While the United States faces its greatest present challenge since the 1940s, it is also undergoing a convulsive reexamination of its past. That is not the most convenient timing, but here we are.

The present challenge is the coronavirus pandemic, and Tuesday was a particularly bad day in Arkansas. Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the state’s death toll had risen by 20, to 428, although six of those 20 had occurred earlier. The number of hospitalized had passed 500, while the case count had exceeded 40,000.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Cotton is playing a starring role in the country’s reexamination of its past.

Last week, Cotton announced he was introducing the Saving American History Act of 2020. It would deprive U.S. schools of federal funding equal to whatever dollars they spent teaching a curriculum associated with the 1619 Project.

That’s a project by the New York Times Magazine that emphasizes the centrality of slavery in America’s founding and its continued effects today – 1619 being the year slaves first were brought to what would become the United States. The Times says the curriculum is being used by individual schools in all 50 states.

Supporters say the project is an overdue acknowledgement. Critics say it’s imbalanced. Cotton has called it “left-wing garbage” intended to teach kids to “hate America.”

Cotton’s experience with the New York Times is personal. He recently published an opinion column there where he called for military force against the violence that was occurring in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. A number of Times staffers revolted, and soon the opinion editor “resigned.”

Cotton doesn’t appear to be sorry this all happened. It gave him a lot of ammunition, which he has not hesitated to fire. On June 11, he gave a speech from the Senate chamber condemning “cancel culture,” which is where groups fueled by social media try to shame and even destroy an individual or organization that violates today’s evolving social norms. He called his critics at the New York Times a “woke child mob.”

Then on July 23, Cotton introduced his Saving American History Act that essentially would do the same thing: use available force – in this case, withholding government funding – to cancel the expression of an idea. Ironically, Republicans are supposed to be the party that opposes federal intervention in public schools.

Cotton’s bill won’t become law, but it gained him a lot of attention.

So did a comment he made that was published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last Sunday, where he said, “We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”

That comment created a Twitter firestorm. Cotton was accused of calling slavery a “necessary evil,” which is not exactly what he said. He countered that he merely was explaining what the Founding Fathers believed, which, looking at the sentence structure, isn’t exactly what he said either. “As the Founding Fathers said” implies agreement.

People don’t say things the way they would write them if given time to edit themselves. Cotton later issued a clarifying statement in which he called slavery an “evil institution.” I’m confident he believes that to be so.

In the country I’ve always known, the sentences about the past have been expected to end with “but America is still the greatest country on earth.” We’re now in a moment when sentences end with “but slavery and inequality.”

That arrangement is important. What comes after “but” is what’s emphasized.

Sometimes we should acknowledge the country’s founding generations accomplished great things but made terrible mistakes. Sometimes we should acknowledge they made terrible mistakes but accomplished great things.

It depends on the moment, but the most truthful sentences about the past will usually include the “but.” In fact, it’s often the most important word.

Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.