The scenes are familiar - protestors wearing national colors, pushing down barricades, beating police officers. Government buildings broken into, offices ransacked, and national symbols desecrated. It sounds like a scene from the far-right attack on the U.S. Capitol two years ago on January 6th. But it also describes the attack last week by supporters of ex-president Jair Bolsonaro on government buildings in Brazil.
Historians and political commentators have immediately drawn connections between the two events. But the similarities between 1/6/21 and 1/8/23, as well as increasing extremism and violence in both countries, are also red flags for educators. We teach the future voters and citizens of our democracies, and public education is perhaps the best defense against extremism. As far-right movements aim to limit curricula and demolish public institutions, teachers are the first line of defense to protect truth and democracy around the world. Here are five things to consider about our role in combating extremism in the past, present, and future.
1. Extremist Movements are Globally Connected
There are endless similarities between the January 8th attacks in Brasilia and the attack on the U.S. capitol two years ago. Following a similar playbook to former U.S. President Trump, Brazil's former president Jair Bolsonaro has been fomenting false claims of election fraud and illegitimacy for years now. After he lost in 2020, Trump refused to concede the election. Bolsonaro, too, refused to concede after he lost an October run-off to left-wing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. On January 6th, 2021, Trump supporters gathered in Washington D.C. for the "stop the steal" rally, but Trump conveniently disappeared after telling the crowd, "We're going to the Capitol." Similarly, "Bolsonaristas," likewise clad in national colors, gathered outside of military offices across Brazil to protest for a military intervention while Bolsonaro was in Florida of all places. Trump and Bolsonaro have become figureheads for extremism but have maintained plausible deniability that they are involved in the insurrections whatsoever.
But there are more than just these two clear comparisons - growing nationalist movements have made headlines recently in Hungary, Israel, and Peru. When we share current events in class, it's important to pull away from the U.S. media's America-centric narrative. By analyzing far-right extremism in the USA within the context of global movements, we expand our students' worldviews and give more direction for comparison. After the January 6th insurrection, many moderates and liberals were shocked by the events - how could this ever happen in America?! But the recent events in Brazil demonstrate just how globally connected extremist movements are. Understanding this simple fact better equips us to fight them.
2. The Historical Context of Far-Right Movements Matters
Despite all the connections we can make, the differences in the histories of Brazil and the USA give important context to these two events. In the United States, we can see the backlash to Reconstruction as the historical roots of present-day extremism and race-based violence in our nation. In a struggle to maintain power, White Southerners pushed to bar Black voting and representation in our democracy. Throughout the 20th century, far-right politicians have limited democracy through the use of poll taxes, restrictive voting laws, and extremist violence. Even today, marginalized groups are disenfranchised by right-wing policies and threats of violence. In some states, right-wing violence and extremism boiled over into insurrection and coups, as is the case in the 1898 Race Riots in Wilmington, North Carolina. On a national level, however, there has not been a coup d’etat in the United States. Hence, January 6th rattled the bones of our democracy.
But Brazil's long history of coups, dictatorships, and military interventions makes January 8th, 2023 feel different. It has only been 40 years since the end of Brazil's military dictatorship, which began in 1964 as the right-wing military took power to "protect" citizens from growing tides of communism. Many other South American countries soon followed suit, with coups in Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina giving way to years of dictatorship in otherwise democratic nations. A military takeover in Brazil is not outside the realm of possibilities and still lives in the memory of half the population there.
Many U.S. schools do a poor job of teaching Latin American history. I remember scouring my high school history textbook to find Latin American perspectives that had otherwise been skimmed over in class. In reading recent analyses about Brazil, I realize that many American journalists don't truly recognize the importance of historical context and the military's involvement there. Instead, they immediately want to draw comparisons between democracy in the USA and South America. But they are different, and we must equip our students with the ability to contextualize these unique histories."As far-right movements aim to limit curricula and demolish public institutions, teachers are the first line of defense to protect truth and democracy around the world." From the U.S. to Brazil, Educators Must Confront Far-Right Extremism Click To Tweet
3. The Far-Right Attack on Education
My father grew up during the right-wing military dictatorship in Uruguay of the 1970s and '80s, and he often recalls how his education was severely censored. He and his friends had to track down banned books like Marx's Communist Manifesto on the black market. Sometimes his teachers would suddenly disappear, only to be replaced by a member of the military. A throughline of all far-right, anti-democratic movements is the destruction of education and public institutions.
In the United States, we are witnessing far-right movements attempting to erase key histories from our curricula. Recent laws passed in Florida and Arizona demonstrate how Republican legislatures have tried to undermine education by limiting educators from discussing genocide, slavery, LGBTQ issues, and critical race theory in class. Likewise, in Brazil, one of Bolsonaro's first acts as president in 2019 was to remove requirements that textbooks must represent Brazil's ethnic diversity and portray positive images of women. In their commitment to an "egalitarian education," Bolsonaro's education ministry sought to remove topics seen as "political" - like communism - from the national curriculum. However, according to Brazilian journalist Ellen Nemitz, "it turns out … that such topics are mostly historic facts and giving up on them can create an education that lacks fundamental knowledge."
4. The Importance of Teaching History and Critical Thinking
When our students lack fundamental historical knowledge, it is a direct threat to our democracy. I'm a world history teacher, so I am biased in thinking that social studies is critical in providing our students with the knowledge and skills to uphold democracy. The far-right propaganda machine weaponizes buzzwords like "socialism" and "immigration" to monger fear among the masses. It's essential that students learn about these histories and can correctly identify the words that politicians often throw around to sway voters. Even President Lula said in response to the January 8th attack: "And these people, these vandals, what could we say? They're fanatical Nazis, fanatical fascists." I insist that students leave my class each year with a deeper understanding of terms like fascism and Nazism so that they can understand and critically consider the ways these histories are used in political speech.
Likewise, in analyzing histories (especially controversial ones), students practice identifying bias and perspective. Analyzing primary documents, even ones certain political parties do not agree with, enables students to become critical thinkers, not simply followers. Dialogue and differing opinions uphold democracy, but the dialogue must be informed, proactive, and based in the truth.
Finally, educators must teach ideas as simple as backing up a claim with evidence. Bolsonaro has no evidence to back up his claim that electronic voting machines were faulty, but his supporters believe his lies. If we let the far-right prevent uncomfortable histories or analytical skills from being taught in our classrooms, then we can expect to see an increase in insurrection and violence in the United States, Brazil, and elsewhere.
5. Public Education Holds the Keys to Democracy
Scholars say democracy in Brazil is in a moment of triumph after Lula's win, but can we be so sure? On January 8th, rioters desecrated symbols of Brazil's public institutions, but Bolsonaro had spent years quietly undermining these institutions by removing experts from key positions. Here in the United States, it's important that we work to uphold the institution of public education because as soon as it crumbles, our society has no chance. Education Minnesota President Denise Sprecht recently wrote, "Democracy and education have always relied upon one another." As educators, we must continue to breathe life into them both. It's no small task, but when I see rioters dressed in green and blue throwing presidential desks through windows, it gives me renewed purpose and vigor for this fight.
Kristen Sinicariello is currently in her seventh year of teaching at a high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a Social Studies teacher, she is passionate about taking a diverse approach to history while helping students unpack bias in a rapidly changing world. Before stepping into the classroom, Kristen spent time as an outdoor educator and wilderness guide, and continues to find most of her opportunities for learning and personal growth in the outdoors. Currently she also keeps busy as a girls soccer coach, a union communications leader, and a Social Justice Club supervisor.
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