We should understand, rather than erase, the lessons of history


Memory fades with age. We remember good times more than the bad.

But efforts to forcefully erase bad memories from the public consciousness are often misguided attempts to impose modern standards of morality on the events of yesteryear.

You see it on the NBC show “Timeless,” in which a trio of time travelers chase an evildoer through the ages as he tries to transform the present by amending the past.

Along the way, they confront racism and sexism in the less-enlightened past.

But until someone actually invents a time machine, we’re stuck with history as it was, not as we’d like it to be.

In the Nevada Legislature, state Sens. Tick Segerblom and David Parks, both D-Las Vegas, are trying to erase Columbus Day in favor of “Indigenous People’s Day,” to honor those who called the New World home long before Columbus arrived.

In the modern understanding, Columbus’s voyages paved the way for the slave trade and oppression of the inhabitants of the Caribbean and the Americas. But in his time, Columbus’s journeys were perilous and masterful feats of navigation, helping to establish the proper dimensions of the globe and expanding human knowledge.

Which version is right? Both.

Segerblom (and a number of other Democrats) is also behind a move to re-name McCarran International Airport for recently retired U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.

Why? Former Sen. Pat McCarran’s penchant for supporting fascists because they, like he, were ardent anti-communists, his denunciation of the New Deal, his hunt for alleged communists and spies in the U.S. government and his anti-immigrant attitudes. His views also led three Democrats in the Nevada congressional delegation to call for the removal of his statute in the U.S. Capitol.

But McCarran was also a strong advocate of aviation in America, passing many of the early laws that govern civil aviation. He advocated for the U.S. Air Force to be an independent service. And he helped defeat an early federal gambling tax that could have stopped Las Vegas from becoming the city it is today.

Which is the real McCarran? Both.

Other examples abound. When Steve Wynn opened the Treasure Island in 1993, he wanted to name the pirate ship for Sir Francis Drake, drawing objections from the Nevada NAACP because Drake was a slave trader. But Drake was also one of Great Britain’s greatest naval heroes, who circumnavigated the globe and whose name has graced no fewer than 19 British ships and Her Majesty’s Naval Base Devonport.

The real Drake? Both.

The re-writing of history isn’t just a liberal preoccupation. Conservatives despise liberal denunciations of the Founding Fathers as slave owners, even though that vile vestige of history doesn’t diminish the genius of the Constitution. The founders were flawed human beings who did a great thing notwithstanding their faults.

The Old Testament of the Bible calls for the stoning to death of incorrigible children, adulterers and gays, repugnant to modern standards, but understood differently at the time.

The point? We don’t fix the past by ignoring or erasing it. In fact, we do those things at our peril. We fix the past by leading better lives today than the examples in history we seek to repudiate. We fix the past by treating people with more respect and compassion than their ancestors were shown in less enlightened times. We fix stolen valor by recognizing the accomplishments and contributions of those who were ignored because of their race or gender.

We fix history by doing the very best we can today, based on imperfect knowledge, knowing that future generations will judge us just as harshly according to standards that we can’t today conceive.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.