Daily Archives: 2016-06-03 05:20:21 GMT+0000

In Praise of Forgetting

What’s the point of remembering historical traumas? Has remembering the Holocaust prevented genocides? What of 9/11? Why do we remember these things? To what purposes do we put our memories? Are they always for good?

But most times they are not memories at all, not really. They are political stories we have chosen to latch on to for specific reasons. No-one in Ireland “remembers” the Irish Easter Rising. No-one in Australia “remembers” Gallipoli. Why do we sacralize certain political stories we call memories? And why do we even call them memories? To what use do we put these “memories”?

Remembrance as a species of morality has become one of the more unassailable pieties of the age. Today, most societies all but venerate the imperative to remember. We have been taught to believe that the remembering of the past and its corollary, the memorialising of collective historical memory, has become one of humanity’s highest moral obligations.

But what if this is wrong, if not always, then at least part of the time? What if collective historical memory, as it is actually employed by communities and nations, has led far too often to war rather than peace, to rancour and resentment rather than reconciliation, and the determination to exact revenge for injuries both real and imagined, rather than to commit to the hard work of forgiveness?

That’s quoted from an article by war correspondent David Rieff in a Guardian article, The cult of memory: when history does more harm than good.

Provocative, yes. Thought-provoking, too.

The questions I opened with are based on an interview with David Rieff on the Late Night Live program on Australia’s Radio National. Interviewer Philip Adams: In praise of forgetting. That’s the link to the most excellent interview. Promise to listen to it before you go any further. (I have not yet fully read the Guardian article I quoted from above but this post is inspired by the interview.)

The two related books by David Rieff:

His recently published In praise of forgetting : historical memory and its ironies. And not forgetting his earlier Against Remembrance.

Esteemed American journalist David Rieff argues against our passion for the past. He looks at how memory serves nationalistic history every ANZAC Day and annual pilgrimage to Gallipoli, and how memory of past horrors inflame deep-seated ethnic hatreds, violence and wars.
Esteemed American journalist David Rieff argues against our passion for the past. He looks at how memory serves nationalistic history every ANZAC Day and annual pilgrimage to Gallipoli, and how memory of past horrors inflame deep-seated ethnic hatreds, violence and wars.
 "The conventional wisdom about historical memory is summed up in George Santayana’s celebrated phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Today, the consensus that it is moral to remember, immoral to forget, is nearly absolute. And yet is this right? David Rieff, an independent writer who has reported on bloody conflicts in Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia, insists that things are not so simple. He poses hard questions about whether remembrance ever truly has, or indeed ever could, “inoculate” the present against repeating the crimes of the past. He argues that rubbing raw historical wounds—whether self-inflicted or imposed by outside forces—neither remedies injustice nor confers reconciliation. If he is right, then historical memory is not a moral imperative but rather a moral option—sometimes called for, sometimes not. Collective remembrance can be toxic. Sometimes, Rieff concludes, it may be more moral to forget. Ranging widely across some of the defining conflicts of modern times—the Irish Troubles and the Easter Uprising of 1916, the white settlement of Australia, the American Civil War, the Balkan wars, the Holocaust, and 9/11—Rieff presents a pellucid examination of the uses and abuses of historical memory. His contentious, brilliant, and elegant essay is an indispensable work of moral philosophy." -- publisher
“. . . Today, the consensus that it is moral to remember, immoral to forget, is nearly absolute. And yet is this right? David Rieff . . . poses hard questions about whether remembrance ever truly has, or indeed ever could, “inoculate” the present against repeating the crimes of the past. He argues that rubbing raw historical wounds—whether self-inflicted or imposed by outside forces—neither remedies injustice nor confers reconciliation. If he is right, then historical memory is not a moral imperative but rather a moral option—sometimes called for, sometimes not. Collective remembrance can be toxic. Sometimes, Rieff concludes, it may be more moral to forget. . . . “