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The attack on truth costs a man his job


William Latson was until recently principal of Spanish River Community High School, a public school in tony Boca Raton, Florida. He appears to have been a real American success story: got his Bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Florida, rose his way up in academia starting out as a coach at a Catholic school, then served as principal of several public schools before landing at Spanish River, winning several teaching awards along the way. On paper, a decent, hard-working guy.

So why did the Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent decide to fire Latson last week?

Because of what Latson said about the Holocaust: namely, that it is a “belief” and not a “fact.” When a shocked parent told him that “The Holocaust is a factual, historical event. It is not…a belief,” Latson replied, “Not everyone believes the Holocaust happened. And you have your thoughts, but we are a public school and not all of our parents have the same beliefs.”

The concerned parent was flabbergasted when she read Latson’s concluding comment: “I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee.” What she did next is a textbook illustration of political activism. Asking “How do you pick and choose history?”, she launched an effort to publicize the incident. Public pressure built up, especially in Palm Beach County’s sizable Jewish community. An online petition went around demanding his removal. After a year, Latson’s opponents forced the County School District to “counsel Latson about the impropriety” of his Holocaust equivocation. Latson was compelled to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum, after which he issued a statement calling the Holocaust “one of the most horrific events in human history.”

It was groveling, but it wasn’t enough. By last week, the Superintendent had had enough: he announced he’s firing Latson. (In response, Latson blamed the parent, claiming she had made false statements about him!)

According to Latson, he never claimed that he, personally, didn’t believe in the Holocaust. To the contrary, he has told people he does believe it’s an historical fact. He appears to have come to the misguided intellectual conclusion, though, that because “not all of our parents” believe it is a fact, he, as principal, felt he had to remain neutral. His critics pointed out that, by doing so, he was enabling actual Holocaust deniers and giving them credibility, thus reducing the historicity of the Holocaust to a he-said-she-said equivalence with denialism.

This is what it’s come to in the age of Trump. When the history of this dreadful administration is written, there will be many stains on Trump, but perhaps the prime one will be the ease with which he denies proven and provable facts, sowing skepticism among uneducated people, and people with biases, who figure that “If the president says it’s not true, then how can it be?”

As the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State puts it, “Objectivity is paramount; rather than deferring to some sort of ‘both sides’ debate about facts, a growing problem exposed and highlighted by the president of the United States, schools must reaffirm commitment to truth and genuine, historical knowledge.”

I don’t know what Latson’s religious beliefs are, but from everything I’ve read, I think he’s Christian. I wonder if, in his devotion to neutrality, he considers the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection “beliefs” rather than “facts.” After all, “not all of our parents” believe in the literal Christian interpretation of the Bible (mine certainly did not).

The problem with this false equivalence of views, of course, is that are people who deny facts, and would have others deny them, for purely political, economic or religious reasons (climate change being the obvious example). When you have a president who insists on such absurdities as having the largest inaugural crowd in history, or that Hillary Clinton’s three-million vote plurality in 2016 was due to non-citizens, you see in raw, living color not only the ridiculousness of denying facts, but the danger.

Is William Latson a bad man? No. But he made a bad, indeed a horrible choice. Maybe, after a lifetime of career struggle of hoisting himself up the greasy pole to become principal of a respected high school, Latson, a Black man, had made so many compromises in order to avoid controversy and stay out of trouble that he no longer dared to take a position on anything—even something he knew was true. If so, he is not a culprit, but the victim of a terrible trend in this country. That trend was not started by Donald Trump. But it has been infinitely boosted by him and—let’s not forget—by his Republican Party, both of whom will be answering for their attack on truth for decades.

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