Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Inevitability of Memory

The journalist David Rieff has a new book called In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies. In an intriguing interview about the book, Rieff says historical memory can be dangerous and a certain amount of forgetting is often more socially responsible. Here's the crux of his argument:
Today, and for quite some time, probably since the end of the Second World War, the dominant view among decent people, good people, nice people, has basically reflected the words of the American philosopher George Santayana, who has said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The view is that it’s moral to remember the past, and if we don’t remember the past, as Santayana said, we’re going to repeat all its horrors. And by extension, or by implication, it’s immoral to forget. You have a kind of sacralization—a kind of memory of past horrors made sacred. On two grounds: one moral, that to forget is to do the most profound kind of injustice to those who suffered and those who died. And on the other hand an empirical claim, which is that if people remember, they’re less likely to either fall into the trap of these crimes, or be the victim of them....

What I’m saying is, there are examples—not a few, but quite a number of examples—where remembering, far from leading to truth, justice, and reconciliation, has led to more war. Three obvious examples of that are the Balkans in the 1990s, where I was a correspondent; Northern Ireland, for 30 years and, some people would say, for 800 years; and the Middle East. And in all three of those cases it seems to me that invoking history, invoking the wounds of the past, the crimes of the past, the conflict of the past, has led to more bloodshed.
There are two claims here. First, Rieff is simply saying that we don't actually learn from history. Given humanity's capacity for death and destruction that's a plausible case to make, though I disagree with it. But what about his second claim? Would it really be better to forget troubled pasts?

It seems to me that Rieff is making a philosophical point that has little application to the real world. It may well be true that it would be better if certain things could simply be forgotten. But how is this collective forgetting supposed to happen in the real world? Forgetting is not passive or natural. As Iwona Irwin-Zarecka has written, “The absence of memory is just as socially constructed as memory itself...when we speak of forgetting, we are speaking of displacement (or replacement) of one version of the past by another." The call to forget is not a call to let nature take its course. It's a call to replace one kind of memory project with another.

Remembering is not moral or immoral as much as it is inevitable. Societies are going to remember the past whether it is advisable to do so or not. As Rieff himself emphasizes, the past is fertile terrain for demagogues who seek to stir up animosities in the present. We can't contain such destructive forces by insisting on forgetfulness. Instead, we need to find usable pasts that can counter destructive memories.
White supremacist memory at work: the highest-grossing film of all time.
Rieff uses American memory of the Civil War as an example of the negative effects of remembering. He says,
I would submit that the collective memory that existed in this country until well into the 1960s of the war was actually a terrible version...So that it’s not as if we have any guarantee that a society’s version of events, version of the past, that is commemorated is going to be either accurate or moral. Which again isn’t a reason to scrap memory, but is a reason to be more skeptical and be less sure that it’s always “better to remember.” 
This is obviously true, but it seems to cut against the point he's trying to make. The solution to White supremacist memory is not forgetting. It's better memory.

Indeed, if American society somehow forgot slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, the consequences could be dire. The material conditions and social relations resulting from those histories would still be with us, but we would be left without any understanding of what produced them. In such a vacuum racism might actually increase.

This raises the deeper problem that forgetting poses. The most contentious issues of memory often involve pasts in which one group really did wrong another group, and the material results of those wrongs are often concrete, active, and ongoing. These are not abstractions. Telling indigenous people in the United States to forget genocide will not restore their sovereignty.

So when we speak of remembering and forgetting, we cannot ignore present-day power relations. It is no coincidence that the descendants of perpetrators are often the most ardent advocates of forgetting. Rieff is certainly correct that memory can be used irresponsibly in the service of hate and grievance. It would be wrong, for example, if Armenians used the memory of genocide to promote political violence against Turks in the present. But the onus should be on the Turks to remember their crime, not on their victims to forget it. To say, as Reiff seems to edge close to saying, that this is all a kind of fiction, that no one living actually "remembers" these events and we should therefore focus instead on the present, raises the question of whether political and social collectivities across time actually even exist, or should exist.

No one "remembers" the founding of the United States, yet we think of ourselves as Americans, and imagine that George Washington was an American too. Humans seem hard-wired to make group identities based on imagined shared pasts. Faced with this inevitability, the challenge is to remember what we have done to each other in the name of these identities, so that we might somehow transcend them in the recognition of our common creation in the image of God. Memory is inevitable. Peace-producing memory is a choice and must be continually constructed. It may be true that we will never learn, that we will go on killing each other. But if we don't remember well, it's a certainty.

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