Archived Opinion

Does American history deserve a ‘content warning?’

Does American history deserve a ‘content warning?’

To the Editor:

My first impression was that the letter writer’s claim (SMN, Oct. 6) was just the latest bit of alarmist fake news spinning off the internet: that the National Archives was now attaching a “warning” to our treasured foundational documents that are entrusted to their care. As it turns out, even though the letter writer got almost nothing right, my favorite go-to debunking source snopes.com, labels the basic story as “Mostly true.” The problem is (as usual) that this item bounced around as a meme on social media, in the process getting twisted, almost beyond recognition, into some nefarious attack on our basic freedoms.

So, let’s be perfectly clear what we’re talking about. Yes, since early September, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has added a “Potentially Harmful Content Alert” as a banner appearing on their online catalog pages and some of their online digital content, which of course encompasses a dizzying array of documents and media reflecting the entire gamut of the American experience, warts and all. 

But, Archive employees have not, as the writer claimed, erected a physical sign over our founding documents on display in the nation’s capital! Nor have they called the U.S. Constitution “outdated, offensive and insensitive.” That exact phrase, in fact, is part of a disclaimer referring to NARA’s own activities, specifically some of the terminology used by their archivists of less enlightened eras, in their work of cataloging and describing the Archive’s holdings. (To me, this represents a refreshing effort at self-policing and addressing past wrongs). Finally, there is no language in the NARA statement about “physiological and psychological symptoms’ — that was someone’s fanciful elaboration as, again, the story got twisted via the internet.

In any event, you can read the NARA statement for yourself here: https://www.archives.gov/research/reparative-description/harmful-content.

We can debate whether the raw materials of American history held in the National Archives deserve a content warning. In my view, some of them surely do. (Pardon me if I wince when I hear our founders, in the Declaration, describe America’s Indigenous Peoples as “merciless Indian Savages.”) Still, some among us will only be comfortable embracing a cherry-picked, romanticized and sanitized version of our national experience. Please acknowledge, though, that the folks at NARA, given their mandate, simply don’t have that luxury. 

Oh, yes: the quote the writer attributes to Thomas Jefferson about “a government big enough to give you everything ....” is totally bogus. No such thing is found among Jefferson’s writings or quoted words. It actually first appeared in print in 1952 and, not surprisingly, became popular in conservative Republican circles.  

Tom Powers

Haywood County

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9 comments

  • Lucille Josephs proceeds to submit another unfounded quote from Jefferson. What an idiot.

    posted by Tyler

    Monday, 10/25/2021

  • Thank you!

    posted by Deni Gottlieb

    Saturday, 10/23/2021

  • Thank you!

    posted by Deni Gottlieb

    Saturday, 10/23/2021

  • How dare anyone question the great Thomas Jefferson, one of the principal authors of the Constitution!

    Oh wait, you say Jefferson was in France in 1787? Never mind...

    That said, if you don't want your kids to learn uncomfortable truths, don't tell them the truth about Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Don't read to them those passages from the Bible that are troubling to Mark Twain, "It is not the things which I do not understand in the Bible which trouble me, but the things which I do understand.” Those things that say feed the hungry, heal the sick, house the homeless, visit the prisoner, and preach good news to the poor. Those things that proclaim doom on those who enact laws that oppress the poor. Don't teach them in NC history about the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. Don't learn about the Trail of Tears.

    So if you don't want to feel bad, make sure you pay attention to the content warning that is necessary for American history.

    posted by Kevin Brock

    Saturday, 10/23/2021

  • It is time to make our mistakes toward Native Americans and African Americans right.

    posted by Ron Robinson

    Friday, 10/22/2021

  • "When the governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny" - Thomas Jefferson

    Stick that in your pipe and smoke it Mr. Stephen Wall, you virtue signaling idiot.

    posted by Lucille Josephs

    Friday, 10/22/2021

  • "When the governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny" - Thomas Jefferson

    Stick that in your pipe and smoke it Mr. Stephen Wall, you virtue signaling idiot.

    posted by Lucille Josephs

    Friday, 10/22/2021

  • Well said and effectively analyzed response.

    posted by Richard Gould

    Friday, 10/22/2021

  • Very helpful commentary. Thomas Jefferson, for example, must be honored and remembered for the great words of he Declaration- but we can't ignore the insult to native people, nor can we ignore that he fathered perhaps 5 children with an enslaved woman-ie raping a teenage Sally Hemmings ...just typical of the times for a slave owner, but horrible nevertheless...and not to be hidden..

    posted by stephen wall

    Friday, 10/22/2021

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