Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who writes two columns each week for the Washington Post. He has an extensive and impressive biography as an author, an aide to President George W. Bush, and regularly appears on news shows like Face the Nation. Given the variety of outlets and publications that he contributes and his work experience in the government, I believe that it’s fair to say that he is a representative voice of the mainstream media for U.S. government and politics.
The Washington Post is one of the most subscribed newspapers in the world. The Washington Post has 3 million digital subscribers and is the second most subscribed paid subscription news site. The New York Times is in first place with 6.9 million subscribers, per the FIPP and CeleraOne’s Digital Subscriber Snapshot 2021 Q2.
On October 18, 2021, Gerson wrote an opinion column for the Washington Post criticizing Texas House Bill 3979, a bill that was signed into law June 16, 2021 by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. HB3979 is informally known as “the law that prevents Texas public schools from teaching the principles of critical race theory.”
In his opinion column, Gerson demonstrates a well-known fallacious argument: The strawman. In a Strawman Argument, a person fabricates an argument (the strawman) by misrepresenting their opponent’s position and then attacking this distorted version of the opponent’s stance. Hence, the attacker is defeating an irrelevant argument that their opponent doesn’t support.
Gerson’s premise is based on his following paragraph, denouncing Texas HB3979:
The state of Texas — confirming its status as the laboratory of idiocracy — did the most damage. It has forbidden the teaching of any “concept” that causes an individual to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”
In short, Gerson is claiming that HB3979 says:
It is forbidden to teach concepts that may make a student feel uncomfortable because of their race or sex
Gerson goes on to be more specific about what he believes the intent of the HB3979 is: White parents protecting their White children from experiencing discomfort in school due to exposure to U.S. racial history content:
White children — really the White parents of White children — have been given an open invitation to protest any teaching on U.S. racial history that triggers their “discomfort.”
The premise of Gerson’s argument has the following components:
Texas HB3979 forbids teaching concepts that make students feel uncomfortable because of their race or sex
White parents will protest teaching U.S. racial history content that make their children feel uncomfortable
Therefore he asks you to accept his consequent, which is essentially:
U.S. history content that presents the perspective of Black people who participated in those historical events will be banned in Texas public school curriculum
Texas House Bill 3979
The following excerpt from Texas HB3979 contains the context from the text that Gerson quoted to formulate his premise. I omitted subsections that aren’t part of the context:
SECTION 1. Section 28.002, Education Code, is amended by adding Subsections (h-2), (h-3), (h-4), and (h-5) to read as follows:
(h-3) For any social studies course in the required curriculum:
(4) a teacher, administrator, or other employee of a state agency, school district, or open-enrollment charter school may not:
(B) require or make part of a course the concept that:
(vii) an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex;
To construct his strawman, Gerson exchanged the words “the concept that an individual should” from HB3979 with his own fabrication “any concept that causes an individual to.” The distinction is not obvious without condensing the text and seeing it in context. Here it is if we connect the dots and pull it together to make it more cohesive:
Gerson wants to convince you that HB3979 1.h-3.4.B.vii says:
A teacher, administrator, or other employee of a state agency, school district, or open-enrollment charter school may not require or make part of a course any concept that causes an individual to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.
But the actual HB3979 1.h-3.4.B.vii text is:
A teacher, administrator, or other employee of a state agency, school district, or open-enrollment charter school may not require or make part of a course the concept that an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.
So, the essence of HB3979 1.h-3.4.B.vii is:
Don’t teach our children that they should be ashamed of themselves because of their race or sex.
Compared with Gerson’s strawman:
Don’t teach concepts that make children feel uncomfortable because of their race or sex.
Gerson’s argument is inconsistent because it is based on a false premise that is not compatible with the text of HB3979. Furthermore, his argument is deceptive; He is intentionally misleading his audience.
A strawman is not immediately obvious without some due diligence to examine the source material. Commentators are betting that you won’t allocate the time to validate their reporting and analysis. Gerson is feeding his audience’s bias by insinuating that the intent of HB3979 is to create a racial divide, censor U.S. Black history, and then stoking his audience by using feigned outrage. Readers will share his column on social media and comment favorably without doing any due diligence.
I’m not telling you that Texas HB3979 is good or bad. You should judge that for yourself. I am asking you not to adopt the value judgment of Michael Gerson and other mainstream media commentators – on this issue or any others – because their motives are not about getting at the truth so they can inform and educate their audience. Look at the verifiable facts before deciding.