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Those Who Cannot Remember

December 8th, 2005
I'm pretty sure that I've written on this before (I know I put it into a post in my pre-movable-type blog entry three years ago), but it bears repeating. It came to mind when I saw news reports of Pearl Harbor Day from the U.S. press (the Japanese press doesn't mention it much, as you might imagine). There is a famous George Santayana quote: "Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The quote is often mangled, only the second part mentioned, and the wording varies greatly. But that's not the problem. The problem is that everyone seems to completely misinterpret Santayana's warning and advice, to ends which are completely opposite from the original meaning. Look at how people claim to follow Santayana's warning. We remember Pearl Harbor Day, and 9/11. The Chinese remember the Rape of Nanjing. Japanese remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Jewish people remember the Holocaust. So we're doing a pretty good job of remembering the past, right? Unfortunately, no. Everyone's got it in reverse. You see, each group takes great pains to remember the wrongs that were committed against them by others in the past, usually adding the vow, "No More," or "Never Again." The same groups have a tendency--which is more or less universal--of playing down, whitewashing, or completely forgetting about wrongs they committed against others in the past. We Americans tend to play down Hiroshima, primarily by talking about how it was necessary, how many others would have died, and so forth, not examining closely enough what suffering we did cause. There is no "Hiroshima" day in America. Similarly, Japanese try to forget about things like the Rape of Nanjing, with their share of deniers and those who say it is not something that should be remembered. Usually, when we decide to ignore our own past atrocities, it is in the name of patriotism, or for the stated reason of not wanting to make our children ashamed of our country. But here's how that's all backwards: Santayana said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. That's a key word: repeat. It means to do again. Not to have something done to you again, but to actively do it again. And that's what Santayana was talking about: those who commit terrible acts are condemned to repeat them if they do not remember that they committed them before, if they fail to recognize that an act of theirs was in error. Consider the word "progress" in the first part of Santayana's quote: progress for whom? Naturally, for the ones who commit these acts. A child will not learn if it is never told it is wrong. Neither will we. Instead, in the name of Santayana, so many claim that they are "remembering" by emphasizing when they suffered, while forgetting when they made others suffer. A human enough reaction, but that's what gets us into trouble. By remembering the wrongs committed against us, we create the impression amongst ourselves that we are the ones who were wronged, that we deserve the special status of victimhood that entitles us to take extreme measures to protect ourselves. By spreading the warning that this could happen again, we become suspicious of outsiders, expecting them to attack us or do us wrong again. At the same time, by forgetting the wrongs we have committed in the past, we create the impression that our people do no wrong. We are the good guys, and when we decide to move or act aggressively, we do so only for good reasons. We're not the evil dictators who have caused so much pain and suffering. Put those together, and you have the recipe for disaster. A people who feel victimized, suspicious of outsiders, like they have a right to act aggressively to protect themselves, and that they can do no wrong. That's not good. In fact, it is the polar opposite of what Santayana was trying to warn us about. Americans should not be memorializing Pearl Harbor as much as we should be Hiroshima, the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, My Lai, slavery, or the genocide of American Indians. The Japanese should memorialize the Rape on Nanjing and other past wrongs. The Germans should be remembering the Holocaust more than the Jews. Each society should take its worst wrongs, and examine them carefully, so as to remember what truly must be remembered, what is of paramount importance: that although I see myself as a good person and my country as a good nation, the fact remains that horrible atrocities can happen by my hands; that my nation, my people, my community, my family--that I, can be responsible for these things. Even if I believe myself to be right. Even when I feel my cause is just. See? It happened before. It can happen again. This is what we must remember, so that when the time comes and we are ready for war, that we send our troops overseas, when we decide to act in a way that could deprive others of their rights or their lives in an unjust cause, that we remember the wrongs we committed--so we can better recognize when we are in danger of committing them again. Because we don't remember; we are blinded by patriotism and our own causes, we intentionally disregard the fact that we kill tens of thousands of people, and feel that whatever is happening, it must be right. But not only do we avoid asking if we are in the wrong, we fear asking, and we fear even more saying that aloud in public, because we know others will become wrathful, attacking our ideas and even our selves, calling us unpatriotic, saying we love dictators, that we are on the enemy's side, that we hate our country. They face us with hatred and accuse us of hate. But patriotism cannot be blind or it is corrupt, and "my country right or wrong" does not mean that you ignore those wrongs or allow them to continue. If you love a family member, but see them falling into destructive behavior, you stay with them, but you don't encourage the destructiveness--you fight to bring them around, to make them whole and good. And so we must do with our nation, stand with it, but never be afraid to utter the words, "we are wrong." And more importantly, we must remember our past wrongs. Not to celebrate them, but to use them to make ourselves better, the people we want to be. Not to shame our children, but to make them proud that we are a nation of adults, of mature, thinking people who can admit wrongs and learn from them. Not to give our country a bad name, but to give it a good name, a reputation that is admired. So on this day of memorial for our own dead, remember also those we have killed. Otherwise there will never be an end to days like Pearl Harbor and 9/11.

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  1. TaoJones
    March 4th, 2007 at 06:59 | #1

    I just came across this insightful piece by accident as I was Googling the Santayana quote for another reason altogether, and I want you to know that I found it profound and moving. I only wish that it could be published more broadly, but I believe that that would only subject you to vitriol and abuse, and you would be reviled and defamed for your insight.

    What a shame.

