July 2nd, 2005

book cover humor

History is More Than Just a Channel

It’s about power.
Knowledge is power. Remembering is knowledge. History is remembering. Those who forget history, to coin a phrase, are condemned to repeat it.
Sadly, history is full of repeats.
As I write this, we’re approaching Independence Day weekend, and by the time you read it, the holiday will be past. Two, three days later, I wonder what people will be talking about. How good or bad the fireworks were? The ice cream social? The wild uncle who got drunk and knocked over the snack table? Over two hundred years ago John Adams made a prediction that July 4th would be celebrated pretty much as it is today, but he also used the words “solemn” and “devotion”. To him, all those fireworks and parades would be a way to remember the sweat and blood that went into making our country.
But then, who remembers John Adams?
A few years ago the paper shredder at work broke down. While discussing it with my young shift partner, I told him how the shredder we’d had back when I first started working there was the “Watergate” brand. Then I waited for him to laugh. He didn’t.
“Watergate -- get it?”
Frowning, he shook his head. “What’s Watergate?”
True story.
When I worked at the video store, we would often have teenagers come in to rent without the required picture ID. I had a routine I’d worked out: Name, telephone number, and then, just to be playful, I’d joke, “Now the bonus question: Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?”
In all the time I worked there, not a SINGLE renter was able to figure out the answer without further, and very obvious, prodding.
I changed my little joke -- which obviously wasn’t funny -- to make it easier: “What year did the War of 1812 begin?”
Blank stares.
“Where was the Battle of New Orleans fought?”
Confused looks.
It’s not just that the questions were so obvious, it was that there was no sense -- none whatsoever -- of the history behind them. Watergate was a watershed event in the history of our country. You might need a passport to get from Pennsylvania to Virginia, if not for Grant. We might never have had a country at all, if we’d lost the War of 1812. The Battle of New Orleans was one of our greatest War of 1812 victory -- but it happened after a peace treaty had been signed.
Can more than a few high school seniors today tell you what happened to Italy in World War 2? Can they tell you the critical series of events that effected Russia in the early 20th Century -- and how that effected the United States? Can they tell you what the Berlin Wall was? Or, heck -- at least where? Some can, but they largely seem to be the ones who developed an interest in history on their own.
It’s partially our fault -- adults, educators, parents -- for making history seem so deadly dull. Somehow, we’ve come to teach our children that learning is bad, and that ignorance is cool. When modern civilization falls, future scholars might blame morals, or crime, or drugs, but those are just symptoms: the root causes will be today’s conviction that reading is a chore, and history is a bore. We must memorize dates, but we forget people -- the people just like you and me, who had childhood traumas, who got sick, who fell in love, who did all the mundane chores we do, but still accomplished great things.
George Washington wasn’t a statue on a horse: He was a farmer and what today we’d call a National Guardsman. Hitler was a painter; FDR was crippled by polio; Lincoln suffered from depression; one of Jefferson’s slaves bore his children. They were people, and if we don’t make them memorable, if we don’t learn from their stories, we’re doomed to make the same mistakes, over and over.
Chamberlain and Stalin both signed peace treaties with Hitler, forgetting that dictators care nothing about the rights of others. The Continental Congress ignored the issue of slavery, forgetting that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The native Americans never learned that people with a superior technology inevitably trample less advanced cultures. America in the 30’s turned its back on the growing threat of the Axis powers, even though isolationism invariably serves to make dictators more ambitious. During the Iran/Iraq War America gave arms to Iraq, even though we’ve been attacked by former allies before. Saddam Hussein never got the lesson that if you continue to tease the American Eagle, sooner or later you’re going to get clawed. G.W. Bush forgot the primary lesson of Vietnam, which is to always have an exit strategy.
Bush lied to us, remember? He said, “We will never forget”. But we do, and we did. We do, because most of us don’t learn, don’t remember, don’t develop that love of history that roots us in the here and now. In the end, our short memory may be the greatest danger to our society.
By the way, Watergate was a second rate burglary that brought down the Nixon administration. The War of 1812 began in 1812, and ended with the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. And who’s buried in Grant’s tomb? Mrs. Grant. Oh, and also her husband, great Civil War General and not-so-great President.
Of course, there’s more to those stories. We just forgot.