The eminent historian David McCullough (“John Adams,” “Truman,” “The Johnstown Flood,” etc.) was interviewed on “60 Minutes” last year. He bemoaned the fact that so few Americans today, especially younger Americans, know even basic facts about their country’s history. He gave the example that, after a speech at a major university, a young woman approached him and gushed “Mr. McCullough, until your speech I didn’t know that the original 13 colonies were on the East Coast!”
McCullough’s a gracious man. He didn’t laugh or get angry when he related this anecdote. He didn’t even blame the co-ed. Rather, he blamed parents and an American educational system that so often de-emphasizes the teaching of history. One could tell McCullough was tremendously sad.
Recently, various media outlets have been displaying just how historically challenged many Americans are. I’m talking about the backlash to criticism of Phil Robertson’s (“Duck Dynasty” TV show) inflammatory remarks in GQ Magazine about African-Americans and gays. I won’t go into how idiotic and bigoted I think Mr. Robertson’s remarks are. Any rational, thinking human being, Christian or non-Christian, knows that this guy is, shall we say… quacking utter nonsense. I’d quote his offensive remarks but they’re readily searchable.
But I’ll say a few words about the backlash and how the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is being used and abused by certain people –predominately people with an agenda from a certain side of the political aisle.
Here’s the entirety of the text to the First Amendment, one of ten amendments that comprise the Constitution’s Bill of Rights:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I’m sure most Americans are unable to rattle off these 45 words verbatim. But memorization’s not important. What is important is that we understand what the amendment means. Which is that Congress shall make no law that establishes religion (Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state”) nor prohibits freedom of speech, press, or peaceful assembly.
Mr. Robertson wasn’t thrown into jail. He wasn’t even arrested. Why? Because he didn’t break any law, because Congress didn’t make any law prohibiting his speech or religious beliefs (as twisted as his speech and religious beliefs may be). His freedom to drool his ignorance to GQ wasn’t violated. In fact, his words were printed in a major magazine for all the world to see! He can continue to drool his ignorance. And the rest of us are allowed to analyze his words and either pity or castigate them, while he continues to paddle his canoe and blow his duck whistles (I guess that’s what he does, since I’ve never seen his show). He just can’t do it on TV anymore. The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee Mr. Robertson the right to be on TV.
Mr. Robertson’s producers suspended him because his words and ideas were offensive, and probably because they don’t want to lose advertisers. They’re allowed to do this. Employers fire people for this stuff all the time. If I’m sitting in my office and decide to start yelling about anuses and vaginas, and approach enough workmates with the idea that homosexuals are sinners, I’ll probably get fired.
This whole ugly mess does have some violations, though. For starters, violations of empathy for a persecuted minority and – dare I say it – Christian decency on the part of Mr. Robertson. And that plus common sense and historical understanding on the part of his defenders. It’s hard for me to understand the priorities of Robertson’s apologists. They evidently feel it’s real important to shut up his critics. But they’re not overly concerned about the 14-year-old gay kid, maybe struggling to come out of the closet, who has to hear that his sexuality is one step removed from sex with animals.
Once again, rather than trying to solve the real problems facing this country, Americans are sucked into a sordid debate because of some yahoo who has a microphone stuck in his face. And half the debate is being waged by folks who don’t even understand – or don’t want others to understand – the most important amendment to their own Constitution.