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Dan-ecdotes: Taking a stance? Learn your history first

Philosopher George Santayana famously said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Rarely have truer words ever been spoken.

There have been a few political topics lately - none of which I really feel like delving into - that have obvious ties to our nation's history. Interestingly, I have heard individuals on both sides of these arguments who have been using historical "facts" that are not, well, factual. At the very least, they are often rooted in a nugget of truth, but have spiraled out of proportion from there.

I suppose I could try to write a column every week helping the readers discern historical fact from fiction in national debates, but that doesn't sound very enjoyable for anyone, least of all me. So it is up to you, the reader, to actually know as much of our history as you can to make informed decisions on these important matters.

Let's get my personal biases out of the way. I love history. I studied it in college, earning a degree in the subject. That's why I'm writing this, as opposed to encouraging you to shore up your math skills or something like that. Math is evil, and I would never do that to you.

However, my passion for history should not (and does not) water down its importance.

Some people see history as the tedious memorization of dates, and that is really sad to me. After all, it is far more important to know the what-happened-and-why information of World War II than it is to know that it started in 1939 ('41 for the United States) and ended in 1945.

Other people have a "Why should I care? The past is the past" attitude toward history. These people seem more likely to take the political ramblings of their Facebook friends as gospel. It doesn't help that with recent political issues rising to the forefront, there has been an avalanche of political postings on social media.

Regardless of your opinions on these issues, I will neither praise nor criticize. I have written before that people are entitled to their opinions, and I stand by that. However, I would ask everyone to construct those opinions based on facts that are available to them, as opposed to taking a side without being able to explain your reasons for doing so.

As the first quote in this column explains, without truly knowing the successes and mistakes of those who came before us, we are often left spinning our wheels, unable to progress - or even cooperate - as a society in any meaningful way.

Some would say history textbooks are incorrect, and they would be right in a few instances. My advice to that remark would be check a few different sources. Your local library likely has plenty of books on whatever topic you are looking for, and last I checked, they are all free.

And quite frankly, a simple Google search is a step in the right direction. Your online findings should never be your be-all and end-all, but it's a fine place to begin researching. Wikipedia can be tricky - since anyone and everyone can edit Wikipedia pages - but they cite their sources at the bottom of the page for you to peruse.

Spoken stories from the previous generation can be helpful, but they are not always spot-on. My grandmother has some memories of what life was like during the Great Depression, but she was 8 years old when that period ended, and time has a way of distorting personal accounts. If my grandma had written in a diary during that time, that would give me a better idea of what I was hoping to know, as the words will never change.

Better sources on that topic would be newspapers from that time. Those can occasionally be found in libraries, and you may be able to find larger newspapers like the New York Times online.

Also, speeches from, say, the president during the Depression (Herbert Hoover for the first part, Franklin D. Roosevelt for the rest) can be found word-for-word in many places.

My use of the Depression is just an example, and I intentionally chose that topic to avoid my personal biases coming to light on current issues pertaining to history, like the U.S. Civil War and the birth of the Confederacy, for example.

Again, you are entitled to your opinion, but if you really want to be vocal about an issue, do your research first. That way, people will have a tougher time telling you that you are wrong.

Dan Determan
Staff Writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper
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