    TaoJones

  2. suzi q
    April 21st, 2007 at 16:43 | #2

    agreed

  3. Mark
    May 29th, 2010 at 08:56 | #3

    I get your point and it is well put, but I think we do very well–if not too well–what you imply we don’t. There hasn’t been another Hiroshima, because we remember–although today, in 2010, I’m not certain Iraq got the memo. The Powell doctrine–essentially a response to Vietnam–don’t go to war unless you really mean it and it’s for a good reason, is an example of taking Santayana to heart. In the war in Iraq we’re adjusting and learning that killing civilians (whom Al-Qaeda loves to hide behind) isn’t helping. So we now don’t kill the locals trying to kill the “bad guys” like we did in France during WWII–to set the locals free.
    In contrast, I think we remember too well. Oil floods the Gulf, so instead of investigating what went wrong and learning what not to do in the future, we ban all drilling–a knee jerk unthoughtful response if there ever was one. I think, BP, if ever given the opportunity to drill again, will be more careful next time.

    Our current President seems to have read your blog–congrats–and decided instead of looking at what we’ve done right (be the place people want to be, rather than the place people want to escape), he’s looking at and apologizing, wrongly, for what he thinks we’ve done wrong, to people who see that as a sign of weakness, and are certainly willing, and able to take advantage of that weakness.

    Judgment requires applying different responses to different circumstances. We tend to look at the past and think what worked then will work tomorrow–and fail because today isn’t yesterday.

    BTW–We did commemorate at the Smithsonian the “imprisonment” (actually interment) of Japanese-Americans during WWII and at an Enola Gay exhibit mention (briefly until sanity ensued) the horrors of Nagasaki (which I’ve visited) and Hiroshima–not that the dropping of the bomb saved the countless lives an invasion of Japan would have caused. Of course the same exhibit didn’t mention the Japanese rape of Nanking or the Japanese mock trial and execution of 3 Doolittle raiders (Lts Dean Hallmark and William Farrow and Sgt Harold Spatz).

  4. Luis
    June 1st, 2010 at 10:52 | #4

    I think we do very well–if not too well–what you imply we don’t. There hasn’t been another Hiroshima, because we remember–although today, in 2010, I’m not certain Iraq got the memo.

    Not sure what you mean by Iraq, but otherwise the point is not very cogent. The threat of retaliation by the Soviets and the court of world opinion are primarily what kept us from repeating Hiroshima. There has been no shortage of Americans willing to nuke various enemies over time. Indeed, your later mention of the benefits of Hiroshima demonstrate clearly how a whitewashed version of that event has made many Americans approve of the idea of an occasional nuclear bombing. As I pointed out in a post on the topic, Hiroshima did not need to happen: a “warning shot” over the mountains surrounding Tokyo would have had the same effect as Hiroshima and Nagasaki–it probably would have been an even stronger incentive to surrender–without killing so many innocent people.

    The Powell doctrine–essentially a response to Vietnam–don’t go to war unless you really mean it and it’s for a good reason, is an example of taking Santayana to heart. In the war in Iraq we’re adjusting and learning that killing civilians (whom Al-Qaeda loves to hide behind) isn’t helping. So we now don’t kill the locals trying to kill the “bad guys” like we did in France during WWII–to set the locals free.

    In contrast, I think we remember too well.

    If we “remember too well,” then why did we invade Iraq in the first place? Iraq is a case of ignoring Santayana, not remembering.

    I think we remember too well. Oil floods the Gulf, so instead of investigating what went wrong and learning what not to do in the future, we ban all drilling–a knee jerk unthoughtful response if there ever was one.

    Um, the drilling ban (a) is not permanent, and (b) is not an example of “remembering” anything.

    Our current President seems to have read your blog–congrats–and decided instead of looking at what we’ve done right (be the place people want to be, rather than the place people want to escape), he’s looking at and apologizing, wrongly, for what he thinks we’ve done wrong…

    Oy. I could post a long and detailed reply, but don’t have time right now. Suffice it to say that this is a tired right-wing talking point, as inaccurate as it is biased–which is, very.

    BTW–We did commemorate at the Smithsonian the “imprisonment” (actually interment [sic]) of Japanese-Americans during WWII and at an Enola Gay exhibit mention (briefly until sanity ensued) the horrors of Nagasaki (which I’ve visited) and Hiroshima–not that the dropping of the bomb saved the countless lives an invasion of Japan would have caused.

    First, to “intern” means “to imprison”; your distinction without a difference is an excellent example of the whitewashing of history, using a turn of a phrase to act as a de facto argument. If you and your family were completely innocent, loyal citizens but were taken away and locked up in a prison for years just because of your race, I doubt that you would long tolerate people who insisted that you were not “imprisoned,” but rather that you were just “interned,” as if it somehow made any difference.

    You continue along the same vein in protesting that Hiroshima and Nagasaki served a just cause (which, again, I dispute), wholly missing the point of Santayana’s warning. Santayana was telling us to see our own actions in the most critical light so as to serve as a self-warning, not to excuse and justify past actions despite their horrible nature.

    Of course the same exhibit didn’t mention the Japanese rape of Nanking or the Japanese mock trial and execution of 3 Doolittle raiders (Lts Dean Hallmark and William Farrow and Sgt Harold Spatz).

    Why should it have? It was an exhibit on the Enola Gay, not on China or the Doolittle raid. What if Japan set up an exhibit on the Rape of Nanjing, but prominently featured kiosks on The Washington Treaty (which Japan claims was a reason for it to later expand) and the atomic bombings? Would you find those relevant, or an attempt to justify something that cannot be justified? Are you saying that the people of Hiroshima deserved to be incinerated and poisoned because of Nanjing? How is a military tribunal of combatants in a war relevant to dropping a nuclear weapon on a city? You are, in effect, excusing Hiroshima, justifying it–and in so doing, completely ignoring what Santayana said.

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