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The Power of Historical Honesty

Authoritarian states such as Russia and China want to write their own fictive accounts of the past in order to sustain their prejudices and power structures. But open, democratic societies that value freedom need to be brave and honest about their own histories.

LONDON – One of my favorite cartoons shows an elderly, professorial-looking man talking to a much younger fellow, possibly a student. “Those who don’t study history,” says the old guy, “are doomed to repeat it.” He then adds, “Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.”

Like many jokes, this one works because it contains a kernel of truth. But I still believe that it is better to try to find out what really happened in the past, even when doing so is uncomfortable. A decent, open society should never flinch from attempting to discover how yesterday helped to make today, and how we could use the experience to create a better tomorrow.

This can, of course, make history a cleansing, if sometimes insurrectionary, subject. That is one reason why authoritarian states want to impose their own fictive but politically expedient narratives. But open, democratic societies that value freedom need to be brave and honest about their own histories as well.

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