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Use, enjoy and handle history with care

"Hey, we're makin' history here, we're makin' real history here," said a legislator talking about Congress and inadvertently echoing Dustin Hoffman's "I'm walkin' here, I'm walkin' here" line in the movie "Midnight Cowboy."

Well, uh, sure. We're all making history, most of which, thankfully, will not be recorded or remembered. But maybe the operative word is "real" history.

Why, recently, are so many Americans being taken in by conspiracy theories? Why are so many denying real history?

As the nation recalled the splashdown of the rocket that landed on the moon in 1969, there was another wave of sentiment that the moon landing was just a government hoax. Honest-to-goodness scientists were dragged before cable TV cameras to insist, earnestly, that the moon landing had really happened.

Even among tourists flocking to the National Air and Space Museum to see the moon rocks, one non-believer was overheard saying the rocks were clearly fakes.

Good grief, folks! People who think the government spent millions of dollars and years of effort on a hoax that was kept secret for decades are just nuts. The government isn't capable of keeping secrets like that.

Then there was the wave of hysteria that President Barack Obama wasn't born in Hawaii, is not a U.S. citizen and thus is not the legitimate president. There were even legislators on Capitol Hill trying to pass a bill that all presidential candidates must provide the public with copies of their birth certificates. Legislators who insisted the president is a citizen were ridiculed by their constituents.

Zounds, people! The president's birth certificate was held up on TV over and over again. The so-called "birthers," who insist they are still not convinced of the president's citizenship, are self-deluded nincompoops.

During the health-care "reform" debate, which, friends, is only going to get more heated, complicated and murky, a rumor raced around the country that people on Medicare would be required to see a government representative to talk about how they want to die.

Somewhat bemused, Obama said there really aren't enough government employees to carry out such a mandate. It turns out that there is a proposal floating on Capitol Hill — a proposal — that Medicare pay for advisers for people interested in learning how to set up living wills.

What's going on here? Part of it is our fascination with suspense movies and TV thrillers such as "24." There have been so many shows depicting bureaucrats and political leaders as manipulative conspirators that people believe they're real. They should be forced to spend a day walking the halls of the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration.

A more serious reason is the nasty politicization of government. Instead of having an adult conversation about the appalling state of health care in America and weighing options to fix it, we will spend August screaming at each other: Democrats defending schemes that have no chance of passage; Republicans organizing a month of scare tactics, such as telling the elderly they must sit down with government agents to plan their deaths.

Historian Margaret MacMillan in her book, "Dangerous Games," ponders the uses and abuses of history. She notes every culture misuses history for comfort and nationalism or to justify treating others badly and to bolster arguments for a current policy.

She recalled a story told by writer Susan Jacoby who on Sept. 11, 2001, overheard two men talking in New York. "This is just like Pearl Harbor," one said. "What is Pearl Harbor?" the other asked. "That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War," the first man replied.

History often does not offer the right solution but it helps us ask the right questions. But it has to be "real" history. We have to be smart enough not to be led astray by crazy conspiracy theories.

MacMillan says her advice about history is "use it, enjoy it, but always handle history with care."

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail