Forgetting as patriotism, erasure as privilege

"Rituals of forgetting were a widely supported patriotic aim at the end of the Civil War. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address itself invoked the need for the nation in the wake of the staggering loss of life at Gettysberg to devote itself “to the great task remaining”—that task was to preserve the nation. Putting aside a forthright critique of slavery and those who violated the humanity of human beings was for a time a seemingly successful postwar device to promote healing between the North and the South. Thus, it is deeply embedded in the consciousness of many Americans that the suppression of reference to slavery and past discrimination avoids reopening debilitating wounds that would impair the ability to form a more perfect union. The survival of the union was a  political consideration. Creating a path to justice is a moral imperative. Forgetting is an imperfect solution for advancing the healing necessary after especially monumental violations of human rights. Apart from the question of whether the imprint of such abuses could ever be erased, there is a further complication. Forgetting requires the erasure of aspects of memory, experience, and belief that are involuntary, and as such can surface whether desired or not. Further, improperly referencing the nature and import of crimes against humanity minimizes the degree of injury. Most importantly, acts of denial do more than downplay a painful history—they create a viral new evil—that of the concomitant erasure of the moral obligation to address the legacy of evil deeds. That of the continued denegration of victims. That of the lasting effects of acts of inhumanity and brutality on successive generations. In the end, by failing to explore critically the existence and consequences of such actions, we consign ourselves to incomplete knowledge of who we are, as moral beings, the reasons for our actions and beliefs, and what we must change to improve on our humanity. In any case, we know now that erasure and forgetting was not effective for the long term. While public policies of erasure allowed the privileging of whites and the extension of aspects of racial dominance to continue, the failure to transition speedily to more inclusive and equitable social and economic policies set the nation on the course that is playing out today."                                                        ----Ruth J. Simmons, lecture on 2 Nov 2016, Race and the Curriculum Oxford Lecture Series, Oxford, UK.

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