Upton Sinclair once said that it's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. We'd add that it is damn-near impossible to get a person to understand something when his political bent depends on a misinterpretation.
The other day, in this very newspaper, the junior United States senator from Arkansas was quoted saying--and we have to be careful here, because his quote has been misused--something that once upon a time wouldn't have been controversial at all: "We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can't understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction."
Tom Cotton's comment was made in this context: He's sponsoring a bill that would discourage schools from teaching The New York Times' 1619 Project, a controversial (to say the least) piece of revisionist history that has been called inaccurate by some historians. But just because Tom Cotton's bill is a chunk of red meat to the base doesn't mean it's wrong. Would you have your local school teach that the American Revolution was fought because some people in England were advocating abolition at the time and the colonies wouldn't have it? (That would come as a surprise to most 18th-century New Englanders, who led the revolutionary effort.) It is worth remembering that England did not abolish slavery until 1834, some 58 years after the Declaration of Independence.
But back to Tom Cotton's comment in the local story by the Democrat-Gazette's Frank Lockwood. It was picked up by social media, of course, and massaged and edited and rewritten. And the Twitterverse declared:
Tom Cotton says slavery was a necessary evil.
The Twitter users, not to mention more than a few columnists, left out "As the Founding Fathers said ... ." part of the statement. Which would be like a history teacher being accused of being agreeable to the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 just for mentioning that the Founders accepted it.
The Founders of this country were conflicted men, all right--giving slaves 3/5th of the census count when it comes to representation in Congress, without giving them 3/5ths of the vote. Or any vote. And declaring "all" men are created equal--with exceptions where they saw fit. To teach, or understand, the history of this country is to accept that those men had faults. Not to accept the faults, mind you, but to accept that the Founders had them.
In order to put this country together, the anti-slavery states in the North had to accept the pro-slavery states in the South. And vice-versa. In a word, that compromise was necessary. If the colonies had not compromised this way, there would have been two countries formed at the time: a northern one free of slavery and a southern one with it.
Slavery is widely considered the original sin of this country's founding. A whole Civil War would be fought to pay a national penance, and the Constitution would have to be amended several times to set things right, constitutionally. Also, marches, sit-ins, protests, speeches, strikes, boycotts and Voting Rights Acts would come along later to set things right, legally.
But to believe--or just to say--that any sitting United States senator, in the year 2020, would promote slavery in any way is not just grotesque and inane, it is false. Tom Cotton's quote to the news side of this outfit was not just misinterpreted, it was edited, then weaponized. The whole episode could be a textbook example of how to create a half-truth.
And that half-truth was repeated so often in the national media this week that some newspaper readers and TV watchers might not realize that they've been taken. It's no wonder so many people distrust the media these days. But that's what happens when some in the media abandon objectivity and impartiality in its news columns in pursuit of clicks and online revenue.
Upton Sinclair was right. When it comes to not understanding something, it's easy when it benefits you not to understand. Speaking of great quotes of the ages, here's one by Mark Twain that fits the moment, too:
"There is no character, howsoever good and fine, but it can be destroyed by ridicule, howsoever poor and witless."