by James A. Bacon
In early February an exchange took place during a State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting between Anne Holton and Suparna Dutta that highlights the massive leftward shift within Virginia’s Democratic Party. So outraged were militant leftists by Suparna’s remarks that Democratic state senators voted unanimously to reject her appointment to the SBOE.
Did Dutta minimize the horrors of American slavery? Did she make racially charged statements? Did the dark-complected Hindu immigrant say anything that could be remotely construed as “white supremacist,” as one of her accusers described her? No, no, and no. She defended America’s key founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and that was a bridge too far.
The exchange between Dutta and Holton arose during a discussion of the Youngkin administration’s revised standards for history and civics Standards of Learning. Holton honed in on a section of the document that described the “foundational principles” behind the standards.
One of those principles stated, “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are remarkable documents that provide the freedoms and framework for our constitutional republic.” Another stated, “Centralized government planning in the form of socialism or communist political systems is
incompatible with democracy and individual freedoms.”
Before we move on, let’s be clear about one thing. Those statements were not part of the actual standards but guiding principles for devising the standards. The Youngkin administration is intent upon teaching “the good and the bad” of American and world history. The bad includes the “abhorrent treatment of Native Americans, the stain of slavery, segregation and racism in the United States and around the world.” But it also includes the good, which includes the Declaration and the Constitution.
There are two layers to this controversy. The first is the substance of the disagreement between Dutta and Holton — how we appraise the Declaration and the Constitution. The second is how Dutta’s enemies declared her views to be so beyond the pale that she and they had to be repudiated.
What they said
Holton prompted the discussion by recommending that the “guiding principles” be struck from the revised history and civics standards. “They’re not essential to the standards,” she said. I would agree with her there. The principles described the philosophy of the Youngkin officials who were writing the standards but not part of the standards themselves. I would concur that they could have been excised from the document without doing any damage to the Standards themselves.
But Holton didn’t stop there. She went on to say, “And I find them offensive.” Here’s how she explained herself.
To an audience as inclusive as our Virginia is, you cannot reference the Declaration of Independence and Constitution as ‘remarkable documents’ without also acknowledging that they contained fundamental flaws enshrining slavery and limiting the protections they provided for only to white propertied men. I’m not comfortable with that language. I’m not comfortable with the language of centralized government planning for socialist or communist political systems as incompatible with democracy. I would concede on communism but there are plenty of governments that call themselves socialist democratic governments. So, is socialism compatible with democracy? That would be a great debate to have in a 12th grade government civics class.
Dutta defended the principles and attacked the earlier version of the history/civic standards as “looking at history … through a lens of race, through a lens of enslavement, servitude, colonialism, imperialism.” Said she:
There was so little to feel proud about…. Rather than traditional American values, this was almost like activist civics, activist history. … This is exactly the kind of divisive and controversial indoctrination that parents are tired of.… The August standard was defective. The Board recognized it. And we wanted the staff to go back and revamp it.… Having grown up in a country with remnants of colonialism and a lot of socialism, I can tell you this is fantastic… I would not want this section on the guiding principles to be removed or modified.
The Declaration and Constitution, I think they are remarkable documents. I don’t believe that the Declaration and Constitution enshrined slavery, nor did they limit protections to white propertied men.… The Constitution didn’t mention race or slavery—
At this point Holton interjected: “It did! The three-fifths clause.”
Holton was referring to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution that allocated congressional seats based on the basis of the number of “free persons” and “all other persons,” which was a euphemism for slaves, who were counted a three-fifths of a person.
“It didn’t mention race or slavery,” Dutta retorted.
It’s hideous for any person to be considered any less than one whole. It’s unimaginable, abominable. From what I’ve read – I’ve tried to do the research – there is nobody defending it. It’s just a fact that it was a compromise to [garbled] the representation of the southern states. The Constitution did not end slavery, but it never would have been ratified if it had. As far as the socialist or communist, I think socialism is just about as bad as communism. Socialism is, like, the nanny state, which predominates in so many parts of the world. It co-opts the important decisions belonging to families and individuals. I come from a country that used to more more socialistic … then than it is now, but it creates dearth, dependency and depression.
Were they racist documents?
It is difficult to understand why Holton would have been offended by describing the Declaration of Independence a “remarkable document.” Author Thomas Jefferson penned the most powerful assertion of human liberty and equality ever written: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Declaration made no exception for Africans or slaves.
Holton seemed to object mainly to calling the U.S. Constitution a “remarkable” document, contending that it enshrined slavery and limited protections to white propertied men.
