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Myers: History and its power to protect us

In 1964 Nevada marked its centennial. I was 15 and decided I would live to 115 so that I would be able to celebrate the Nevada bicentennial. I did, indeed, celebrate the U.S. bicentennial, spending the day in Virginia City where the U.S. centennial had been marked in 1876 (on the wrong day, granted, but we always do that).

Last week, President Obama signed H.R. 4875, a law sponsored by U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, which creates the United States Semiquincentennial Commission “to plan, encourage, develop, and coordinate the commemoration of the history of the United States leading up to its 250th anniversary.”

It would be nice if we used these occasions for something more than shooting off fireworks and reinforcing historical myths. It would be nice if we actually learned something about history. Not only might we start celebrating the correct Independence Day – July 2 – but we might make better public policy decisions rooted in the lessons of history, world history as well as U.S. history.

I remember reading in the New York Times about a history class held for students who were preparing to become naturalized citizens of the U.S. and needed to pass a history test. The Times reported that they were being taught that the Boston tea party was a protest against high tea taxes, which it was not. It was a protest against tea taxes being too LOW. It was astonishing to me that the myth had become so embedded that it was being passed along to a group who very much needed to know the actual history of the country. But then, the same thing is true of the rest of us, too.

In June 2000 there was one of those news stories about a report that said 65 percent of college seniors surveyed could not pass a high school-level American history test. Congress responded by passing a resolution calling on teachers to “redouble their efforts to bolster the knowledge of United States history among students of all ages and to restore the vitality of America’s civic memory.” I’ve met plenty of congressmembers and I will bet you that 65 percent of THEM would have scored the same way the college students did. Otherwise, they might have chosen a more effective remedy than passing a resolution. And why just U.S. history? Our country, remember, came on the scene late. The value of world history can be seen all around us.

For instance, how many U.S. citizens know that the Nazis in the 1930s used their position in the Reichstag to make government fail so that the public would turn to them as saviors? Then consider how hard Republican leaders in the Congress have tried to make Congress and agencies dysfunctional during the Obama administration.

When the Nazis took power, police were more or less turned loose on the population and holding them and the Nazis’ own groups like the SA accountable became difficult. “Why Aren’t Police Held Accountable for Shooting Black Men?” was the headline on a story in the conservative U.S. News and World Report this month.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that it is a “sound principle that the magnitude of a lie always contains a certain factor of credibility…”

Last week in his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump sought to create a good deal of fear in us, to make his candidacy appealing: “The number of police officers killed in the line of duty has risen by almost 50 percent compared to this point last year.”

It’s not true. Carrie Johnson of National Public Radio reported the next day, “The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund says as of July 21, 2016, total fatalities this year compared with the same time last year reflect an increase of five deaths, or EIGHT percent. Deaths related to firearms are up by 14 deaths, or 78 percent.”

Am I saying Trump is a Nazi? Hardly. I think Nazi analogies are overstated, as I have noted in this space more than once (“Analogies at war,” PVT, July 21, 2010). But I do think history is understudied. We cannot know the lessons of the past unless we stop treating history as nationalist dogma and start learning it. Most people know the bare bones of the Nazi rise to power, not the details like making government fail.

We can’t learn from history we don’t know. That also applies to our own history. We just celebrated our own state’s 150th anniversary, without bothering to learn we were not “battle born” as the state flag has it but rather were born of the peace at the end of the civil war.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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