Thursday, June 9, 2005

46.This page will be history

While I was reading a book on mid-nineteenth century American history, specifically on abolition and the feminist movement, I wondered what it would have been like to live at that time. It was a moving time in our nation's history, one that focused around a number of events, most significantly, the recent signing of the Declaration of Independence, the separation of church and state, slavery, women's rights and the French Revolution. The country was in a deep period of conflict as it wrestled through civil rights, religion and government.

I then read the following passage as an editorial/letter to the editor, written in response to Lucretia Mott, a leader in the anti-slavery and women's rights movements who had just delivered an antislavery speech in Marysville, Kentucky. It was signed by "Slave-Holder," and reads,

"This bad women, whose infamous calling is a war against the Constitution of the United States, a sacrilegious condemnation of the Holy Bible, preaching disobedience and rebellion to our slaves, was allowed the use of the Court House for the propagation of her infernal doctrine...What will be the result of a visit from this female fanatic is not yet known; we should not be surprised however, if it were the prelude to a heavy loss on the part of the slaveholders of the country, as a score or two blacks were present to behold and hear this brazen infidel in her treason against God and her country."

My first thought was that, if they were both alive today (Lucretia Mott and the editorial writer, "Slave-Holder"), she might like to give him the, "How do ya like me now?" or "How do like them apples?" quip. But further reflection saw the analogous rhetoric that dampens our society today, and thought, with a few simple reference changes, that the editorial could very well have been written today. I then wondered, are things different, or are only the specific issues different?

"Slave-Holder" argues not directly for the institution of slavery, which he obviously supports, and has a financial stake in, rather he engages in malicious language, religious references, patriotic appeal and is furious that she was permitted to use her first amendment rights- ironically, precisely as they were intended to be used according to the Bill of Rights. He labels her "bad," a "female fanatic," a "brazen infidel" and her calling as "infamous." He then notes that she is "sacrilegious" as she speaks against (apparently his interpretation of) the Holy Bible, that she "preaches" disobedience and that her crusade is one against "God." His attack on patriotism includes a non-specific reference to the Constitution and the "treason" against her country.

In the times of today, several issues might generate a similar editorial/letter to the editor. The war in Iraq, abortion, gay marriage, the Ten Commandments, activist judges, Intelligent Design, the Patriot Act, even the movie Fahrenheit 911, all prompted passionate editorials/letters to the editor from, at times both sides, that challenged the Constitution, religion, education, government and civil rights. The problem, with these types of opinions, is that they are not intended to facilitate discussion or compromise, but rather to inspire fury- on both sides. This is all too common today in all segments of the media as everyone seeks attention- alas, whether or not the opinion contains the slightest segment of truth, morality or fairness.

As we write passionately on the issues of today, which one of us will be the "Slave-Holder," of the next century- whose opinion today reads of narrow-mindedness, racism, a disregard for civil rights and the selective use of religion? Editorials/letters to the editor make it into history books because they are written by "the people," and thus they are the best expression of society's values and attitudes. Moreover, they often detail the debate between opposing viewpoints and ideologies. Looking back in time, historians can appraise the fervor of an issue from the published opinions that describe it.

Editorials/letters to the editor are the chance to exercise our first amendment rights; however, recorded as history, they preserve our thoughts for future generations. Since most newspapers now require, and print, the name of the person submitting the opinion, the words we write do not hide behind the guise of anonymity and, consequently, we cannot assume that they are destined to slip into obscurity. Sometimes greater than the moment, they represent a time in history, the community in which we live and, ultimately, ourselves.

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