MINOT, N.D. — We Americans love our nation's creation story.
We should love our creation story.
There is a lot to love. America has been aspirational since its founding. A society of free people endowed with unalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
It's heady stuff.
What we Americans love a lot less is confronting the fact that we've frequently fallen short of those aspirations.
Thomas Jefferson was writing "all men are created equal" and that stuff about the pursuit of happiness while he simultaneously owned slaves.
American women didn't enjoy universal suffrage until well into the 20th century.
Less than a decade after ratifying the First Amendment we passed a law, the Sedition Act, criminalizing criticism of the government.
We've lived through Jim Crow and racial segregation.
We interred German nationals, and even German-speaking American citizens, during World War I. We interred Asian Americans during World War II.
Our government spies on us. Our government has conducted abusive scientific experiments on its citizens.
Our Supreme Court has upheld the imprisonment of anti-war protesters on the premise that their speech was too dangerous to be allowed, the denial of basic civil rights for Black Americans, the forced sterilization of individuals deemed by the state to be too stupid to be allowed to procreate.
Those things, unfortunately, are a part of our history too.
When I consider the debate over critical race theory in our schools, the opposing camps seem to be promoting two competing myopias.
One side wants to dwell on only the positive notes from the American story, while the other wants to focus on a darker depiction of our nation.
An example of the latter is the 1619 Project from The New York Times. This deeply flawed narrative, supposedly a blended work of academic research and journalism, was aimed at establishing that America's true founding was in 1619, when the first slaves arrived on our shores, and not 1776, when the American Revolution began.
It's a dogmatic and shallow work. It ignores that slavery existed in North America long before European colonization. It supposes that the American Revolution was fought to protect the institution of slavery from British efforts to end it, except that the British didn't really get around to banning slavery in its colonies until 1834, and even then it was only the empire's Caribbean colonies that enjoyed emancipation.
The British ban on slavery finally came to India in 1848, the Gold Coast of Australia in 1874, and Nigeria in 1901.
Despite these shortcomings, the 1619 Project won the Pulitzer Prize, likely because, as an ideology, it's a good fit for the aforementioned negative myopia. It's now being promoted as curriculum in public schools.
Is it any wonder that thoughtful people oppose this?
I recently had a chat about critical race theory with my friend, Dr. Dan Conn, a professor of teacher education (a teacher of teachers, if you will) who works at Minot State University. He's a self-described progressive in his politics, and he supports critical race theory.
I expected to have an argument with him on the topic.
We found ourselves agreeing.
I asked him to define critical race theory, and I found nothing objectionable in the way he talked about it. To his mind, it's a willingness to confront the uglier parts of our history honestly and unflinchingly. A pursuit of uncomfortable truth, in other words, which sounds like a worthwhile endeavor to me.
We can love our country, and what it aims to be, while simultaneously being honest about its flaws.
But he also acknowledged that critical race theory has been "weaponized" — that was his word for it — by ideologues motivated by politics and not truth. He was specifically critical of the 1619 Project, which he likened not only to a sort of propaganda but a crass attempt by the Times to push its content to schools.
What Dr. Conn and I concluded is that history is complicated. Teaching it requires a great deal of nuance. What's needed is a dialogue where many people with many different viewpoints on our history feel comfortable weighing in without fear of reprisal.
Pretty much exactly the opposite of how public discourse works at the present moment.
When a Minnesota-based think tank called the Center of the American Experiment tried to host a thoughtful discussion about critical race theory in Moorhead recently the police had to be called after an overwrought protester disrupted the proceedings.
If we can break through that impulse to shout down the people saying things we find uncomfortable, if we can find the courage to confront our flaws while simultaneously acknowledging the progress we've made, we can likely found common ground on critical race theory.
It's a tall order, but I think we're up for it if we try.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com.