Column: Lack of respect for history is a dangerous trend

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 14, 2001

History is a funny thing.

Saturday, July 14, 2001

History is a funny thing. If we don’t respect it, it can lose its power – and it can repeat itself.

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Some think history is something carved in stone, an unchanging and factual record of events. But it’s not; it’s something that can be bent and changed to satisfy cultural whims. If neglected, it can fade and turn useless. If used for the wrong purposes, it can be deadly. Like all other human institutions – religion, politics, science – it can be manipulated.

It’s been in the news. In Japan, textbooks that gloss over the Japanese army’s atrocities in World War II are offending South Korea, which was on the receiving end of much the Japanese abuse. In Taiwan, political-party leaders – apparently innocently – inserted a film clip of Adolf Hitler into a TV commercial, saying they used his image because he was an example of someone who spoke his mind. And right here in the U.S.A., Disney softened up its portrayal of the Japanese in the movie Pearl Harbor to make it less offensive in Japan, where movie execs hope to rake in big money.

The offenses against history don’t stop there. In America, surveys have found that almost half of young people’s grasp of basic history is so poor that they think the Civil War was fought against the British. With history knowledge so abysmal, it makes you wonder if the average person thinks ancient Greece is something you find in an old coffee can in the garage. Would most people even notice if an American textbook glossed over the unpleasant parts?

It’s a subject of interest to me. I was intrigued enough by history to make it my minor in college. Most of the students around me, however, took their one or two required classes and were done with it; the 100-level classes were packed, but my seminar class on the Civil War had a mere 10 people.

History is important to me because it allows me to see the connections between what is happening now and what happened in the past. Knowing what came before is the perfect lens for evaluating what comes now.

That’s why it can be such a powerful tool for good purposes and bad. If your society convinced itself the Holocaust never happened, and changed its textbooks to reflect it, before long you’d have a society that doesn’t know the horrors of totalitarianism or ethnic cleansing. If somebody comes along and starts doing it, will they be as quick to reject it?

Some probles come because people define themselves by their history. In Japan, they think of themselves as a group of people who are ethnically independent from the rest of Asia. They draw a clear ancestral line between themselves and the Koreans, for instance. That’s why, in the face of increasing evidence that today’s Japanese descended from mainland Koreans, they continue to deny it.

In America, our history is one of democracy, freedom, and Christian values. That’s the sort of flag-waving stuff that makes people proud of their country. When you feel so good about what you stand for, it hurts you to hear about the atomic bombs and the Indian reservations and the slave-owning founding fathers.

The Japanese, for instance, want to renew their national pride. They don’t want to identify with the ancestors who raped, tortured and experimented on Chinese and Korean civilians. And who would? It’s a real downer.

But that doesn’t mean you ignore it. You have to remember and learn from it. You learn that a country with out-of-control ambition can be a dangerous thing. You learn that a military with unchecked power is a powderkeg waiting to blow. You learn that an entire country, if fed the right information, can be swayed to follow madmen.

Hitler’s Germany was another country looking to rebuild national pride in the 1930s. Hitler knew it, and he told people what they wanted to hear. He told them they weren’t the bad guys from the first world war. He told them they needed to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. It made them feel good. And they went along with him down a path to destruction.

When we mess with history, when we tell only the parts we find acceptable, we tamper with a ready-made instruction manual for what does and does not work for humanity. And when we don’t bother to teach or learn history, we deprive ourselves of a valuable tool for understanding the world.

Everyone should learn about both the good and the bad. You don’t have to take it personally; after all, it’s in the past.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays. E-mail him at