Lawmakers sometimes craft bills that leave voters shaking their heads in astonishment.
In the case of the horribly unjustifiable Senate Bill 83, voters could very well shake their heads so hard they’d break their necks.
Judging from the title, the “Ohio Higher Education and Enhancement Act” doesn’t seem so threatening. In reality, the proposal would prevent Ohio’s public colleges from engaging in wide-ranging intellectual debate, embrace Orwellian values of obscuring history and create a policy to make Asian xenophobia the official policy of the state.
Those aren’t even the worse parts.
Under SB 83, universities could not mandate diversity, equity, and inclusion training, the latest boogeyman on the right.
These lawmakers want to tell institutions what they can and can’t discuss publicly by creating a haphazard list that reflects their own bias. The bill would prohibit universities from taking a position on any “controversial belief or policy,” including diversity, immigration policy, or climate change. But it’s OK, the bill says, to take a position during war.
The bill would mandate specific college readings like the Constitution, five essays from the Federalists’ paper, and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
The bill doesn’t explain why students must read just five of the 85 Federalists’ essays or read MLK instead of, say, James Baldwin’s epic essay, “Many Thousands Gone.” Maybe King seems “safe” to them?
The bill’s anti-Asian (i.e, racist) xenophobia would prohibit Ohio’s four-year institutions from entering into academic partnerships with their counterparts in China, a blatantly political act that attempts to capitalize on anti-Chinese sentiment. That proposed prohibition ignores the beneficial research among scholars in programs like Ohio State’s China Gateway project.
And if China’s so bad, why aren’t their prohibitions from institutions in Russia, North Korea, Afghanistan, and any other country a politician might find unnerving?
The bill is full of contradictions. It says students should read King’s letter, but does it also mean they can’t talk about the systematic racism King raises? Read the Federalist papers, but maybe ignore Federalist 54 since it addresses enslaved people as property, a conversation that could lead into places the Orwellians don’t want to go? Read about the Constitution, but don’t discuss how the Ninth and 14th amendments have taken center stage in the debate over abortion, which is a prohibited topic.
The bill’s sponsor, the freshman Senator Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), issued a nonsensical statement about ensuring students get a world-class education. He didn’t return phone calls to this newspaper seeking additional comment, par for the course for lawmakers who don’t want to defend the indefensible.
This bill comes down to this: Cirino and the few co-sponsors want to use legislative strong-arming to decide what topics people can address in public.
They can try to go all North Korea on the state’s education system, but educators — and curious students — will find a way to discuss the continued pay disparities in society, the racial reckoning caused by George Floyd’s death, and why Ohio wants to institute an official policy of Chinese hate.
If you don’t think universities will take a position, think again. Because the next time there’s some societal injustice — pick any — colleges will stand with their diverse school population, not with lawmakers only interested in furthering their brand of intolerance.
In the book 1984, George Orwell writes: “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
SB 83 and its head-spinning, nonsensical doublethink should be banished to the graveyard of bad bills. Maybe, after a few meetings, the bill will quietly die.
That’s the best outcome.
Ray Marcano’s column appears on these pages each Sunday. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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