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Today’s bad politics are built on yesterday’s fake history

A better understanding of history would yield better politics today.

The history that people learn early in life shows up in how they understand both the past and the present. Most of us can agree on that.

Better history lessons might help us agree on more things, and an understanding of how history is told might allow us to have more intelligent discussions about those things we might never agree on.

I’ve mentioned before that I like to visit the History News Network website to see what historians and other people who deal with history are writing and talking about. The variety of topics is broad, but also affected by what’s in the news. And for a while it’s been heavily influenced by tweets and statements from the White House and by events like the violent clash in Charlottesville, which clearly drew out very different understandings of American history.

Historians weigh in with corrective facts, but sometimes they also discuss how people come to hold ahistoric ideas. A couple of recent articles about how history is learned caught my attention.

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One posting was a piece from The Atlantic in which the author went back and looked at history textbooks used in New York when Donald Trump was in school, assuming he might have learned some inaccurate lessons in the classroom.

The article by journalist Matt Ford was prompted by Trump’s affinity for Andrew Jackson. Trump sees himself in Jackson, a plain-spoken populist whose popularity won him the White House.

Jackson was also a slave owner and famed Indian fighter who as president signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which uprooted and relocated Native Americans from the South.

Trump, in talking about Jackson, has shown significant flaws in his understanding of the Civil War and its aftermath. That understanding no doubt fed his response to the Charlottesville far-right protest.

Trump graduated from high school in 1964, and the kind of education he got about that historic period would have been similar to what most white Americans learned.

Ford quoted the historian Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University: “The dominant story was that secession was a mistake, but so was Reconstruction,” Zimmerman said. “And Reconstruction was a mistake because [the North] put ‘childlike’ and ‘bestial’ blacks in charge of the South, and the only thing that saved white womanhood was the Ku Klux Klan.”

Ford noted that Hillary Clinton, who is in Trump’s age group, told a crowd in Iowa that federal government policies after the Civil War left white Southerners “feeling totally discouraged and defiant.”

It’s the kind of sentiment generated by the history lessons that cohort of Americans received. People of color demanded better, and lessons have improved since the late 1960s, but not nearly enough to give Americans the understanding they need to be well-informed citizens.

T.J. Stiles has won a Pulitzer Prize for biography and another for history. In another article on the history site, Stiles says we need a museum of the history of American history.

He argues that we need to ask, “How did we come to believe that this is what happened?” He said Trump’s comments after Charlottesville make us aware of the importance of memories the public holds.

Stiles uses another president as an example of how we get things wrong. John F. Kennedy, in his book “Profiles in Courage,” praised Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II, whom he credited with helping to heal the nation after the Civil War, and “condemned his foe (Adelbert) Ames as a corrupt carpetbagger.”

Ames fought for racial equality after the war, as governor and senator from Mississippi. Lamar was a leader in the movement to overturn Reconstruction and its integrated government and to deny black people the right to vote.

Kennedy was influenced by historians who portrayed Reconstruction as an evil. That view is at odds with the facts and how modern historians see them, but it allows many people to hold a romantic view of a white South done wrong, “The Birth of a Nation” revision of history.

Stiles said that we need not just the truth, but also “an understanding of how it is that we hid that truth from ourselves.”

That would be powerful for forging unity.

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