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The Memory of Good and the Future of the United States

by Craig Palmer

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”—Martin Luther King Jr.1

Humans talk about the past to influence the future. Memory is the mechanism that makes this process possible, and the content of memory sets the course of the future. Gariwo holds that the “memory of good”2 can lead to a better future. Building upon The Righteous Among the Nations’ concept, Gariwo conceptualizes “good” as being defined by an individual’s behaviour (e.g., risking one’s own life to save the life of someone else). The memory of an individual’s good behaviour is powerful because it can morally elevate future generations to care for others selflessly. As the title implies, Gariwo’s unique contribution has been to expand the concept of the Righteous from non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust to individuals who performed similar acts of selfless courage worldwide. However, this worldwide focus implies that individuals in all parts of the world have also engaged in bad behaviour, such as human rights violations.

The Fourth International Meeting of the Gariwo Network: “Knowing the World, Rethinking Memory”3 reminded me of the importance of Gariwo’s “memory of good.” Listening from my home in the United States, I was struck by how much of my country’s widening political divide is a disagreement over “what kind of memory is needed today.”2 Unfortunately, both sides of the political chasm in the United States strive to impose a memory fundamentally different from Gariwo’s concept of the “memory of good.” There are also signs that both political parties are putting forth memories of American history capable of transforming the United States into a Totalitarian State.3 Political leaders attempt to circumvent the checks and balances designed to limit their power. Academia prohibits opinions that deviate from a narrow political dogma, and there is growing political censorship of the internet by a handful of people. Both ends of the political spectrum are also becoming more violent. Thus, it is important to carefully evaluate the competing memories of American history as they strive to determine the future of the United States.

The political right’s memory of American history: “Make America Great Again”

Both the political right and left have condensed their memories of American history into opposed slogans. The political right’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” implies a memory of American history primarily as a sequence of positive acts that have recently been curtailed. This memory’s focus on positive actions sounds similar to Gariwo’s “memory of good.” There is, however, a fundamental difference between the two memories. Instead of defining “good” by behaviour, the political right’s memory of American history defines “good” largely by membership in the social category “American.”

Members of the category “American” are considered good because they are responsible for the positive acts during American history. The implicit category “non-American” is remembered largely as attempting to prevent America from being great, whether through foreign wars, terrorism, or illegal immigration. Thus, memory based on the premise that America is great leads some on the political right to assume that non-Americans are likely to be bad. In this memory, most of the Americans remembered tend to be white males, and other potential sub-categories of Americans defined by race and gender tend to be downplayed or ignored.

The political right’s memory of America as an interaction between two social categories is perhaps most evident in the calls to build a wall separating good Americans from bad non-Americans. Of course, far from being a unique view of one’s country, this concept of good and bad is probably found in all nations to varying degrees.

The political left’s memory of American history: “Two, Four, Six, Eight, America Was Never Great”

America’s political right often accuses the political left of wanting to “erase American history,” by which they mean erase the memory of America as a sequence of positive events. Initially, the right used this phrase to describe leftists toppling the statues of confederate leaders from the American Civil War, and later the statues of other prominent figures from American history such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The phrase has also been used to describe the political left’s calls to remove certain American’s research from university courses. The political right also calls movements to end holidays such as Columbus Day and Thanksgiving attempts to erase American history. All of these acts by the political left might eventually lead to the targeted people and events disappearing from the memory of future generations. This would be a serious matter because such erasing of history can contribute to the formation of a totalitarian state. However, for now, the phrase “erasing American history” to describe the political left’s actions is a misnomer.

Far from erasing American history, the political left’s actions are designed to draw as much attention as possible to specific events in American history. Thus, neither political party wants to erase American history from memory; they just disagree over “what kind of memory is needed today.” Both sides are focused on memory because they are aware of how profoundly the memory of American history can influence the future of the United States.

To a large extent, the memory of American history championed by the political left is the mirror image of the memory put forth by the political right. While the political right remembers American history as a sequence of advances, the political left strives to instill a memory of American history as a sequence of atrocities, focusing primarily on slavery and the genocide of the indigenous population. However, the political left’s memory of American history replaces the political right’s two social categories of “American” and “non-American” with intersectionality. In this memory, an individual American’s membership in several overlapping types of social categories such as race, class, sexual orientation, and gender determines that individual’s relative goodness or badness. In the left’s memory of American history, the worst category is probably “white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, male” because the left feels this category committed the most human rights violations.

Are “good” and “bad” properties of an individual’s behavior or social category?

Underlying the differences between the memories of American history put forth by the political right and left is a shared assumption. Both memories assume that a person’s social category determines if the person is good or bad. Thus, the concept of good in both of these memories is profoundly different from Gariwo’s concept of good as used in the phrase the “memory of good,” because Gariwo’s concept of good is based on an individual’s behavior.

One can see this difference if they consider how the right and left might evaluate the five Americans awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations. The political right would consider the five people good because they are Americans, and they might view them as even better than the Righteous from other nations. However, some members of the right might feel that the Righteous should have saved other Americans instead of non-Americans. In contrast, the political left would consider the five people racist because they are white. Further, the left might think the title of Righteous Among the Nations is racist because the vast majority of those awarded this title have been white. The political left might also point out that the vast majority of the individuals rescued by the Righteous Among the Nations were white, suggesting that the Righteous thought white lives were the only lives worth saving.

Conclusion

The stakes in the struggle to impose a specific memory of American history are high because future scenarios nearly inconceivable a few years ago are now serious possibilities. Some Americans even talk about splitting the United States into two countries. Assuming that the United States remains united, there are indications that whichever political party ascends to enduring power may become totalitarian in their suppression of the opposition. On the other hand, the United States may dissolve into globalism so different from the current reality that it is difficult to imagine. Regardless of what form the future takes, it may be too much to hope that future individuals will be judged by their behaviour instead of their social category. However, I hope the future includes a “memory of good” in the sense of individuals making selfless acts of kindness toward other individuals.

Notes

1https://www.cbsnews.com/news/mlks-content-of-character-quote-inspires-debate/

2 The memory of good unifies remembrance cultures in Europe. By Gabriele Nissim https://en.gariwo.net/editorials/the-memory-of-good-unifies-remembrance-cultures-in-europe-8334.html

3 https://en.gariwo.net/education/memory/knowing-the-world-rethinking-memory-22736.html

Craig Palmer, anthropologist

Analysis by

3 December 2020

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