The "Lessons" of History

Published on 21 February 2023 at 09:59

“Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.” In my opinion, this is one of the dumbest sayings ever! To begin with, “interpretation.”

For an extreme example (and a good attention grabber): “Never again allow Donald Trump to be President” and the polar opposite “Never again allow Barrack Obama to be President.” You and I may disagree on which “never” to allow, but I’m sure we can agree that those are very-recent “lessons to remember,” right?

A “greatest Presidents” rank list written by a Partisan is going to be just a bit skewed, ya think? Even a PhD history professor may not be the most reliable judge if they happen to be a staunch Republican or Democrat. Nobody is exempt from personal interpretation. History happens, and then biased humans (and cable “news” shows) get ahold of it. “Oh, let’s see; we’ll let the kids read about this, but not that. Ooh, we’ll have to put a hefty spin on that one—make sure they learn the correct lesson.”

Another extreme example from past and current news is the growing belief that Hitler was a misunderstood good guy; the fact that less and less folks exist today who actually experienced or witnessed his true evil is scary. We are currently seeing an increase in holocaust denial. Hey, it’s all over the history books; isn’t that enough? Apparently not.

The other reason that saying is so dumb is because of the tiny amount of history that most of us know about or care to admit. There are folks with multiple PhDs in history who still don’t know everything; what makes you think you do? There is simply not enough time in a lifetime to learn every important detail about history (skewed or not); the best most of us can hope for is high school class or our own “research.”

I put the word research in quotation marks for an obvious reason: it is well-proven that we each have our own personal bias and will tend to research only things that will support it, or at least avoid learning things that are disturbing or uncomfortable for us. So, not only are there multiple interpretations of the same events out there for us to forget/repeat, most of us will only seek out the things that will confirm our beliefs and make us feel good about ourselves.

Here is where my personal bias comes to the forefront (hey, at least I admit it…): I read The 1619 Project last year (twice!) and it blew my mind and gave me bad dreams! I just had no idea of the sheer depths of depravity that my ancestors (yours too!) inflicted upon black people (either actively or by doing nothing about it as it happened), some of it until very recently; I sure didn’t read it in high school! I’m ashamed, as we all should be.

Was the information always there in the history books? Of course! They didn’t just “make this stuff up!” All one has to do is find the right books or original writings (Thomas Jefferson’s for example). Are you really blind or naïve enough to think that a white, Eurocentric majority educational system—one designed to make America’s history look glorious and “patriotic”—is going to give the whole unbiased story, to include the details that make us look bad?

In an effort to see “both sides,” I also read one of the numerous books that came out in rebuttal of 1619: it sounded suspiciously like my high school history classes. It’s like the author was saying “no, turn a blind eye to that side of history; just pretend it isn’t there! And for heaven’s sake, don’t read that book!” What else are critics going to say/do? Burn the books that tell the truth? Well, it isn’t there in our good old-fashioned mainstream Eurocentric history; sure, that may be a history favorable to our ancestors, but what about the history of our fellow human beings who our ancestors put in chains because they were too lazy to build America themselves?

America would not be what it is without them; don’t you think we owe them at least apologetic and/or grateful acknowledgement of their ancestor’s forced efforts? Shouldn’t the “true” history of our founding be Euro/African? Hey, most of the founders were slave holders, regardless of how “great” they may have otherwise been; doesn’t that mean anything? How do you think they amassed the fortunes that they dedicated to fighting the Revolution? By the sweat of their own brow? And don’t you think this ugly history may have continuing implications for race relations? Don’t get me wrong: I am proud to be an American, but I am also embarrassed and ashamed of some of our history.

Now, here’s the ever-present grain of salt: of course 1619 is heavily skewed to their side (you should know that there is also a fair amount in there about our similar mistreatment of Native Americans—especially in regard to how escaped slaves were often helped and taken in by Indian tribes). How can it not be? The important point is that it is their history told by them from their point of view—not by us and ours. Doesn’t the source of information mean something? Whose interpretation are you going to believe? The one that makes you feel good about yourself and your ancestors?

This is not an issue of “revisionism”; it is about “full disclosure.” How can you make a true, history-based decision if you only know the white-European version of the story? “Knowing better than such and such” (and not repeating it) only works if you know the complete such and such part. Let me remind you that I’m advocating learning and understanding both sides, not one over the other. This is not an indictment of “white Europeans”; it’s an indictment of willfully-ignorant folks of all races from all walks of life and political leaning.

The best most of us can do is read a little bit of both sides of history—even if it is as disturbing and uncomfortable as 1619—and try to distill it down into a balanced personal understanding. For every Right-skewed book, read a Left-skewed book and compare/contrast the two. Similarly, if you’re going to watch Fox News, you should balance it with MSNBC—and then watch Reuters or PBS to get the middle view. You might be surprised at how different the two “lessons” are! The more rounded and eventually centered (allowing the good and the bad) that understanding is, the better citizens we are going to be, and the better political choices we’ll be able to make. Would you want a rabid holocaust denier to be President? I would hope not! Well then, why would you want a rabid race denier?

Unfortunately, this has become just another political football where we’re forced to “take sides” in a never-ending war between the Parties; in a nutshell, Republican = “anti-woke,” Democrat = “woke.” One popular potential candidate has declared his state to be “where woke goes to die.” And he’s not just saying that: he’s taking legally-binding steps to ensure the state “institutions of higher learning” refrain from teaching the whole truth. And he wants to lead this Country?

I don’t mean this to be the “anti-Republican” rant that it seems to be: what I want is for history to be taken off the platform on both sides for the reasons stated above. If I was to become an “issue voter”—and our history is an important issue to me—I would have no choice but to vote Democrat for the foreseeable future. I don’t like feeling forced to vote one way or the other. Can’t we get a legitimate moderate choice who at least considers both sides?

Are you woke yet? Or are you still asleep in history class or turning a blind eye to the ugly side because you are a “patriot?” Better get there before it becomes illegal, and they ban all the books… Might I suggest you start with 1619? I’m sure that one is high on their list.

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