“The Divided States of America” featuring BackStory

May 23, 2019

Are we more divided than ever? Well no, argued BackStory’s Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh, and Joanne Freeman on May 21 in a special live event, “Divided States of America,” at the U.S. Senate Russell Building. We were pleased to attend the event, which was sponsored by the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) as part of its “NEH for All” initiative and Virginia Humanities, along with Hill staffers and humanities partners. This event was the first in a series of congressional briefings hosted by NHA that will take place throughout the year in an effort to demonstrate the importance of the NEH and humanities programming to our nation.

“When speaking about the topic of division, you have to consider who is included and who is excluded.”

From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, America was built through division. The hosts argued that even during times of “unity,” fractures existed, from the creation of the U.S. Constitution to the “Rise of the Common Man” and the “Era of Good Feelings.” Additionally, the invention of various communications tools, from the telegraph in the early 1800s to social media today, have and continue to shed light on society’s divisions by facilitating faster access to information and increased connection between different peoples. In the 1800s, with the advent of the telegraph, Congress had a larger audience that was paying attention to and wrestling with whether their interests were being appropriately represented and demanding action.  The telegraph was also significant, the hosts argued, because its adoption occurred as the issues of slavery were coming to light, connecting the North and the South.

As Brian Balogh stated, “when speaking about the topic of division, you have to consider who is included and who is excluded.” This was true for African-Americans, later for women, and again back to African-American rights and opportunities. Where were these groups marginalized in society, in politics, and in careers? Where are they still marginalized? What other groups are marginalized and have been excluded? Today we still struggle with these questions but the access to a variety of communications tools, particularly social media and other online vehicles, continue to illuminate opportunities where progress is being made and where progress still needs to occur. The state humanities councils are increasingly in this space, hosting programs that uncover hidden histories, are geared towards marginalized or disadvantaged communities, and promote understanding of current issues by examining the past to comprehend the current time and plan for the future.

“Every division we’ve ever resolved is because people didn’t ‘chill,’ they got engaged… the foremost tools to combat divisions are protest and process, and they help together.”

So how do we move forward and address and resolve these divisions? The hosts took comments and questions from the audience, including those relating to the current debate over confederate statues, issues of right and wrong, and how to advance change. They argued that the tools to effect change – protest and process – already exist, but they must be executed in tandem. Get engaged with the issues important to you and reach out to legislators using appropriate methods and channels to affect the process. The event ended with an explanation of how Backstory is produced, how ideas are generated (via audience and sometimes host suggestions), and the research and planning that go into each idea, including how that topic is represented in the media.

“Conversation and disagreement and changing our minds are not bad things, it is part of the process.”

Listen to the full program here!

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