Jim Elliott

Laws in several states have criminalized criticizing American history, even when that history contains criminal acts. It is sort of like putting a happy face on American history.

Look, I love my country, warts and all. I love it because, since her inception, she has offered the promise of hope, a promise of a better life for her citizens, a new way of treating citizens. She still offers that promise and, in fits and starts, fulfills those hopes, but to imagine that you can have a great nation, in Lincoln’s words, “…conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” without looking backward at our dark side is unproductive. It is like forgiving the sinner who doesn’t acknowledge sinning.

Nikky Haley’s simplistic answer when asked about the causes of the civil war was an example of sanitizing history according to the gospel of Ron DeSantis: that there was a political division in the nation caused by economic differences between the northern and southern states and how it was feared that action by the federal government would affect the economies in the southern states.

OK, but those southern economies were based on slave labor. There is no doubt in the historical record of that. You can have your own opinion about slavery being OK, but you can’t ignore its existence.

No, Haley’s error was in following the DeSantis doctrine that any criticism of America is wrong and that anything that might cause an individual to feel “discomfort, guilt or anguish” because of their skin color (in this case, white) by talking about historical facts like slavery and Jim Crow segregation was, on its face, a cop-out.

Bad stuff has happened in America since our beginnings. It is still happening, but it can still be addressed and fixed by talking about it.

Truth, currently relegated more to opinion than to fact, is an important starting point from which to build. You build on a rock foundation of facts rather than the shifting sands of relative truths.

So, to censor speech about historical facts by making it criminal to teach them is bogus and destructive to building a strong America. In the South today, men and women of color and no color have lunch together in restaurants, sitting at the same table in friendship.

In the South of the 1960s, state laws prohibited them from even being in the same room! Why not talk about that progress? Because to talk about it implies that something was wrong at one time in America, and in certain political circles that is “uncomfortable.” Discomfort is part of life. Physical discomfort tells us that we are sick. Emotional discomfort tells us that we may be doing something wrong.

Freedom of speech is one of the bedrock principles of our nation. Consider why it was so important when the Bill of Rights was written: in 1734 the British governor of the colony of New York, William Cosby, sued a New York newspaper for libel because it had published an article criticizing Cosby’s government. Consider why it is important now from a conservative standpoint: the Supreme Court recently decided that a Colorado website designer did not have to work for people with whose lifestyle philosophy he disagreed.

Nor does dictating acceptable speech do anything to change a situation. For centuries laws of various nations have sought to ban homosexual behavior without any change in the incidence of that behavior. “Don’t Say Gay” laws will not change it either. Not talking about racism will not erase it from our past, especially among those whose families experienced it.

On the last day of this year, I visited the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. I was struck by the number of Hispanic and Middle Eastern people paying homage to America at those shrines of American Liberty. Thes were people of the type recently described by former President Trump as “poisoning our blood.”

America was built on a principle yet to be fully realized, but forever striving, to fulfill the dream of the equality of humankind. We are better off because of every man, woman, and child who has come to our shores hoping for a new life.

Montana Viewpoint has appeared in weekly and online newspapers across Montana for over 25 years. Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. 

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