It is undeniably true that the Constitution permitted slavery at the time, a political necessity, as Dutta observed, in order to bring the Southern slave states into the union. But the Constitution also contained within itself the means, by means of amendments, for abolishing slavery, which the 13th amendment in fact did in 1865.
Also, one must note that the Bill of Rights was added in 1791, five years after the Constitution was ratified. Never had governing laws enshrining such extensive rights been enacted before. The Bill of Rights protected the right of all Americans — not just white propertied males — to enjoy free speech, to practice their religion, and to petition the government. It protected the right of all citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizure. It granted all persons the right to due process of law and a trial by jury.
By 21st century standards, the 1796 and 1791 versions of the Constitution were flawed, most grievously in permitting the institution of slavery and in not conferring on women the right to vote. But by the standards of its time, it was not only remarkable, it was extraordinary… indeed revolutionary. The Constitution represented the greatest single advance in human rights in the history of mankind. It is blameworthy only in failing to make the leap to full freedom for all people all at once. For Holton to be “offended” by the use of the word “remarkable” shows a breathtaking lack of perspective.
Is socialism incompatible with freedom?
It is refreshing to know that Holton concedes that communism is incompatible with freedom, given the fact that the two largest mass murderers in modern history — Mao Tse Tung and Joseph Stalin — were communist. The question, then, really is whether socialism is incompatible with freedom.
That question becomes a matter of semantics. Let’s adopt the definition provided by the Oxford dictionary: Socialism is “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”
The Youngkin administration’s guiding principles did not target socialism directly. Rather the principles stated that “centralized government planning in the form of socialism or communist political systems” is incompatible with democracy and human freedoms. Missing from Holton’s formulation is any reference to centralized government planning.
When American leftists think of socialism, they don’t envision Zimbabwe or Venezuela, countries in which socialists utilizing the untrammeled power of the state destroyed their economies, reduced their populations to penury, and made a mockery of human rights. Leftists think primarily of stable and prosperous Scandinavian democracies. It is true that the Scandinavian countries do have parties with “socialist” in their names. But theirs is a socialism so watered down that it arguably is not socialist at all. All Scandinavian countries have vibrant market-based economies that are among the freest in the world. They do not engage in “central government planning.” They are socialist only in the sense that they overlay market capitalism with generous welfare states… a very different arrangement than the state owning the means of production, distribution and exchange.
Dutta had her own “lived experience” with socialism in India, which the Indians themselves have in large part rejected since she emigrated. In America, she appears to equate socialism with the “nanny state,” which exalts a powerful state regulatory apparatus. Strictly speaking, the “nanny state” is not socialist. It uses its coercive power to dictate how people behave; it does not require the ownership of production, distribution and exchange. If one wanted to argue semantics — the nanny-state is not socialist — one could say that Dutta’s criticism was off-base. However, her argument falls well within the mainstream of American discourse.
Dutta was a target of the left long before she spoke up at the February SBOE meeting. She was a vocal defender of the merit-based system for admitting students into the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. In an article published in Real Clear Politics, independent journalist Asra Q. Nomani also details how Muslim organizations in Northern Virginia denounced Dutta as belonging to an “anti-Muslim Hindu extremist group.” But her critics did not have enough clout to derail her confirmation to the SBOE. The floodgates of criticism opened only after her exchange with Holton.
Among other critics, state Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Midlothian, a Muslim immigrant from India — who, incidentally, has a much lighter skin color than Dutta — attacked her for her “alignment with very extreme and right-wing white supremacist groups.” It’s not clear to whom Hashmi was referring — the Klan? Neo-Nazis? Anti-Muslim Hindu nationalists? … Or parents’ rights organizations in Northern Virginia?
Reminiscent of the attacks on Bert Ellis, the conservative appointee to the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, Dutta never had an opportunity to counter the charges of extremism. But any fair-minded person can listen to her exchange with Holton on the video of the SBOE meeting. If she is “extremist,” so are the founding documents of our nation, and so are the majority of Americans who still revere them.
This episode tells us much about the evolving attitudes in the Democratic Party. Holton is not some fringe activist. She is the wife of Senator Tim Kaine, a former Virginia secretary of education, and former president of George Mason University — in sum, a pillar of Virginia’s Democratic Party establishment. No one in the Democratic Party reprimanded her for her views. To the contrary, Democratic senators voted unanimously to boot Dutta off the Board of Education.
Under the Democrats’ new rules, it’s not enough to teach students that the original version of the Constitution contained the “three fifths” clause — something that no one disagrees with. When describing the founding document, we must ritually acknowledge that in its original form it was racist, sexist and otherwise flawed…. And anyone who dares defend the Constitution is an extremist who has no legitimate place in state government.