On Schools, White-Collar Vigilantism, & the Grievance-Industrial Complex
This is the unabridged version of comments I made at the Ankeny School Board meeting on Monday, November 1st, 2021. Owing to the three minute time limit, I had to seriously tighten up my word count, but I wanted to present the full piece with citations here. I am also indebted to Jennifer Berkshire’s tireless coverage of our current educational culture war. As you can tell, I draw heavily from her most recent piece for The Nation, “The GOP’s Grievance Industrial Complex Invades the Classroom.”
My name is Nick Covington. I have taught social studies at Ankeny High School since 2012 and I’ve enjoyed having many of your kids in my courses over the years.
Earlier this year, a fourth grade Teacher of the Year in Southlake, Texas had a student borrow a copy of a book from her classroom library called This Book Is Anti-Racist. “When the child’s parents filed a complaint with the school district, alleging that the book was inappropriate, administrators declined to punish the teacher. Then Southlake’s new conservative majority school board intervened. By a vote of three to two last month, members agreed to direct school administrators to place a letter of reprimand in her personnel file, permanently blemishing the record of one of the district’s star teachers”(1). For the “crime” of having a book. One of the dissenting board members in that vote implored folks watching online, “I would like to let the teachers know, if you are worried about teaching in this school district, that you should watch this vote, I want you to know that you are right to be worried.” (2)
In Johnston County, North Carolina, “teachers can now be disciplined or fired if they teach that American historical figures weren’t heroes or ‘undermine foundational documents,’ including the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Teachers who find themselves the target of a parent complaint can be suspended without pay while an investigation is conducted.”(3)
In an attempt to explain this national political phenomenon, the authors of a October 2021 paper titled, “Legal Vigilantes and the Institutionalization of Anti-Democratic Politics”, describe what they call ‘“white-collar vigilantism’ in which private individuals are empowered and even encouraged to go after teachers, neighbors, and colleagues, propping up the ‘grievance industrial complex’ that drives right-wing media. And while the views of the aggrieved may reflect minority positions…outrage carries the day, and increasingly dictates policy.” (4)
As I speak, “white-collar vigilantism” is working overtime to discredit & slander me and use my politics to drive a wedge into my professional working life, as has been done to countless others, including yourselves, who have given their account here openly in the public record.
Even without an explicit change in policy, the “grievance-industrial complex” is working as intended to chill speech, modify lesson plans & curricula, & change the way we communicate and interact with students, parents, & our colleagues. Many educators have decided that being viciously targeted & publicly slandered by right-wing mobs & conspiracy theorists isn’t worth the toll on their mental health, their strained relationships, and threats of outright violence. As one prominent online account shared with their 236,000 followers: “I just dreamed I got to start solving the Critical Theorist problem with a Howitzer. So fun!”, his reply when asked by a follower, “Do you think it’ll come to that?”, was to say, “Howitzers? No. Bullets? In limited fashion, definitely.” (5)
But I am also concerned for the physical safety of every public employee and members of our local government, as many in our community are well practiced in anti-democratic politics, having participated in the attempt to overthrow our national government on January 6th, 2021. In survey data just released today, 30% of Republicans agreed with the statement “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country”. (6) A comment on a video of the September 21st meeting of this very school board read, “Not until a few school board members get killed will this ever change. So aim well!”. (7) That same night a community member in the auditorium shouted, “We know where you live! We’re going to stalk you! We’re coming to your house!”. (8) And in Idaho last week, the same day that a mass shooting at a Boise shopping mall killed 2 and injured 4 others, a man at a large political event was recorded inquiring, “How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?” (9)
Tomorrow, Ankeny could continue to follow the example set by Southlake, Johnston County, Loudon County and countless other districts around the country, replacing real local issues and the positive, productive relationships that make our children more humane and empathetic with conspiracism, hatred, & fear of the other that are the ratings priorities of cable news pundits and talk show grifters — the engine of the grievance industrial complex — who don’t care about you or your kids, only for securing our educational agenda as fuel for their divisive cultural forever war.
I’ve been told, “The easiest way to make this stop is to shut up”. Well, that’s kind of the point isn’t it? That’s the language of the bully. Your teachers are being bullied. My fear, and the unstated fear of many teachers under contract with this very board, is that soon the bullying will not only escalate, but that it will be empowered and encouraged from the dais itself.
Update: Here is a video of the abridged version of my comments —