Originally published Friday, August 5, 2011 at 3:23 PM

Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist

Build on our common history to debate modern problems

Ken Burns is right when he says that history is the one place Americans can have a civil discourse. Unfortunately too many people use history as proof that their position is right.

Times editorial page editor

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History is more than raspy old voices echoing across the decades. History is our shared story. A tale of who we are as Americans, as families, as humans.

I was reminded by somebody who knows a bit more about the subject than me last week that history's role is even greater than that.

Documentarian Ken Burns said that history is the place we can still have civil discourse.

He is right, of course. History is the great common denominator for Americans. It does not matter if your family has been here a year or 10 generations. Everything that has happened before has made us who we are. We can and should respectfully talk about our story.

Burns was in Seattle last week with Lynn Novick for a screening of their new documentary, "Prohibition." I joined them on a panel about legislating moral values and the effect that has on society. The panel was put on by Museum of History & Industry and KCTS, the station that will air "Prohibition" in October. The panel also included author Daniel Okrent, who is featured in the film and last year published a book called "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition."

It was a fascinating discussion because Novick, Burns and Okrent have such a deep understanding of what led up to the banning of alcohol, how it happened and why it failed.

I could not help but draw parallels between what happened then and what is happening now after watching the film and speaking with Burns and Novick at the panel and the following day at a meeting with The Times editorial board.

We should be able to respectfully carry on when talking history. We are in desperate need of an arena of respectful discourse. Too often history is used as absolute proof of right. Does anybody listen anymore when a conversation begins with, "The Founders' intended ... "?

It is not wrong for modern debate to be informed by our past. But history should not be used to bully, or validate. History should inform and help form debate and ideas.

Prohibition was propelled by an absolute, fundamental belief. The absolutism that drove the far -reaching 18th Amendment also destroyed it. The Volstead Act, the law enforcing the 18th Amendment, was not only unpopular, but also had a host of unintended consequences — the flourishing of organized crime, the proliferation of speakeasies, the changing of social norms — the list goes on.

As the public grew tired of Prohibition, the "Drys" refused to relax parts of the law. Had they, Prohibition might have survived in some fashion. Instead it was repealed in 1933 after almost 14 years.

Why is this relevant today? Because so much of our political discourse is poisoned with absolutes. Entitlements and tax cuts forever. That is the noise out of Washington, D.C. Calcified positions that are only further sinking the United States.

Respectful discussion and disagreement is fading like many of the important yet forgotten people in the Prohibition battle. There was a need for civil discourse then as there is now.

Can we learn from the past or will we scream past each other from our respective camps, so sure that any discussion must begin and end with my being right?

Time to listen to the past and each other.

Ryan Blethen's column appears on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is:; follow him on Twitter @RyanBlethen.


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