In a New York Times article entitled ‘Trudeau’s Canada, Again’, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describes Canada as post-national: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada. There are shared values — openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first postnational state.” One wonders if Trudeau believes his grandiloquent platitudes couldn’t be uttered by any other nationalist, or if he notices the ironies present in numerating the common national values of a non-nation.
David Rieff’s new book In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies reminds me of this article. In his new book, Rieff examines how historical remembrances can be harmful, how they can turn tragedy into kitsch — and when forgetting may be the moral choice.
Rieff is not advocating for anything so controversial or extreme as forgetting historical events full stop — I envision a number of misguided Amazon reviews on this point. Historical memory is something separate and distinct from History. Historical memory, Rieff writes, “more closely resembles myth on one side and political propaganda on the other than they do history.” Where history is critical and illuminating, historical memory lacks rigor and can easily be revised to serve the needs of society.
An early example provided is the shaped remembrance and the collective memory of the American Civil War in relation to “white nationalist terrorist” Dylann Roof. The dueling memories of northern victory, southern defeat, and the causes of the war in time resolved to a more sympathetic view of the Confederacy’s ‘Lost Cause.’ Rieff invokes Caroline E. Janney who points to Gone with The Wind (1939), the “romantic epic depicting white southern resolve in the face of defeat,” as emblematic of this uncritical and ostensibly pro-South historical memory. Another contemporary example of this would be Gods and Generals (2003), which depicts the Confederacy with a certain noble grandness.
This sort of collective memory and assumed truth can define a society and it can also, unfortunately, inspire people like Roof. Rieff writes:
Many whites, northerners and southerners alike, who had seemed impervious to the proposition that the Confederacy was not a noble lost cause and that celebrating the memory of a secession that had taken place in order to preserve slavery was anything but harmless, began to reconsider their views when confronted by the undeniable fact that the racism that had been the Confederacy’s raison d’être still lived on in people like Roof.
The memory of the Confederacy and the assumption of the memory’s innocence and inertness helped create Roof. This sort of skewed history could be forgotten, so to speak, and replaced with a more nuanced and accurate reading of the American Civil War.
I’m filing this review on the fifth of May, a day that (in addition to Cindo de Mayo) is also the end of Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day. A vein running through In Praise of Forgetting is the interrogation of Santayana’s often invoked (and misquoted) warning, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” We all know of Nazi Germany and of the crimes committed, yet we have Yugoslavia and Rwanda. “[T]hat the memory of the Shoah is likely to have a deterrent effect — the view encapsulated in the injunction “Never Again” — there is simply no way of avoiding the conclusion that this is magical thinking of a fairly extreme kind.”
Rieff’s conclusions are not exactly promethean, and I don’t believe they are intended to be. History is replete with repetitions from which Santayana’s cliché has done nothing to help. In Praise of Forgetting is not arguing for any particular historical memory to be forgotten. Rather, this exploratory work seeks to map the ways in which historical memory acts upon us and can be acted upon, and to open the possibly that forgetting centuries old grievances and historical slights may be the moral choice, considering the sorts of havoc they can bring to the present.
Implicit in all this is the value of skepticism. Collective memory fashioned from historical remembrances often seek to “legitimize a particular worldview and political social agenda and delegitimize those of one’s ideological opponents.” Take for instance the memory of the holocaust being invoked to “justify more or less any policy of the state of Israel with regard to its neighbors or to its Arab minority.” Or, for example, Guy Lawson’s New York Times article about Trudeau’s Canada.
Lawson credits Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, as the creator of “what the world knows as progressive modern Canada,” which includes “universal medical care, bilingualism, multiculturalism, a strong voice for peace and development at the UN.”
‘Trudeau’s Canada, Again’ and Justin’s depiction of the Canadian non-nation indulges in a selective remembrance of Canadian political triumphs. Lawson doesn’t mention, for example, Pierre transforming the country into a police state with the War Measures Act to stop Quebec separatists known as Front du Libération de Québec (FLQ). Indeed, Trudeau’s statement about post-national Canada ignores a real history of separatism and racism still effecting the country today. What’s offensive about this obtuse statement is its attempt to fashion a bland national identity from a spotty, glossed over history as varied and contentious as that of any other state.
It’s an article such as this where the importance of Rieff’s work reveals itself. Stories from the past are never innocent. This lesson from history is made quite evident in In Praise of Forgetting. What we can do with this knowledge is examine our historical memories and the modern myths they create. From there we can either accept or forget them.