Those Who Cannot Remember
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.