Is it divisive to celebrate America?

By Edward Achorn

Has it become “dark” and “divisive” to celebrate America and honor such icons of freedom as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln?

According to elements of the American news media it has — at least if a politician they detest is doing the celebrating.

“Trump pushes racial division, flouts virus rules at Rushmore,” the Associated Press headlined its coverage of an ostensibly patriotic speech the president delivered at Mount Rushmore Friday night.

How did he push racial division? According to the AP, he did so by celebrating the presidents honored at Mount Rushmore. He also deplored the destruction of monuments around the country in riots that have destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of property.

In the AP’s stacked and disappointingly racist language, that constituted “a direct appeal to disaffected white voters.” Why would it not constitute an appeal to disaffected black voters, as well? Polls show most Americans of all races oppose rioting and looting. Whites, blacks and others overwhelmingly support law and order.

The AP said the president was “accusing protesters who have pushed for racial justice of engaging in a ‘merciless campaign to wipe out history.’”

Not really. He was not accusing, in the AP’s Orwellian phrase, “protesters who have pushed for racial justice.” He was accusing rioters who have unlawfully destroyed and defaced monuments. Those would seem to be very different things. Indeed, the president spoke of the “cherished” First Amendment, which guarantees the people’s right to assemble peaceably.

 A discordant tone

“The president dug further into American divisions Friday, offering a discordant tone to an electorate battered by a pandemic and wounded by racial injustice following the high-profile killings of Black people,” the AP reported.

Is it, in truth, “discordant” to celebrate the greatness of America around Independence Day, marking the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in 1776? That document revolutionized the world — and ultimately destroyed slavery — by asserting that “all men are created equal.”

Couldn’t this celebration be the exact opposite of sowing discord? Isn’t it all about what joins us together as Americans — the ideal of equal opportunity and equal justice? May we no longer celebrate that ideal without being attacked as divisive? Are we no longer permitted to think beyond tribal identifies?

“Our Founders launched not only a revolution in government, but a revolution in the pursuit of justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity.  No nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America.  And no people have done more to promote human progress than the citizens of our great nation,” the president said.

I would argue that history offers overwhelming evidence that this is indeed the case. And presidents have long made similar statements. Almost 158 years ago, Abraham Lincoln, the subject of my new book, called America “the last best hope of earth.”

The AP seems to be arguing that such a defense of American history is an attack on “the electorate” that has been “wounded by racial injustice following the high-profile killings of Black people.” It is not clear what this means. If it refers to the death of George Floyd while in the custody of police, the wheels of justice appear to be turning. The officers involved have been arrested and face a trial. If it refers to a police shooting in Atlanta, which many might regard as an act of self-defense, again the officers have been arrested and charged.

I suppose a celebration of America is “discordant” to those who hate America and wish to see its system of self-government and individual rights replaced by a totalitarian model. But it seems an odd way to frame the issue — accusing Americans of sowing division if they celebrate the revolutionary justice embodied in their nation’s founding.

Does the AP have any evidence that black Americans want neighborhoods torched, monuments destroyed and their nation disparaged? Black Americans have fought repeatedly and with immense courage to protect and save their country. Do the AP’s political biases really speak for the “electorate”?

Cancel culture

Some in the media seemed especially upset that the president Friday night decried recent efforts to silence dissent. (They argue that he has attempted to silence his own enemies.)

The president criticized the political weapon of “cancel culture — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.

“In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.  If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.  … Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.”

That was an undeniably tough and partisan statement — certainly divisive in that sense — but it did touch on a serious issue and a rising threat to Americans.

The American people have long insisted that contrarian voices may be heard. This is the essence of America. There is no one “truth.” There is no one Party or movement that knows better than all of us, and can do all the thinking for us. We arrive at some approximation of the truth by arguing freely, and mustering evidence to support our points of view.

America’s support for free inquiry and for challenging the status quo has greatly advanced justice and scientific knowledge, improving life for billions of people around the world. It is immoral and unjust, and a violation of Americans ideals, to destroy our fellow Americans for disagreeing with powerful forces in academia, the tech companies, the government or the media.

I am glad to hear any president, however obnoxious his tweets, defend this essential American value.

Is it dark and divisive now to support freedom of speech?

(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)

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