Bill Cotterell: Welcome to Florida, where a penis always makes a better story

The Sunshine State is giving the culture wars a bad name, our Capitol Columnist writes.

Michelangelo's David, as seen in the Accademia Gallery in Florence, Italy.

Michelangelo's David, as seen in the Accademia Gallery in Florence, Italy. Image by pieroor from Pixabay

As Gov. Ron DeSantis gets ready to run for president, his political allies and top administrators ought to discreetly pass the word that Florida needs to knock off the real nutty stuff.

To impress voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, for starters, any governor needs to look competent and in control. DeSantis should come across as the leader of a growing and prosperous state that’s trying bold new ventures in education, economic growth and quality of life. What Florida doesn’t need right now is to keep getting lampooned by late-night comedians as the home of prudery – even bigotry – aimed at children.

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DeSantis proudly proclaims Florida is “where ‘woke’ goes to die.” Right now, it’s looking more like “where the Renaissance is rejected.” The culture war Republicans relish is supposed to be a revolt against easy targets like “critical race theory” and “diversity, equity and inclusion” – not a war on culture itself.

The recent kerfuffle over a Tallahassee charter school ousting its principal in part because of a handful of parents’ complaints about Michelangelo’s “David” was wrongly focused. The actual problem was a failure to give parents two weeks’ notice that a photo of the artwork would be used in an arts class – on top of some undisclosed other problems – not just the classic sculpture. 

But a penis makes a better story.

Then, just as the giggles subsided, we heard that a Pinellas County school removed a film about Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old girl who was the first child to integrate a New Orleans public school in the mid-1950s. One unidentified parent objected to racist slurs shouted by protesters nearly 70 years ago and hideous actions like a noose put around a doll’s neck, shown in the film.

OK, that might be a little rough for third graders, but facts don’t soften themselves to suit our feelings. Ruby Bridges and thousands of children like her had to endure such savagery, so why shouldn’t today’s children be given an accurate account of our history, warts and all?

Elsewhere in civil rights education, a publisher has bowdlerized the Montgomery bus boycott. Wary of Florida’s new law against teaching things that might make some students feel guilty about things that happened before their parents were born, the company simply left race out. The movement started when Rosa Parks refused to move to a different bus seat, a first-grade pamphlet said. 

The words “because of the color of her skin” were deleted.

Meantime, a bill moving through the ongoing legislative session would require schools to stop using educational materials if a parent objects to the content. Sure, books could be reinstated after a quick review, and objections to well-established titles like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Catcher in the Rye” might be rejected out of hand. 

But if a hardy band of malcontents file complaints on a hundred or so books, a school’s entire lesson plans could be disrupted while libraries try to appease the self-appointed censors.

It isn’t hard for a state or city to get a reputation. South Carolina was long known for union-busting and sweatshop textile mills. A “Chicago alderman” is synonymous with sleaze. A “Philadelphia lawyer” is presumed to be slick enough to follow you into a revolving door and come out first. And now “Florida man” is an internet meme that makes you think, “Uh-oh, what’d he do now?” 

Is that an image DeSantis wants to cultivate?

By threatening liquor licenses of bars allowing children at drag shows, punishing Disney for fighting his “Parental Rights in Education” law, force-feeding a paradigm shift at New College, attacking Critical Race Theory, suspending a state attorney whose legal decisions he dislikes, and many other actions, DeSantis has made his bones with the right wing of the Republican Party. He’ll never get the hardcore Trumpers, but he’s a solid second in early polls and can grab the top prize if the former president falters.

That’s why his people should subtly spread the word to all the GOP legislators, school boards, county officers and others: “Hey, let’s not do anything to look even crazier.”

Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at bcotterell@cityandstatefl.com

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