I went to the Moms for Liberty meeting at the AHI. It was weird.
Editor’s note: The author of this piece was offered anonymity in light of well-documented histories of harassment and unfounded legal threats against Hamilton students who have written on related issues.
Saturday, October 7th marked one year of meetings for the Oneida County Moms for Liberty, hosted at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization down the hill in Clinton. Moms for Liberty describes their mission as being “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” The organization seeks to make widespread changes to American education curriculums through local school boards. Their mission often manifests in attempting to remove books from school curriculums and libraries, particularly on the subjects of race and sexuality.
Here, I detail the most eye-catching moments from my hours of attendance. I was curious to learn about the way individuals who follow the mission of Moms for Liberty would receive the presentation. What ensued was an extensive stream of belief in the way children should be taught U.S. history, that was, if nothing else, inconsistent.
Mary Kay Vatalaro-Grady Introduction
Mary Kay Vatalaro-Grady, Chapter Chair of Moms for Liberty Oneida County and unsuccessful Clinton School Board candidate, led the presentation by recounting, from her daughter’s experience in middle school, a “deeply disturbing” presentation from an organization representing the LGBTQIA+ community. Vatalaro-Grady’s main concern was that this was being presented without parental consent, leading her to learn more about the way her local school board runs.
“Coming out of COVID, my daughter in sixth grade said two had said two things, and one day in particular, she came home and the curriculum that was presented to her and the whole middle school level was deeply disturbing. They basically held the 6th, 7th and 8th graders hostage, to be honest in the theater at the school, and forced them to listen to representatives from an organization that represented the LGBTQ+IA community, without parent consent. So that was the issue for me is that parents weren’t aware and I think they presented this on Career Day.”
An issue she took with the school board’s proceedings was a lack of diversity. She was unsatisfied with what she saw as the singular way of thinking on the school board in Oneida County. She never gave an example of what that way of thinking entails.
Vatalaro-Grady continued, describing how her unsuccessful school board campaign caused commotion among parents in Clinton, which she regarded as a sign to start the Oneida County chapter of Moms for Liberty.
Before handing the podium off to Dr. Mary Grabar, Vatalaro-Grady finished by declaring that critical race theory is, in fact, being taught in schools, despite it not being written into curriculums the past two years. She subsequently claimed that students are not allowed to carry cell phones on their person to prevent them from recording the critical race theory being spoken in classrooms, rather than written.
Let us move on to the main show: AHI Resident Fellow Dr. Mary Grabar’s presentation.
Dr. Mary Grabar
Dr. Mary Grabar is the author of Debunking Howard Zinn and Debunking the 1619 Project. Centered more on her work on the latter and about critical race theory, her presentation had a motif of objectivity. She identified critical race theory as “anti-objectivity.” Dr. Grabar stated that telling school children about the horrors of slavery was based on emotion and meant to rile the children up. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Grabar takes great issue with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Black woman who created the 1619 Project at the New York Times and authored a book of the same name.
Towards the beginning of her time at the podium, Dr. Grabar revered the principles of law stated by the character Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, which she identified as a banned book, while also referencing the multitude of books Moms for Liberty is attempting to ban in Oneida County schools. Dr. Grabar stated that the book has been “banned” because it promotes a white savior narrative. She did not address any differences between the reasons for To Kill a Mockingbird’s removal from some ninth-grade English curriculums and the books that Moms for Liberty is trying to ban, including Gender Queer, Flamer, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Dr. Grabar quickly moved on to her next book of note, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado. This is where Dr. Grabar expands on a previous mention of combatting Eurocentrism:
“They, of course, claim that Eurocentrism is one of the flaws in our system and they define it as ‘the tendency to interpret the world in terms of European values and perspectives and the belief that they are superior.’ So if you believe that reason, logic, objectivity, the search for truth, are a superior way of doing things, then you are guilty of that.”
In other words, Dr. Grabar associates logic, objectivity, and the search for truth with European superiority. She regards her preferred point of view and society over others, which can provide insight into what type of history Dr. Grabar wants to teach children.
This continues into a dissection of the way history has been presented in the United States. She cites that the group of lawyers who developed critical race theory in the 1970s were “dissatisfied with how quickly the Civil Rights Movement was progressing, and they felt that they needed to speed things up.”
Her next grievance is with the attempted reframing of “triumphalist history,” which includes, in Dr. Grabar’s words, the idea that the United States overcame slavery, legal segregation, and child labor. When Dr. Grabar argued against Hannah-Jones’ view that this country has attempted to “cover up these injustices,'' I could not help but find some truth in her statement, as Moms for Liberty openly seeks to remove such recounts from our schools.
Later, Dr. Grabar takes issue with Hannah-Jones’ poetry in the book of the 1619 Project, declaring it is “not poetry.”
“What the critical race theorists are promoting is what Nikole Hannah-Jones does in the 1619 Project. If you read that from cover to cover, you will notice that there is very little history in it. The majority of it in both the magazine and in the hardcover book are what are presented as poetry. I mean, not in my estimation, but it’s poetry. It’s like this bizarre sort of stream of consciousness, meandering on race that’s bewildering to me, and I can imagine what it would be like to a second-grader, and photographs and drawings, and these are all very emotional. There is very little history in it.”
Dr. Grabar’s narrow scope as to what constitutes poetry falls perfectly in line with her anti-intellectual push against historians. She advocates for unsubstantiated retorts against individuals who have experience in a given field: parents reject scholars, and Dr. Grabar rejects poets. Dr. Grabar argues that authority is not necessary to take issue with such topics.
“They’re intended to be resources. They’re intended to be used for people who want to fight these academics and these teachers who say, ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not a historian. You don’t have a PhD. You don’t have an EDD, or whatever that degree is.”
