There Are No Sides

I cannot be silent. The president’s response to the tragedy in Charlottesville is not acceptable. He started off okay, but then went off track:

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides…”

“…on many sides” What is he talking about? There are no sides when it comes to torch-bearing, Hitler-esque saluting men marching through the University of Virginia campus in support of white nationalism. Is there a side I am missing?

In the late 1990s, when I served on the school board in Guilderland, we reviewed a policy entitled ‘Teaching Controversial Issues.’ One of my colleagues on the Board wanted to include language that said that both sides of an issue would be represented in these situations. On the surface this sounds like a reasonable request. But, when you look more closely, it isn’t so simple.

The first problem is in defining controversial topics. To me, evolution is not controversial (just as being against racism isn’t debatable). A biology teacher is not obligated to present ‘another side.’ There is no other scientific side and schools (certainly public ones) should be teaching science.  In fact, the teacher would be doing a disservice to give class time to intelligent design. There is a small, but vocal, minority who are still arguing the validity of evolution. I think it is wise for a teacher, who knows or suspects that there are students whose religious faith may conflict with evolution, to note that their views will be tolerated (I am using that word purposely), but the information presented in class will be based on science.

The second problem is that there can be many more than two sides to a ‘controversial’ issue. Everything doesn’t break down into pro and con. As much as we might like to set up issues debate-style, for and against, most subjects are more nuanced.

The third problem is that all ‘sides’ are not equal. Do all views need to be given equal time? When we study American history there are interpretations on the far right and far left that are distorted. The curriculum and materials used should represent the consensus of historians, relying as much as possible on facts and original source documents. Teachers should encourage students to think critically about the material, ask questions and facilitate discussion. But, again, ‘all sides’ aren’t legitimate and don’t deserve attention.

Sometimes there is a right side of history. The Confederacy lost the war, thankfully. While it is useful, actually critical, to understand the issues that led to the Civil War and what the South was fighting for, that is not the same thing as endorsing its mission. There is no defense for slavery. We can understand its economic role, we can understand its historical roots, but that can’t be confused with sanctioning it in any way, shape or form.

One of the elements that led to the white nationalist march in Charlottesville was the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu addressed the removal of Confederate statues in his city in a powerful speech that was articulate, eloquent and right on point. In sum, he said that those statues belonged in history museums not city squares. (Please watch the speech! It didn’t get nearly enough national attention. Here is the link). We can’t and shouldn’t erase history, but monuments to individuals are meant to celebrate accomplishments and contributions, to remind us of our better angels. Robert E. Lee may have been a great general militarily, but he does not merit celebration.

When my well-meaning colleague raised the question of adopting a policy on teaching controversial issues, the Board decided it was better to remain silent on the subject. We had a healthy discussion and debated the various implications, but concluded that it was best to leave the issue in the hands of educators.

Interestingly, the impetus for her recommendation was her perception that the Vietnam War had been taught in a one-sided manner when her oldest children went to Guilderland High School in the 1980s. When we were having this policy discussion, it was the late 1990s and Vietnam was no longer controversial. I long for a day when the same can be said of the Civil War.

8 thoughts on “There Are No Sides

  1. Germany did the right thing by making all symbols and displays of Naziism illegal. It’s too bad we didn’t do the same at the end of the civil war. Nazis and Confederates were two of the biggest losers in history, and there’s no other side to that. The Americans flying the confederate battle flag should be educated of their treason. Those with Nazi regalia deserve no quarter.

    The president’s false equivalency BS deserves calling out, and thank you for doing so. We’re at a pretty ugly point in America, and though we may tell ourselves that “it can’t happen here”, it surely can.

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  2. With all due respect to Linda and Ryan, I feel you have oversimplified the Confederate position in the Civil War. By coincidence, I just re-watched Ken Burns’ documentary. At the outset, slavery was a minor issue. The South was fighting for State’s rights. I don’t endorse slavery, bigotry, or war in any way, but I do believe the South had the right to protest the way in which the country was governed. Lincoln was the one who propagandized the issue of slavery, and brought it to the forefront, because the North was losing the war initially. As far as Robert E. Lee is concerned, he was a reluctant Confederate and a decent man who felt pressured into taking up arms against his government. He had many admirable qualities that I believe the South has a right to be proud of, just as we northerners have the right to be proud of Grant or Sherman for their equally brutal accomplishments (is anyone advocating for the removal of Grant’s Tomb or Arlington Cemetery, both constructed by the North to celebrate their heroes?). I think our touchy political climate and over-sensitive political correctness has angered many Southerners over parts of their history about which it is their right to be proud whether we agree with their point of view or not. We are perpetuating this atmosphere of us against them by denying the South their right to celebrate their own history.
    Having said that, I don’t think there is a place for white supremacist groups in this country. However we all believe in freedom of speech, so how can we say that the fringes of our society have no right to a platform?
    Regarding Trump’s response to the events over the weekend, he was asked twice at the press conference yesterday to denounce the white supremacist group that participated in the march. He refused to do so. My guess is he didn’t want to anger his base, who are the only people who still support him. The white supremacist group posted on their website last night that they know Trump is on their side because he didn’t disavow them. No matter what he says now, we know it too. As Hillary would say, deplorable.

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    1. Laurie, The civil war was about slavery – the states’ rights argument was a cloak to justify it. Read Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The states’ rights justification is a story the south (and some white people across the United States) has been telling itself for over a century. After all, the Civil War wasn’t fought over the right to regulate marriage or education or road repair. It wasn’t about some theoretical philosophy of home rule. It was about slavery. I think America needs to do some soul-searching about its history, and be honest with itself. I don’t believe Lincoln made it about slavery – I think he finally realized there was no compromise to be made on the issue and then brought it to the fore. It was always the heart of the matter. I believe Ryan is quite right. I don’t believe there are statues for Rommel, regardless of how great a field marshal he may have been. Germany reckoned with its past in a much more honest way. At least that is my understanding – perhaps it isn’t perfect. And, I’m not sure that I would go so far as to ban monuments or flags. I would hope communities would come to that conclusion themselves. I hope you watch Mayor Landrieu’s speech – I think he articulates the argument better than I ever could.

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  3. Your most powerful and thought provoking blog yet. Laurie, we would not have a unified country if state rights won. Yes, there were economic and other issues involves in that war, but there is no justification for Trump to end his speech without condemning the disgraceful behavior that occurred. People have freedom of speech but not when violence is condoned.

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  4. Terrific commentary. The fact that Trump in his first response to this tragedy did not slam the Alt-Right, KKK, Neo-Fascist is a statement in itself, that he is complicit with those that support those beliefs. It took for him till today reading from a teleprompter to denounce these bigoted and racist groups. Undoubtably written by aides who were stunned about his original remarks who then succeeded in coercing the President to deliver the message he should have done in the first place.

    Good for the CEO from Merck for resigning from the President’s Manufacturing Council. We need more high level business executives to distance themselves from this President. Elon Musk did so recently related to the US dropping out of the Paris accord. We need our do nothing congress to actually band together to oust this moron or at least render him useless.

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  5. I will add to anyone concerned about violence ‘from both sides’ in Charlottesville that there is only one way to deal with nazis. And nobody ever brought too many weapons into a battle with them.

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