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Steinberg: Does the law help or hurt?

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PHILADELPHIA — George Washington didn’t want to attend the Constitutional Convention, never mind be its president. But duty called, and the weary general left his beloved plantation over the summer of 1787 to sit in a mahogany armchair that is still there, a gilt half sun carved into the back.

My wife and I found ourselves in the City of Brotherly Love last week. We had the chance to do a bit of sightseeing. My wife wanted to see Independence Hall, a shrine to the idea that Americans, at one point in our national story could, if not exactly set aside their selfish interests, then bend them a little toward a national unity in such short supply nowadays.

Visiting Independence Hall is free, but you need a timed ticket. Requesting a ticket at 9 a.m. got us in at 11 a.m., and I scanned nearby attractions, looking for one that might be worth two hours.

Nearby was something called the “National Constitution Center.” Why not? Turns out to be an enormous museum dedicated to the document forged in Independence Hall. Who knew?

OPINION

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We ended up in “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet,” and if that sounds like traffic school to you, it’s good you didn’t marry me, though it was a toss-up which of us was more delighted. How could you not love an exhibit that tells you, immediately, that Thomas Jefferson smuggled rice out of Italy in his pockets, a crime punishable by death?

“This is so cool,” my wife gushed. “I love this.”

The centuries-old relationship between our government and seeds mirrors the national schism we have now. In the 19th century, the idea was to kickstart agriculture and get the hardiest plants into the hands of farmers. So the government gave them out free, putting it on a collision course with the seed industry, which couldn’t turn a profit selling what the government gave away.

With great reluctance we pulled ourselves away and bolted for Independence Hall, where we met our guide, park ranger Helen McKenna, a 21-year Park Service veteran. You would think her talk would be a bored recitation of Founding Father minutiae. But after pointing out Washington’s chair, she explained that rangers at Independence Hall get to write their own presentations, and proceeded to deliver a short tutorial in American freedoms that probably was more challenging than many college classes.

McKenna asked our group to consider whether the law protects our freedoms or limits them. Then she asked that we divide ourselves accordingly. I joined the 50 or so people one the side of “protects,” and about eight tourists went for “limits,” which augurs well for the Democrats, since the belief that law maintains and supports our social order is a distinctly Democratic notion, while the idea that it hobbles our God-given freedoms is the Republican mantra.

Afterward, I quizzed McKenna on how groups usually divided themselves, and she said it varies. She’s had entire school groups of African-American students gather on the “limits freedom” side and when she asked them to explain why, they said, “Trayvon Martin.”

If you don’t remember guides to Independence Hall doing this, there’s a reason.

“It is a new thing,” said Jane Cowley, public affairs officer at Independence National Historical Park. “It’s called ‘facilitated dialogue.’ Our park rangers interpret history. It’s a technique used to engage the visitor, as you experienced.”

To my surprise, tourists don’t mind being challenged.

“It’s definitely received very positive reviews from all the visitors,” said Cowley.

McKenna ended her presentation by holding up an enlargement of the sun at the back of Washington’s chair, and quoting Benjamin Franklin.

“I have often looked at that behind the president,” Franklin wrote, “without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting.”

Franklin decided that it was indeed a rising sun.

But that was 228 years ago. What about now, McKenna asked? Would you agree with Franklin? Is the American sun rising or setting?

“What would you say to him?” she asked. “And what examples would you cite?”

A good question. Just as I was both pleased by the agriculture exhibit and doubly pleased by the fact that my wife loved it, too, so I was both intrigued by the ideas McKenna raised, and delighted to live in a country where the tour guide is free to raise them. For that alone, I side with Franklin: rising, still.

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