However, if Dr. Grabar is committed to challenging the authority of “academics” as the arbiters of teaching history, why is it dangerous that only 11% (in Dr. Grabar’s calculations) of the 1619 Project book is written by historians?
“In fact, in this book, I calculated that only 11% of the writing is by historians, people that have PhDs in history. So that is the danger of the 1619 Project.”
Does Dr. Grabar wish to refute the 1619 Project by citing a low percentage of contributions from historians? Or does she wish to fight against “academics” who tell parents they don’t know what they are talking about?
“So, as kids are introduced to it, their emotions are being played on. Teachers love teaching the 1619 Project[...] because it gets students riled up. And the 1619 Project specifically [...] there’s this one short paragraph that says White people burned, hanged, stabbed Black people through history, and if you’re just a kid, that’s bewildering, and you look at the kid next to you, and it’s intended to do that. So this is an approach to history that is radically different. It’s not a legitimate approach to history. It abandons all standards of scholarship and objectivity and it presents this new alternative as if it were legitimate.”
“Yet, at the same time, you will hear Nikole Hannah-Jones, if you watch MSNBC, who will comment on anything that’s going on and trace it back to the 1619 Project, and she will accuse people who want to take the book out of classrooms of censorship and of denying students access to their true history. So she claims at one moment that it’s true history, but on Twitter and when she’s quoted on TV or by journalists, she has said things like ‘I have always said that the 1619 Project is not a history, it is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative and therefore the national history.’”
Is the status quo of teaching U.S. history determined by an organization of critical race theorists who need to be challenged by individuals who are not necessarily historians? Or, is the status quo of teaching U.S. history the rational historians who are accused of teaching “triumphalist” history by radicals such as Nikole Hannah-Jones?
In other words, is Dr. Grabar for or against challenging the status quo of teaching history?
To think that the moms in Moms for Liberty find no inconsistency in this crusade is disappointing to me, every single day. Are the dissenting voices of teaching history valiant or radical?
Whether Dr. Grabar admits it or not, she has an agenda, just as Nikole Hannah-Jones does, of course. They are both attempting to get people to think about history through a certain lens. Regardless, the two could not be more different. After Dr. Grabar mocks Hannah-Jones for “giving the game away” in acknowledging that the 1619 Project is a work of journalism, Dr. Grabar gives her game away in terms of Eurocentrism:
“This was kind of traumatic for me. I was being reminded of graduate school when I had to read things, attacks on Eurocentrism [...] when I was attending class in the nineties, like, but this is what Western civilization is based on. How could we operate as a society? What are we going to be doing, using myths and songs and knocking each other on the head in order to solve our differences? What do you want to do, go back to primitivism?”
Dr. Grabar seems to believe that moving away from Eurocentrism requires moving away from civilization; she equates a lack of European ideals to “knocking each other on the head” and “primitivism.”
I found it even easier to say “case closed” when she later laughed while saying, “I wish I had a picture of [Hannah-Jones]. I’ve seen pictures of her.” What was she – or the audience of some 35 white people – laughing at, exactly?
Later, Dr. Grabar also took time to defend Thomas Jefferson’s relationship to slavery.
“[Jefferson] inherited slaves. You know, these were people he had to take care of. He did not like the institution. He was not the rapist who, you know, loved seeing his slaves suffer.”
In fairness, she later criticized conservative writers of history who are not historians (still unclear on whether or not historians are to be trusted), rejecting the myth that the Founders were saints.
Dr. Grabar continues by acknowledging her biggest issues with the picture book Born on the Water, a companion book to the 1619 Project, written by Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson.
“I would also emphasize child development. If you look at this book, it’s really atrocious because Nikole Hannah-Jones lies. This is a picture book. You can look at this later if you want, probably in the library.”
Vatalaro-Grady from off to the side: “I’m sure, we’re going to have to look that up.” [...]
Grabar continued, “‘They kidnapped mommies and daddies.’ That’s not the case [...] as I explain in this book. So this is abusive to children, to tell them these kinds of lies. They’re not emotionally ready to hear this stuff, certainly not in a picture book, and not even in junior high and high school when the Project is being taught.”
As someone who was taught about slavery in middle/high school history classes (though not as much as I should have been), I learned that slave owners themselves were abusive, but Dr. Grabar argues that teaching the atrocities of slavery is abusive to children. The importance of teaching students this history cannot be understated. History will repeat itself if we do not learn from it.
A false equivalence fallacy is described as an inconsistency in viewing two subjects based on flawed reasoning. Dr. Grabar demonstrates this fallacy by comparing the 1619 Project to white supremacy.
“I would also say that relying on myths and narratives, that’s the strategy of white supremacists who presented their own histories. They, for lack of a better term, whitewashed the horrors of slavery. Just as you would not want a history that claims that all slaves were happy and singing in the field, which is not true, you don’t want one that’s as distorted as the 1619 Project.”
I cannot forget, however, that Dr. Grabar’s critique of the 1619 Project boils down to the idea that it’s an exaggeration that generally, slave owners – again, people who owned other human beings and exploited their labor for profit – treated enslaved people with horrific violence.
As the presentation came to a close, this personal touch Dr. Grabar added while taking questions made this entire ordeal worth every second.
“The kids up on the Hill, they think that because we’re having this meeting and we’re having a rational discussion and people are welcome and we’re debating things, that’s a threat to them because their thought processes have been changed and they were changed from the time they were in kindergarten. And they’re like, I’m sorry, crazy people. You (the audience) may see the guy on the treadmill next to you who’s Black and in the 1950s he never would have been in the same place, and you’re celebrating inside, ‘isn’t this great?’ The kid on the Hill, I don’t know what he’s going to look for, but it’s like they’re almost hallucinating because they’re looking for these signs.”
Consider me, and the Monitor, crazy.