Book Review: David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting

David Rieff is not the only writer discussing the current history-memory “boom” to propose that “forgetting” might have some social advantages over “remembering.” His book, In Praise of Forgetting, published earlier this year, is the most recent in a genre of literature that asks us to fine tune our assumptions that more knowledge of the past offers liberation or healing.

Reiff’s book is a complex reflection on matters of memory. Early in the book he cites Ecclesiastes 1:11 (“No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them”), alerting us to the possibility that all efforts to uphold memory and history imply an unfounded romanticism about the enduring value of the past.   But this is not Reiff’s real point, for he recognizes that human beings order their experience around memory and history, even if such efforts turn out to be shortlived.

Neither is Reiff questioning the importance of addressing war crimes in the immediate aftermath of conflict, especially crimes that were kept secret by a regime. That said, he recognizes that the longer the delay in revealing such secrets, the less satisfying is apology, or by implication, redress.

In arguing for less memory rather than more, Rieff underlines that ending impunity can sometimes have negative consequences, which, he says, is contrary to the message spread these days by the human rights establishment. His case in point is the Dayton agreement, ending the Bosnian war of 1992-1995. A “just” ending of the war would have meant prolonging the war. The decision to allow Bosnian Serbs to retain most of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina they had seized through “ethnic cleansing” was a recognition that the best was the enemy of the good: ending the war was a more important goal than achieving true justice.

Reiff’s main target is collective memory – the process by which groups assert social identification – and the romanticism and nostalgia that this has created in Israel, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Armenia, to name a few. Collective memory is a product of social and political forces, and therefore is never a truly accurate rendition of what actually occurred in the past. Reiff argues that collective memory is usually false and often dangerous.

This argument pushes back against a late twentieth century tide of interest in collective memory that Rieff understands well. He captures the way that the Holocaust has elevated “memory” or “remembrance” to a form of justice. This is understandable in the face of an event where almost no justice in the legal sense of the word was possible.

Likewise, Rieff captures the way that the translation of Maurice Halbwach’s book Collective Memory into English from the original French in the 1980s provided new openings for exploration of the power of group memory in society.   Halbwachs’ book, first published in 1925, has been used to legitimize the validity of substate group identifications in an era when the power of the state to define national identity has been on the wane.

Rieff also captures the ongoing discussion about the difference between history and memory. Today memory, the living remembrances of individuals, has won the preferred position over history, the written record that remains after all who lived through the events have passed on. Thus story telling, even if not vetted for its objectivity or fact-based rendering, has moved center stage in current culture. And concerns about accuracy, whether in such movies as Selma and The Imitation Game, or even in some local history endeavors, have been reduced to second place.

In the face of conflicting tides and whirlpools of debate that feed the memory boom, Reiff cuts through the sentimentality about collective memory. The political purposes that hold memory hostage and the illusions that collective memory produces do indeed raise the question whether the caché currently accorded all memory is such a good thing. As Reiff proposes, in a number of cases Santayana’s aphorism that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” may well have become displaced as a moral imperative by Nietzsche’s “active forgetting.”

But forgetting is not easy to bring about, especially in our era of democratized communication. Moreover, memory is an important source of meaning making in rapidly changing times such as those we live in. The question whether we can find a morality of memory to fit our age is one that Rieff only partially examines. He does not reference the literature of forgiveness or restorative justice. But he does propose that we cut through the cant in the exploration of this important area of human experience.




























It could be that the rapid in which we live enlivens our interest in memory because we feel the need to anchor our sense of things and impose meaning on a world that challenges previous definitions. in the 1 believed that collective memory supported our hope for progress. Margalit expanded on this idea: memory, he said, allows us to hope that all is not meaningless.


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In the peacebuilding world, we have long recognized the short term inter-relationship between peace and justice in post-war countries – that more of one implies less of the other. Another aphorism that reigns in post-conflict peacebuilding is that one the long term you cannot have true and lasting peace without justice. This latter proposition, argues David Rieff, comes from the human rights community, whose endeavors are framed with reference to the law. The call for justice is a call for remembering, to the point that remembrance is at often synonymized with justice. And certainly, in the immediate aftermath of war crimes, justice cannot be side-stepped.


But Reiff raises the question whether the human rights community has served us well.

All-or-nothing thinking

Several talented writers commenting on the mood of our times speak of the poisonous effects of “dualism,” which we popularly refer to as “all-or-nothing thinking.”

Much of the time we hold conflicting ideas in our minds successfully. This is how we retain a sense of reality in a complex and contradictory world.

But when the complexity becomes too great, we shift into a different gear as we search for simpler forms of understanding. At such times, we tend to characterize some people as “good” and others as “bad,” some ideas as “always true” and other ideas as “always false.”

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, formerly chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the [British] Commonwealth, in his book Not in God’s Name, describes this state of mind as one when “cognitive dissonance becomes unbearable, and when the world as it is, is simply too unlike the world as we believe it ought to be.” “Pathological dualism,” he says, is a mindset that divides human begins between the totally good and the totally bad. This makes it much easier to commit violence against other people.

But even if we don’t behave violently, most of us recognize that, when faced with opaque complexity, frustration, or deep uncertainty, we become more dogmatic and more simplistic in our thinking. Freud described this state of mind by coining the terms “splitting” and “projection.” In order to feel that we live in a more ordered universe, we split our inner reality, hanging on dogmatically to those parts that we prefer, and projecting the parts that we dislike onto others.

In our world that is so heavily reliant on the messaging of the media, we are subjected to an increasing number of assertive claims that emphasize simplistic, all-or-nothing thinking.   Along with the complex uncertainty that has entered our lives through recent crises, media-defined all-or-nothing discourse itself contributes to the frenzied, oppositional way in which things are being cast right now.

With social media determining so much of our communication, it is hard to see how this can be avoided, but it raises the question whether there are ways to capture and broadcast the complexity that offers a closer approximation of the truth. President Barack Obama attempted this on Tuesday, when he spoke at the memorial service in Dallas for the five police officers slain at Saturday’s peaceful protest. He sensitively captured the pain of black families who have been the recipients of police abuses, while at the same time honoring the vital role of the police in keeping us safe. He suggested that responding with our hearts is the way to overcome dualist thinking. His message of the heart was repeated by CNN correspondent Van Jones, in an interview with Black Lives Matter that was picked up by The Peace Alliance:

“Everybody’s got to reach deep down and find some empathy. If you cried for the brother who bled out next to his fiancée, but you didn’t cry this morning for those police officers, it’s time to do a heart check. If you cried for those police officers, but you have a hard time taking seriously all these videos that are coming out about African Americans dying, it’s time to do a heart check. We are either going to come together or come apart. There’s enough pain on both sides that there should be some empathy starting to kick in.”

If dualism is a problem, paradox is to be welcomed, says Catholic priest and author, Richard Rohr. Rohr points out that most spiritual “truth” has a paradoxical character. The dualistic mind, he says, calls things it doesn’t understand “wrong.” To understand, says Rohr, means to “stand under” and “let things have their way with you.” Understanding, says Rohr, means preparing our minds for the moment when they can discover a willingness to shift and change. This is an expansion of consciousness, a creative act, that allows us to see the world differently.