The Howlers of History and How We Must Reclaim the Narrative

“There is a principle which is a bar

against all information,

which is proof against all judgments

and which cannot fail to

keep a man in everlasting

ignorance-that principle is contempt

prior to investigation”

(Herbert Spencer)

            The biggest mistake the progressives are making right now is in believing that owning the truth is enough. We must acknowledge that owning the narrative is more powerful than owning the truth. So how do we reclaim the narrative? How can we address this systemic insanity? I am thinking of those parents now capturing the national media attention across the country in local Board of Education meetings. They have always been the loudest people in the room. I call them “The Howlers.” They may have taken slightly different forms each generation. But they’ve always been there. Shouting and waving fists and flags in the name of “America.” It’s important that we recognize and publicly emphasize their place in the history of this behavior, how they are connected across the generations and with whom they belong. Let’s hold up the mirror for all to see. Their playbook is decades in the making.

Here is a snap shot of the historical narrative to which the Howlers belong. And this connection needs to be made more clearly to the wider public as we fight for the heart and soul and very existence of public education right now in 2021.


  •   “In the 1950s-1960′s “White Americans implemented a strategy of ‘massive resistance’ to desegregation by deploying a range of tactics and weapons against the growing movement for civil rights.” Today, we call this “massive resistance” the 1776 Project, Free to Learn Coalition, and Fight for Schools (all PAC’s created and funded by Trump loyalists and connected with big conservative money like the Koch brothers and ALEC).
  •  In 1955 the Howlers of that day decried the efforts to desegregate schools by formulating an idea for a parallel system, birthing the era of charter schools. Like today in many a Board room crying for “freedom” from CRT and other efforts toward equity, “the new Pearsall Plan began a system of local—not state—control, freedom of choice, and vouchers. The freedom-of-choice system allowed students to attend the school they wanted, and the voucher system allowed parents to use state money to support their child’s education in a private school.”
  • You know those Confederate statues the Howlers decry removing because they claim it’s “revising history?” They deny the fact that those statues were constructed to revise historical events in the first place. “The vast majority of them were built between the 1890s and 1950s, which matches up exactly with the era of Jim Crow segregation.” Revisionists declaring that teaching historical truth is revisionist. Fucking brilliant. Horrible … but brilliant.

I say it again: Howlers have always been the loudest voices in the room.

            Emphasizing current events clearly in light of history wont’ change their behavior. But, it can alter how the rest of us respond.  I suggest that facts alone will not change the behavior of the Howlers themselves because what is being asked of them is not to fundamentally change what they know, but what they believe. And what they believe is steeped consciously, or unconsciously, in white privilege.

            White privilege is like an addiction; (I am not qualified to say it is an addiction, so I will stick with metaphor to make my point). It is like the mental, physical, and spiritual disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease. That’s the invisibility of privilege. And like addicts, there is a slice of our population who feel threatened that their “drug of choice” is being taken away from them. And they will fight tooth and nail to protect their “right” to keep that privilege. That’s how they become the “Howlers.” The levels of insane behavior I have witnessed in these news reports are eerily similar to the insane thinking and behaviors of addicts I have known personally over the last 30 years (and I have known many). The one key difference I must acknowledge here is that for the drug addict/alcoholic, the person they harm the most directly is themselves. Whereas, with white privilege, the harm to PoC is far more profound and real. What will it take for white people, especially the Howlers to see that we are all connected?

            To let go of the addiction of privilege, to face oneself squarely and take honest stock of the facts and re-imagine one’s identity in relationship to power and privilege exacts too high a cost; it may feel terrifying. It is that very privilege that convinces white people we don’t have privilege. Many of the Howlers present at these Board meetings are woefully unaware of any reality other than their own, and in their own bubble since they don’t “see” racism or inequity … it simply must not exist anywhere. They are emboldened by the ignorance born of white privilege to assume their view must be the right and only way to understand the world. Like the disease of addiction, it is fear of losing something you think you have, or are not getting something you think you want, that propels the addictive thinking. Fear warns you not to look (or else…), and pride says you need not look.

            People who smoke cigarettes don’t quit smoking because of the Surgeon General’s warning on the side of the pack. That’s because cigarette smoking is an addiction. Change happens as a result of a profoundly life-altering experiences; something that impacts the person at their core. Or, because something bad on a personal level happens as a result of their addictive behavior (i.e emphysema). Yet, confirmation bias presents itself in many an addict to justify their addiction. For example, despite volumes of facts documenting the health effects of smoking, how many times have you heard (or said), “Well, my uncle Freddy smoked two packs of filter less Camels a day and he lived to be 90.” Addictive thinking cherry picks what it wants to hear. 

            Pay attention to the ways that the Howlers cherry pick events to confirm their inaccurate retelling of reality. Facts or events are taken out of context, or misconstrued to become a powerful -even if distorted- narrative that has power to sway others. Dr. Silkworth (cited in the books Alcoholics Anonymous) describes this phenomena as a “peculiar mental twist”— that the effect of the disease of addiction on the mind (psychology) of the addict is to distort reality; to see the object of the addiction (i.e. alcohol, cigarettes…) as the solution to their problem, rather than being the problem itself. This logic holds true of white privilege as well. Racism is the problem, one that harms everyone. It is ethics and Human Rights 101. In LaK’Ech:

Tú eres mi otro yo.

You are my other me.

Si te hago daño a ti,

If I do harm to you,

Me hago daño a mi mismo.

I do harm to myself.

But by critically examining the causes and conditions of systemic racism (historically and today) requires that we take a “fearless moral inventory of ourselves” as white people. But not enough of us are truly willing to take such stock of ourselves and then follow it up with a willingness to make amends (even if it is for the actions of my ancestors. I might not have “done” the thing, but I should be willing to help make things better today. I see it as my ethical and civic responsibility). Denial has to run its course eventually. But at what price?

            The idea that white people need to talk to white people, instead of asking PoC to do it for them makes sense within this model. The recovery model argues that only an alcoholic can really understand another alcoholic. As someone with white privilege, I know the condition first hand, and can speak to how I have tried to move through this condition to change myself and be a better accomplice for human rights. I can imagine a 12-step recovery group for white people where we can begin with accepting that there is a problem, that it is real and harmful, and that not only am I part of the problem but more importantly I have within my power to become part of a solution. Identifying guilt is not the goal. I hear a lot of “Howlers” criticizing CRT for beating white people over the head with “guilt.” The addict who only lives in guilt over their behavior will likely never recover because living in their guilt alone keeps them addicted and a desire to escape themselves. What we need is a set of steps to action that empower white people to see that they can be of service to others with similar privilege in helping them make changes that can make a difference – I can share my experience, strength, and hope with other white people to be part of a solution rather than continue to live in the problem. What will it take for more of us to finally be willing and to create a space to do this work that might be open to the Howlers– if and when they finally hit their bottom? More importantly we don’t need to wait for those who are not ready. Many of us can begin this model for action now: 1. By reclaiming the narrative, and 2. forming groups that are willing to participate in serious self-examination, ownership for one’s complicity within the system, and most importantly finding the freedom and power that comes from accepting responsibility for finding solutions.

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

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