Should we make fun of people who don’t recognize the Declaration of Independence?
National Public Radio has a tradition of reading the entire Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July. This year, NPR decided to expand the tradition to social media. They shared the entire document, 140 characters at a time, on Twitter. That’s 113 posts, in case you were wondering.
This blossomed into a fascinating social media experiment as users scanning Twitter came across posts from NPR with isolated lines from the Declaration. One post read, “Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” So it went for 113 posts of similar brevity, prompting complaints about the volume of posts and some unintentional comedy as users, failing to recognize or infer that NPR was quoting the Declaration of Independence, blamed and berated NPR for the political content of the historic document.
“Please stop,” responded one user, “This is not the right place.” Many of those who commented appeared to read lines such as “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people” and assumed NPR was attacked President Donald Trump, rather than repeating Thomas Jefferson’s charge against King George III in 1776. Supporters of the Trump came to his defense, like the user who wrote, “Propaganda is that all you know how? Try supporting a man who wants to do something about injustice in this country.”
More than a few users did not recognize the text and assumed NPR was engaging in a partisan attack on a controversial and unpopular president. Some, with unintended irony, even accused NPR of being unpatriotic. Before long, those users found themselves mocked by an international audience – as can happen on Twitter – and some deleted their accounts.
One user who did not delete his account, identifying himself as D.G. Davies, admitted error. When NPR tweeted, “It is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government,” Davies reacted: “So, NPR is calling for revolution. Interesting way to condone the violence while trying to sound ‘patriotic.’ Your implications are clear.”
The next day, Davies wrote: “I Tweeted a VERY dumb comment. But ask yourselves; if read to the average American, would they know that you were reading the DOI? I do now.”
That is an excellent question. Even among those who have read the Declaration of Independence in its entirety at least once, few could be expected to be so familiar that they would recognize a single line or phrase out of context. What might it mean, on the other hand, that people interested in following politics and voicing opinions would not see those lines, recognize the writing style and sentiment, quoted on the 4th of July, and draw an inference about their origin? This demonstrates not simply a gap in civic knowledge – our societal failure to impart basic civic knowledge is old news by now – but a reduced ability to read, recall past reading or recognize context, and make the connections that might have led someone to guess where these sentences came from.
These people are not “stupid” in any biological or moral sense; and yet the remedy for their predicament is not as easy as throwing books at them and saying, “Read these!” Without historical context – without an understanding of the conflicting ideas and moral compromises embedded in our founding – our founding documents, like our country, become unintelligible.
Algernon D’Ammassa writes the “Desert Sage” column for the Deming Headlight and Sun News papers. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.