History is often discomforting and offensive, which is a good thing, for it reminds us of lessons learned from the past that we in the present need to remember to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

It is a dangerous form of denial to avoid studying or discussing history because it causes us emotional discomfort because, as Edmund Burke wisely stated, “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.”

Modern society is engaged in dangerous editing of historical reality due to a pervasive desire to avoid confronting difficult historical issues due to the emotional distress that accompanies learning about the Holocaust and slavery, to the point that many young people have limited knowledge of the tragic results of the Civil War.

Americans’ alarming lack of historical knowledge is leading to wide divisions in American society and the rise of radical groups on both the left and the right that are engaged in a dangerous game of competing groupthink efforts to expunge any inconvenient historical truths that may create cognitive dissonance in their minds and any emotional discomfort caused by having to consider any historical realities that challenge their historical narrative.

Historical symbols have been politicized into unwarranted and historically inaccurate symbols of extremist ideological groups, which is creating demands to ban the display of the Confederate flag and even the “Betsy Ross” American flag.

This is a very dangerous trend, as it works to censor efforts to educate the public about the realities of history by creating a fog of political and social controversy around the historical reality of historical symbols, which creates the danger that the vital history surrounding the historical symbols will be suppressed or forgotten.

This is dangerous as both the positive and negative lessons that are learned from historical inquiry are necessary for an intellectually valid historical education.

The Confederate flag and even the “Betsy Ross” American flag have been adopted as a symbol of some hate groups. However, that does not brand the Confederate flag an automatic symbol of racist hate groups when it is being displayed in a historical context at Civil War reenactments or in a museum or historic site setting.

It is vital to differentiate the display of the Confederate flag as an historical symbol that is being employed in an educational situation versus the Confederate flag being utilized by a hate group as a racist symbol.

We forget history at the peril of repeating history, and we cannot afford to repeat the Civil War, which is the purpose of preserving historic sites related to the Civil War and having Civil War reenactments.

Historians who have studied the Civil War in detail are the last to romanticize the Civil War, for they are painfully aware of the terrible calamity that the Civil War wrought upon the United States. They work to educate the public about the historical realities of the Civil War, which is vital to prevent another Civil War in the United States.

Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site.

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