INDIANAPOLIS — Because I am a man of mature vintage, it probably shouldn’t continue to surprise me that many of my fellow citizens seem to believe the American Revolution was a mistake.
But it does.
Our nation was founded on the principles of the Enlightenment. Among the most important of those was a faith in the power of reason. This belief that human beings, left free to pursue truth can ferret it out, is the foundation of our system of self-government.
Perhaps no one expressed that creed better than Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence.
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be…. The People cannot be safe without information. When the press is free, and every man is able to read, all is safe,” Jefferson wrote.
The sexism of Jefferson’s statement is regrettable — even the most fervent devotees of the Enlightenment weren’t enlightened about some things — but his is perhaps the purest articulation of the American creed as there is.
The truth — and the truth alone — can set us free.
In Texas right now, there is a huge conflict over the history of the Alamo. Few myths figure larger in the mythology of Texas than the struggle there nearly 200 years ago.
That myth is that Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and other members of a heavily outnumbered band of freedom fighters valiantly held off Santa Anna’s invading Mexicans long enough for the emerging Texas to gather its forces and ultimately prevail. The Texan freedom fighters fought to the last man, dying in a blaze of glory that lit up the world.
The truth, as it always is, is more complicated.
In the first place, Bowie, Crockett and crew were the invaders, not the Mexicans. Texas was a part of Mexico then, and the Mexican army was defending Mexican territory.
Second, part of what the beleaguered force at the Alamo was fighting for was the right to continue owning other human beings. Mexico prohibited slavery and many of the fighters inside the Alamo wanted to hold onto their human chattel.
Third, Bowie, Crockett and the others may not have fought to the last man. Some Mexican accounts, for instance, say Crockett was captured and then executed. One scholar even has argued, in convincing detail, that Crockett actually surrendered — an understandable reaction when confronted with an overwhelming force, but not exactly the stuff of legend.
A state museum in Texas was supposed to hold an event to explore this complicated history — to attempt to unearth the truth — but then abruptly canceled the affair under pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other leaders. Patrick even bragged about his success in shutting down any attempt to determine what really happened at the Alamo.
Their effort is part of a widespread campaign to keep Americans from thinking for themselves and inquiring freely.
Here in Indiana, Attorney General Todd Rokita wants to prevent Hoosier schoolchildren from learning that racism has played an important role in the development of American culture. The fact that we fought what is still one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history over slavery might suggest that race figures prominently in the American story.
But our squeamishness about pursuing truth extends beyond questions of race. The Centers of Disease Control cannot even study the causes and consequences of gun violence in America because the National Rifle Association and its army of zombie legislators have forbidden the CDC from even asking questions.
Nor are the offenses against truth exclusively on the right. Some conservative complaints about cancel culture are valid, even if the right’s willingness to shut down all expression it finds bothersome — kneeling during the national anthem, etc. — undercuts the strength of their argument.
This is not the way this was supposed to work.
Jefferson again: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead.”
Not so, Tom.
Turns out many are afraid.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].