AMAC Exclusive by Daniel Roman
While conducting extensive research on the break-up of Yugoslavia, I had the chance to travel to the region and converse with many locals of every background. One thing that always struck me at bars or restaurants was how well young people had integrated in a society that from 1991-1995 had torn itself apart, witnessing untold destruction and atrocities. Serbs and Croats, Muslims and Christians, could eat, drink, and laugh together, often in the capital city of those who may have been their enemy just a few years earlier.
More importantly, they could do so in a way which did not deny their ethnic status or the past. One of the more popular recent Serbian songs was My Dad is a War Criminal!, while “Thompson,” the performing name for Marko Perković, is the most popular musical performance in Croatia, even attracting the attendance of the former President of Croatia. Both are by any objective measure “extremist.” The title of the Serbian tune is transparent about the content, while Thompson openly mocks the post-1990s view that collective guilt requires individual apologies as the prelude to social interaction between individuals from different backgrounds
It is no surprise then that journalists searching for stories to predict future outbreaks of violence have zeroed in on the rise of such “extremist media” as evidence of growing polarization. But if they looked deeper, they would see the opposite. That rather than celebrating violence and urging its renewal, the rise of this music among the young has actually indicated a willingness to shed the norms that required every interethnic interaction to be couched in terms of guilt.
It was not only the President of Croatia who is a Thompson fan; also at his events are Serbs. As for that popular Serbian song, it was played alongside Thompson tracks at a recent high school debate event in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Rather than being incitement, a new generation has grown up making sense of past horror, racism, and conflict by making light of it, and recognizing that in an imperfect world inhabited by imperfect human beings, we all have a choice: to treat everyone as a member of a group in a world where score is kept between ever more arbitrary racial and ethnic categories, while those who are “down” are urged to seek to even the score, and those who are ahead are taught to fear such an effort–or, we can recognize that such an enterprise only dooms everyone.
The Marxist roots of Critical Race Theory have attracted the most attention when it comes to the debate over its role in teaching. This makes sense, but not for the reasons those on the Left think. It is precisely because the American history of ethnic and racial violence has never exploded into outright pogroms or genocide that discussions of historical injustice can afford to be conducted on a level of abstraction which focuses on differential economic and academic achievements. Even the U.S. Civil War was largely a war between two predominantly white sides. People spend their time discussing the impact of slavery and Jim Crow on current property values precisely because there are no mass graves to discover, and it cannot be assumed that out of every 12 students, five had close relatives killed by relatives of another four within the lifetimes of their parents.
Education in Bosnia is an excellent example of what not to do. There is almost no more perfect example of Critical Race Theory in education than that applied to Bosnian schools by the academics working for the UN High Commissioner. Students are forced to identify themselves by their ethnicity, with those of mixed background (nearly a fifth of Bosnian marriages were mixed in 1990) forced to chose one. Then in turn each is required to recite the “history” of what their group did in the 1990s.
Woe to the odd Serb, Muslim, or Croat student who objects, either because they do not believe their classmates are racist, or because their parents’ lived experiences did not match up with the black and white binary portrayed in the curriculum. Informed by the principles behind CRT, the UN-sponsored schools reserve a particular ire for anyone who does not neatly fit into the proper boxes of “perpetrators” or “victims.” Much as a white student who stands up for a black friend charged with being a “bad African American” would both be proving their own racism and confirming the “guilt” of their accused friend, so too are Muslims and Serbs who fail to play out the script assigned to them. Not just Serbs, but Muslims who reject the Islamist narrative are termed “genocide deniers” a crime punishable by prosecution.
The results could have been predicted. With schools transformed by well-meaning western Marxist academics into trauma factories designed to promote ethnic polarization, parents have voted with their feet, abandoning the internationally funded system in favor of religious schools backed either by the Catholic Church (Croats), Saudi Arabia/Iran (Muslims), or the Orthodox Church (Serbs). Whereas the children of Croatia and Serbia’s 1990s Presidents have since married members of the opposite ethnicity, in Bosnia interfaith relationships have all but ceased.
This is precisely the model being taught here in the United States. It is one where score keeping between groups is the core of society. More than anything else, this is the truly dangerous part of CRT. It is neither false, nor innately dangerous to teach about the injustices in American history. But when this is taught without context, without reference to other areas in the world where similar dynamics played out in infinitely more destructive ways, then the lesson that is taught is that we need, for example, more score keeping of exactly what whites owe Asians and what Asians owe African Americans.
Liberals have long liked to cite the examples of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in Rwanda and Burundi as examples of forward-looking historical justice where societies seek accommodations with their past. But the lessons they teach us are the opposite of CRT. Burundi saw genocides of Hutus in 1973 and Tutsis in 1993-1995, Rwanda of Tutsis in 1994. The two groups, indistinguishable to outsiders, were kept in existence quite literally by grievances passed down educationally generation to generation, where in their very own schools they were taught about the horrors of the previous genocide and taught about the need to ensure payback in the following generation.
Rwanda has made segregation or even publicly identifying one’s ethnicity illegal. Why? Well, it is obvious. One only has to imagine the consequences of a teacher telling their students to separate, with the Tutsis going to one corner of the classroom and the Hutus to the other. That simple act would be enough to trigger PTSD in parents for whom that exact instruction in a school room was the prelude to massacres in the past. Separating children into groups and giving each a reason to hate the other has proven time and again to cause violent conflict. By contrast, banning any identification by ethnicity has allowed Rwanda to become an African success story, with the fastest growing economy on the continent.
American schools should teach more, not less about conflict—but not just conflict in America, conflict around the world. Countering CRT is not merely about teaching the consequences of Communism, as Florida is poised to do. It should also be about teaching what happens in societies which allow themselves to be consumed by the past. No society that has been through the consequences of pitting children against each other from childhood, like Burundi and Rwanda, can possibly contemplate the prospect of doing so in the classroom with their own children today. We should teach why that is the case.
We should show children the experiences of societies where “fighting” for “justice” became a score keeping exercise, and how that ended in horrors.
America is not unique in having suffered periods of inequality. But the United States is unique in that for most of its history, our ancestors pulled back from the brink of conflict because they recognized that violence is negative sum–everyone loses and no one wins.
CRT should be put on trial for the lack of answers it provides. It lacks any answers to the needs of anyone, of any background, for jobs, security, education. It lacks answers other than violence to injustice, or how violence is supposed to bring about justice. And it lacks any awareness of where the ideas behind its approach to “justice” have tragically led in so many countries around the world. In this way, the solution to CRT is more history—not less.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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