heard in Williamson County often came from people who don’t have kids in the public schools, or who had never been engaged in their schools or districts before. They are the kind of people, as he put it, who “ask none of the questions but have all of the answers.”
The problem is not just the content of the Moms for Liberty complaints, but the style in which they are offered. The word I have heard used most frequently in association with Moms for Liberty is “vitriol.” Their approach to activism is to dial every issue up to 11. Any reference to sexuality, even indirect, is labeled “pornography.” Following the lead of Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, they have taken to calling anyone who disagrees with them a “groomer”—a term borrowed from old tropes that insisted all homosexuals are pedophiles who deliberately manipulate children in order to abuse them. But describing your enemies as pedophiles is a bald attempt to declare open season on them. Such predators are regarded as the lowest of the low, the one group against whom violence might be justified. This is the rhetoric of outright incitement.
One particular example crystallizes both the content and style of Moms for Liberty activism. As an approved alternative to the materials on slavery and segregation that they want to restrict, Moms for Liberty recommends W. Cleon Skousen’s The Making of America. Skousen’s historical account of slavery and reconstruction is a sanitized and glamorized view of the Old South, in which he repeats antebellum myths about how slaves were well-treated and actually better off than free workers in the North. These are outrageous lies, but they make more sense when you put them in the context of Skousen’s other crackpot views, including the idea that communism was actually a capitalist conspiracy foisted on the world by international bankers. More to the point, Skousen was a leading figure in the John Birch Society, which promoted conspiracy theories about communist plots for world domination, including the idea that these plots were supported from within the U.S. government, going all the way up to the top.
The Birchers were the chief example of what the historian Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” and it followed a pattern we can recognize with Moms for Liberty today: a belief that there is an insidious plot to destroy American society; a catastrophist view in which the threat of tyranny and destruction is immediate and everywhere, even in the midst of the heartland; a view that the whole system is working to promote these nefarious goals; and most of all, the idea that even apparent friends, allies, and fellow conservatives are all in on it.
This does not mean there is no merit to some complaints about public education. Parts of the left have adopted a rigid dogma on gender, and there are a few children’s books that aim to proselytize it. There are serious complaints from mainstream historians about the promotion of historical errors that can distort our understanding of the role of race in American history.
But if there is a case to be made that we should oppose these trends, the reckless paranoia of Moms for Liberty will only work to undermine that case—just as the Birchers’ irrational zealotry ultimately discredited them. In the meantime, the current poisonous politics of education imposes a cost in diminished educational opportunities from books that stay off the shelves, and in the impaired function of the real engines of parental engagement in education: school boards and parent-teacher associations.
When I asked Welch what the Williamson County School Board would be focusing on in normal times, he cited the county’s growth, its need for new school buildings, and the difficult question of how to finance it while paying down debt. He recalls that they used to spend months going over test scores to see which groups of students were doing well and which needed more resources and attention.
Instead, he says, they spent most of a recent meeting talking about what some board members thought was the really important issue: a teacher who had a small pride flag on her desk.
Robert Tracinski is the editor of Symposium, a columnist with Discourse Magazine, and also publishes commentary at The Tracinski Letter.
And, to receive pieces like this in your inbox and support our work, subscribe below: