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Debating Divisive Topics Denies Opportunity to Find Common Ground Needed for Democracy to Thrive

May 7, 2021

This is a revision of an earlier post that I am submitting to our local newspaper as an op ed. 

As countless articles and letters in the Valley News indicate, HB 544, the ”divisive concepts” legislation proposed by GOP legislators in New Hampshire is accomplishing it’s intended mission: it is dividing us instead of bringing us together. A recent NYTimes essay by Michelle Goldberg described the rationale for bills like HB 544. The GOP senses that President Biden’s legislative proposals have widespread support. To thwart the President’s agenda and keep his initiatives off the front page, eight GOP State legislatures are proposing bills like HB 544 designed to keep contentious cultural issues like anti-racism instruction in the forefront. By persuading their base that “woke” liberals “want to make their kids hate their country and feel guilty for being white” the GOP can dominate the news cycle, spread lies, and initiate divisive debates.

HB 544, which includes the word “race” 47 times, is a by-product of former President Trump’s ill-starred effort to re-write the social studies curriculum in public schools. The ex-President alleged public schools were teaching children to “believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but rather villains,” thereby creating a “radicalized view of history” that “lacked perspective, obscured virtues, twisted motives, ignored or distorted facts, and magnified flaws”. To address this deficiency, Mr. Trump created the 1776 Commission with a mission developing a “patriotic curriculum” that would emphasize “the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776”.

Both HB 544 and Mr. Trump’s executive order creating the 1776 commission assume one’s perspective on history is based on a compendium of unarguable and unassailable facts learned exclusively in school. If that were the case, my perspective on the world would be identical to that championed by the 1776 Commission, for the history I was taught in the public secondary schools I attended in West Chester Pennsylvania mirrors the history advocated by the January 2021 report issued by the 1776 Commission. During my school years I learned that the Founding Fathers were patriots who declared their independence from the British, revolted against a government that imposed taxes without representation, and, after defeating the British, wrote a Constitution whose precepts and laws are timeless and inviolable. I learned that the Union army won a Civil War that preserved our nation and put an end to slavery. I learned of our nation’s westward expansion, how settlers conquered the wilderness, built new towns and farms, and heroically fought off savage attacks by Indian tribes who roamed the countryside.  I learned that in the early 20th Century we joined our European allies to win the First World War and that in the 1940s we joined our European allies to defeat Hitler and the Japanese who attacked us at Pearl Harbor. In the current events units in high school I learned of the laws that would end racism and poverty and our entire school gathered to I watch rocket launches that would ultimately place a man on the moon. I also learned of our nation’s efforts to prevent the spread of communism by taking a stand against the placement of missiles in Cuba, by sending troops to defend freedom-loving nations across the globe, and by creating the Peace Corps. The history curriculum I experienced was precisely the kind advocated by the 1776 Commission though my sense of history now is markedly different than it was in 1965 when I graduated from high school. It changed not because of courses I took in college, but because of the events that took place over my lifetime and my life experience.

The events during the decade immediately following my graduation led to serious questions about the well-being of our country. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and Bobby Kennedy, the riots that ensued, the turmoil surrounding the 1968 election, and the expansion of the Viet Nam conflict all led me to question the narrative about our country I learned in high school. The events that followed were even more troubling; the Watergate break-in, the release of the Pentagon Papers, and the misbegotten ending to the Viet Nam conflict all led to more questions. If we couldn’t believe what our leaders were telling us now how could we believe the stories our history teachers told us?

My perspective on history was affected most by my personal experiences. I chose a career in public education instead of a career in the private sector. Instead of remaining in my home town I chose to move to different states, live in different kinds of communities, and attend different kinds of churches, and participate in wide range of civic activities. These choices all affected my views on the events of the day and altered my views of history.

Donald Trump and I grew up during the same time-period and witnessed the same events over our lifetime. So did Bill and Hillary Clinton, and so did many other contemporaries of mine reading this essay. Our perspectives of history are all different and all informed by our personal experiences have more than what we were taught in high school. Some who witnessed or read of the events that occurred over the past 60-75 years might conclude the current system is racist, misogynistic, unfair, and in dire need of improvement. Others who witnessed the same events might conclude the current system as fair and just. If thousands of individuals draw different conclusions about the history we witnessed together, how can we expect to reach agreement on impact of events that took place during earlier decades and centuries?

If we hope to end divisiveness, we need to acknowledge that we all see the world differently and accept those differences. I we continue to contend that our beliefs prove that WE are right and OTHERS are wrong we will never achieve the mutual understandings needed to make democracy work. If we hope to end divisiveness, we should look for the areas we can agree upon and build on those. By enumerating the topics that are divisive and attempting to ban them from debate HB 544 does just the opposite. For that reason, it should be opposed by those who hope to seek the common ground needed in a democracy.

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