George Santanya’s well-worn adage that “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it” is uncontroversial, and the jewel of any prospective history student’s personal statement. Contemporary politics is not short of reminders that our collective memory of historical events wields immense influence in the present. From the resonance of ‘make America great again’ to the application of the war-time ‘keep calm and…’ slogan to exiting the European Union, there appears to be nothing like nostalgia to get people voting.
However, the controversy caused by Oriel College’s decision to retain their statue of Cecil Rhodes, and the entry of ‘Mein Kampf’ into the public domain after decades of copyright regulation have demonstrated that the question of how we should approach our histories remains very much open. The varying attitudes of different societies, such as the illegality of Holocaust denial in Germany, echo the fundamentally subjective nature of interpreting the past and deciding its relevance to the present. The overwhelming nature of genocides and mass conflicts also leave us at a loss, trying to process suffering we cannot hope to comprehend. This intractable social problem seems to leave us fumbling in the dark for a constructive mode of remembrance and acknowledgement. Nonetheless, finding an appropriate place for history in social and political dialogues is urgent for those who live with legacies of oppression and suffering.
Our vocabulary of commemoration masks dangerous ignorance
We have a defined vocabulary of commemoration, oddly placing the ‘Bonfire Night’ Gunpowder Plot alongside the Armistice, Martin Luther King’s birthday, and the Holocaust. Through accident and intention, every ten-year-old knows the endlessly fascinating factoid that Henry VIII had six wives and that Churchill was keen to fight them on the beaches, but not that the latter oversaw a famine in India which killed three million people. If our collective memory is somewhat arbitrary, how should we decide which events demand to be treated specially? Clearly common-sense distinctions can be made, that genocides and conflicts should be kept somehow present for the sake of education and human recognition. Beyond this sweeping definition, rightly, few can claim to quantify or dismiss the experiences of others. Even fewer are willing to claim responsibility for the actions of their ancestors, even if they enjoy the consequences. More sinisterly, the white-washing and imperial apologism of history curriculums hints that such decisions are made by those in power and imposed upon society with little possibility of informed or open discussion.
In the absence of a universal standard of notability, we should look to the practical effects social forgetfulness has in people’s lives. Neither accident nor intention can be allowed to obscure the more uncomfortable parts of history, because this helps perpetuate the suffering of those who still live within the ramifications of colonisations and genocides which occurred centuries ago. On the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation in 2010, the Native American community suffered an unemployment rate that fluctuated between 85% and 90%, a rate of Tuberculosis incidence eight times the U.S. national average, a teacher turnover rate eight times the national average, and a life expectancy of between 46 and 48 years for men. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has used the name ‘Pocahontas’ as a term of disparagement towards Senator Elizabeth Warren, showing the typical disregard for Native American heritage that perpetuates inequality and racism. Whilst it is true that we cannot go back and fix mistakes made in the past, it is essential that leaders do not flinch away from uncomfortable legacies. Historical literacy and sensitivity can help leaders frame issues from indigenous peoples to conflict resolution more effectively.
Neither accident nor intention can be allowed to obscure the more uncomfortable parts of history
Even if history seems to be an odd and challenging addition to current social and political dialogues, it is too influential to ignore. If governments and traditionally dominant social groups are allowed to determine collective historical memory without open discussion, inequalities and privileges built on the bones of conquest can never be questioned and tackled when they affect people alive today. If not, silence looks an awful lot like tacit condonation.
Therefore, it is more important than ever that those who purpose the past for their own ends are questioned constructively, and that we are willing to confront the uncomfortable gaps and comfortable fictions in our national consciousness.