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Opinion | History Can Be Erased. It Often Has Been.

On Wednesday, the House voted to create a commission to look into the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Thirty-five Republicans joined Democrats to pass it, but they did so over the objections of the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, who opposed the bill. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, joined him in opposition.

The Republican leadership in Congress seems to be engaged in a coordinated effort to reduce and minimize the attack on the U.S. Capitol, or even erase it all together.

One reason used to oppose the commission is that it would be redundant of work already being done by the Justice Department and Congress itself.

But another, used by McCarthy, was specifically to muddy the water by widening the inquiry to include investigations into anti-fascists and Black Lives Matter. It was a clear attempt to establish an equivalency, to reduce the historic nature of the insurrection while simultaneously elevating issues with other groups.

They want to flatten all of this into a single mass of things that happened during the pandemic, none better or worse than the other, things happening on the ideological left as well as the right.

But, these things are not equal … at all. They know this. But, this is how propaganda is born and history is buried. It is shockingly easy to do and has been often done.

We are just weeks away from the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, when in 1921, white citizens of that city — aided by the National Guard, it should be noted — destroyed the Greenwood section of that city, a prosperous, self-sufficient community known as Black Wall Street, killing as many at 300 people and leaving 8,000 others homeless.

One of the most remarkable things about that massacre was the concerted effort by the city to erase it from history, and just how effective that campaign was.

Now, to be sure, that massacre happened before the time of television, the internet, social media and cellphones. But, there were images, not to mention the scores of families who lost loved ones. There were graves.

As The New York Times has reported:

“After the massacre, officials set about erasing it from the city’s historical record. Victims were buried in unmarked graves. Police records vanished. The inflammatory Tulsa Tribune articles were cut out before the newspapers were transferred to microfilm.”

The Times continued, “City officials cleansed the history books so thoroughly that when Nancy Feldman, a lawyer from Illinois, started teaching her students at the University of Tulsa about the massacre in the late 1940s, they didn’t believe her.”

We sometimes underestimate human impulses and human nature when we simply assume that the memory of a thing, a horrible thing, will last forever.

Often the perpetrators of the offense desperately want to let the stigma fade, and the victim hesitates to pass on the pain of it to children and family. Everyone awaits the healing power of time, like the jagged rock thrown into the river that eventually becomes smooth stone.

That happened in Tulsa. The first full history of the massacre was not written until 1982 when Scott Ellsworth wrote “Death in a Promised Land,” and a commission to fully study what happened in Tulsa wasn’t established until 1997. Its report was issued in 2001.

We have a tendency to drift away from the fullness of history even when the truth isn’t actively suppressed. Think about things like how horrible Christopher Columbus actually was, or the massacres of native people and all the broken treaties that helped grow the geography of this country, or how many of the pioneers of gay rights were trans people and drag queens.

We are horrible transmitters of the truth. We are also horrible receptors. It is like the game you played as a child when something was whispered from child to child, and what the last child hears bears no resemblance to what the first child said.

Even when we record things, in writing, or by photography or even video, something gets lost in the transfer: the severity, the solemnity, the impact.

This is why memorials and monuments are important in society, to aid collective memory and reflection. This is also why monuments are often used as tools of propaganda, because they have helped create false narratives that alter collective memory. Many Confederate monuments were erected precisely for this purpose.

So, when I see Republicans trying to alter our perception of the insurrection, I do not take that lightly. There is nothing silly or trivial about it. Memory is malleable. This tactic may now fail on 50 and work on five, but years from now it may be the inverse ratio.

We absorb the stories we are told, too often without circumspection, imbuing them with the authority of the tell. So, when authorities tell a lie or diminish something, many people will accept it as told.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

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