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History in wrong hands is a dangerous thing

Sometimes it's best to leave history to historians - or at least to people who have read a book or two onthe subject.

As you very likely know by now, Fox News celebrity Sarah Palin offered an interesting version of Paul Revere's famous midnight ride through the Massachusetts countryside back in 1775. Most of us learned at an early age that Revere set out to warn colonists that British forces were on the march towards Lexington and Concord. The redcoats were on a mission to seize any weapons they might find, but they also were looking for patriot leaders like John Hancock, who were at large in the countryside. Lanterns from the Old North Church also were used as an early warning system - one if by land, two if by sea.

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Great stuff, that. But Sarah Palin had a slightly different interpretation of Revere's mission. "He warned the British that they weren't going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure as he's riding his horse through towns to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free," she said.

All right, let's get this straight: Paul Revere was actually warning the British, not his fellow colonists. Wow! And she continues to insist that she was right, and that she knows her American history.

I guess the textbook has changed since I was in high school.

I'd be a lazy correspondent if I simply rehashed this silly individual's latest blunder. Even her colleagues on Fox News lit into Palin, so clearly it's far too easy to point out the intellectual deficiencies of this would-be presidential candidate.

But believe it or not, there actually is a substantive issue at stake here: The use of history and historical figures by political figures trying to score ideological points about today's issues.

Sarah Palin believes in gun ownership. I couldn't tell you if she believes in unrestricted gun ownership, if she believes assault weapons should be regulated, or if she believes in limits on the purchase of handguns.

I doubt she knows what she believes. But here's the point: she used Paul Revere's ride as an argument in favor of gun ownership. She later insisted that Revere's message was this: "hey, you are not going to succeed. You are not going to take American arms. You are not going to beat our own well-armed persons ..."

Yes, she's a nitwit, but she's not the only person who insists on uses history to make political points. Both parties do it. Politicians in all countries do it. Sometimes it's accurate, sometimes it's not, and sometimes it's dangerous.

Irish history, of course, continues to be referenced in debates about contemporary political and cultural issues in Ireland. Queen Elizabeth's recent visit to Ireland - the first in the history of the independent Irish state - was filled with historical overtones. The queen used history not as a jagged polemic, but as a narrative of forgiveness. She acknowledged the mistakes of the past and implicitly recognized the historical grievances of those who opposed British rule in Ireland.

Historical references can bring a nation - and former enemies -- together, or it can do just the opposite. The former governor of Alaska clearly wants her supporters to think of gun opponents as modern-day redcoats determined to march into suburbia to disarm our "well-armed persons."

Not a particularly good way to bring the country together, which is her stated mission. (Perhaps she simply wanted to show that she could spell a difficult word like "together").

Dissident Irish republicans continue to simply deny the existence of an Irish republic, using history to argue that the government in Dublin is not the republic for which Pearse, Connolly, and the others died in 1916. That is correct. But should that matter? The United States is not the nation which Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, envisioned. A black man is president of the United States. Fifty years ago, a Catholic became president of the United States. No, this is not the nation which Thomas Jefferson envisioned. It is much better than that.

History in the hands of politicians and ideologues is a dangerous thing. That's why Americans - and all people, really - need to understand the past. I taught a class on June 6 during which I made repeated references to the anniversary of D-Day - until, that is, I realized that several students really didn't understand what I was talking about, or why I considered the date to be significant.

If dissident and potentially dangerous republicans in Ireland can summon the ghosts of Pearse and Connolly to justify killing police officers in 2011, if Sarah Palin can turn Paul Revere into America's original gun nut, we all need to be more than a little wary about the uses and abuses of history and historical dogma.