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DeSantis wants Florida to study Western Civilization. It's a shame he hasn't himself

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a news conference in Miami this month.
Marta Lavandier
A bad Western movie: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a news conference in Miami this month.

COMMENTARY: From pushing 'Don't Say Gay' to pulling AP African American studies, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis trashes the humanist Western Civilization ideals he claims to champion.

I’m a fan of Western Civilization. I wish Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were, too.

But he’s not. At all.

DeSantis this week is making a loud show of ordering Florida’s state colleges and universities to focus on teaching Western Civilization instead of the "woke-leftist indoctrination” he sees — or what the Republican primary voter base he’s so feverishly courting says it sees.

Yet DeSantis posing as an avatar of Western Civilization feels as hypocritical as Chinese leader Xi Jinping declaring himself a devout Confucianist. Neither man practices what his supposed cultural touchstone really preaches.

I raise that DeSantis-Xi parallel because, if we want to understand the principle that genuinely underpins Western Civilization, it helps to appreciate the basis of its counterpart, Eastern Civilization. Eastern thought embraces what I call holism — an emphasis on the harmonious universal whole of things and the individual’s place in it. Western thought touts humanism — stressing the free-thinking role of the individual human being over the grand universal scheme. I don’t consider either outlook superior or inferior; they’re splendidly different and splendidly complementary.

But Xi and DeSantis betray those respective vistas every morning for breakfast.

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I’ll get to Xi later. Because I live in Florida — and the Americas, a branch office of Western Civilization — I’m most concerned with DeSantis’ Western impostorism.

Let's start with the Governor’s own indoctrination agenda. Consider his obsession with demonizing immigrants and dog-whistle denigrating racial, religious and gender minorities. It all showcases his apparent belief that at its core, Western Civilization is a white, Christian, heterosexual project that must remain the paradigm, certainly America's. One that must never, to use MAGA parlance, be replaced.

We’re witnessing the codification of that creed in Florida. The “Don’t Say Gay” law. The Stop W.O.K.E Act. DeSantis’ sneering, bullying efforts to eradicate Black studies in high schools and diversity programs in higher education, including his hostile takeover of New College. Or his zealous alliance with Israel's right-wing government — which has less to do with protecting Jews (this is the same governor who in the past has refused to condemn neo-Nazi rallies in Florida) than with pleasing evangelical Christian voters who claim the creation of modern Israel helped fulfill the prophecy of Christ’s second coming.

DeSantis can’t claim to be Pericles when he acts like Putin. Or to be John Stuart Mill when he behaves like Nicolás Maduro.

How does all that square with true Western values? It doesn’t. At all.

Do college professors and students, as DeSantis complains, often go overboard with self-righteous and censorious liberalism? They sure do — and have ever since Western Civilization’s first university, Bologna, was founded in 1088. But that doesn’t erase the fact that, as I mentioned, the ethos of Western Civilization is humanism. And that exaltation of the individual human being entails, by default, the dignified inclusion of all those individual human beings — in schools, history books, businesses, media, government — no matter which boxes they check on the census form.

In fact, one Western Civilization movement that gets that is its predominant faith, Christianity — which won over the Western world largely because its central idea, God coming among us as a compassionate human, dovetailed with humanist ideals.

Spiteful Fiat

DeSantis' fans will insist I’m leaving out his glorification of another critical Western ideal — liberty — which has made this the “Free State of Florida” under his reign.

Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.
Ng Han Guan
Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

But DeSantis can’t say he champions the democratic freedom that stretches from the Agora of Athens to the Civil Rights Movement of America when he imperiously overturns local ordinances, censors books and bans courses that displease him and the Trump constituency he's wooing. Or when he punishes any criticism he gets with spiteful gubernatorial fiat, à la his petty Disney retribution.

You can’t claim to be Pericles when you act like Putin. Or to be John Stuart Mill when you behave like Nicolás Maduro.

Which brings me to Xi Jinping.

Just as Western humanism’s focus on individual freedom doesn’t pre-empt the needs of society, Eastern holism’s emphasis on universal harmony isn’t meant to trash the worth and freedom of the individual. Xi says he’s a devotee of Confucius, but I’ve never read anything in the Analects that condones communist China's brand of mass human repression.

But we can thank Xi for showing us what the true values of Eastern Civilization aren't — as we can thank DeSantis for the same favor here in the West.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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