Remembering the Third Reich American Style (1)

This is the first in a series of posts.

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Part One: The American Way of Remembering (1)

One cop walked his dog over to the memorial that [Lesley] McSpadden had made for her son [Michael Brown, killed by another cop who’d pulled the teen-ager over for walking improperly on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014] and let it pee on the flowers and candles. After the rest of the policemen got into their vehicles to leave, car by car they rolled over what was left of the memorial. In the days to come, these memorials to Michael Brown Jr. would be destroyed over and over, as if to say, This is the American way of remembering.

—Jeff Chang, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (Picador, 2016)


Continuing compulsively to repeat something over and over again is oneway never to forget it. If by “always remembering” we mean nothing more or less than just “never forgetting,” then such compulsive repetition is a fail-proof way of assuring ourselves that we will always remember.

By steadfastly refusing ever to become aware of what we are doing in the first place, we guarantee that we will never forget it. We can only forget what we have once allowed to come into our awareness. So if we simply refuse ever to get clear about just what it is we are really doing, we never have to worry about forgetting it either. Such memory manifests as compulsive repetition.

All that’s needed for the practice of that form of remembering is the cultivation of stupidity. By the definition that has long been my favorite, “stupidity” is “willful ignorance.” So defined, stupidity is not just not knowing something, which is the literal, etymological meaning of the term ignorance—from Latin ignorantem, “not knowing,” the present participle of ignorare, “not to know, not to be acquainted with, to take no notice of, pay no attention to,” itself deriving from in-, in the sense of “not,” plus Old Latin gnarus, “aware, acquainted with.”

There are various possible reasons for ignorance, for not knowing, as such. That includes something being “hidden in plain sight,” so that we need someone or something else to call our attention to it before we notice it, like the glasses on our face we keep searching for until someone finally points out to us that we’re wearing them.

Many years ago, when I was only 15, I went with my parents to Germany one summer, to visit my older brother, who at that time stationed in Frankfurt as a volunteer in the U.S. Army. Because I had taught myself some German in preparation for the trip, I became the designated family translator. On one occasion, my father needed something from the drug store, and I went with him to do any translation that might prove necessary. Standing right in front of the pharmacy counter, my father asked me to ask the pharmacist for whatever it was my father wanted. I did so, in my limited German. But then the pharmacist answered in fluent English. My father looked at me inquiringly, waiting for my translation. As my exasperation began to mount, I repeated exactly what the pharmacist had just said, using the same English words. My father then gave me some more to say to the waiting pharmacist. My exasperation burst out as I responded, “You tell him! He’s speaking English!” My father just smiled at his own ignorance, and took things from there.

That remains for me to this day a fond memory of my father, and of the gracefulness with which one can respond when one finds that one has gotten bent down just a bit, even despite all one’s own perfectly innocent intentions.

Such innocent ignorance is not the only kind, however.

There is also the sort of ignorance that is rooted in the desire not to know, because what is all too clearly there to be known does not happen to accord with what one would like to be true. It is the sort of cherished ignorance that insists, against all opposition and despite all evidence to the contrary, that what actually is the case is precisely what one wants to be the case, because that would serve one’s own selfish wants, desires, or needs (including especially the need always to think highly of oneself, despite all one’s misdeeds, failures, or vices). There is no innocence to ignorance of such a sort, as there was innocence in my father’s sort of ignorance. It is willful ignorance, the product of wanting not to know.

That is what I mean by “stupidity”: just such willful ignorance.

Precisely because it is so willful, such stupidity also has nothing to do with lacking intelligence. In fact, my own experience throughout my life is that intelligence actually makes such stupidity easier. That’s because intelligence is useful for discovering more and more ways to avoid coming to know what one does not want to know. In general, the more intelligent one is, the craftier one can become, including crafty in the ways of hiding oneself from oneself.

Stupidity, willful ignorance, is back of the American way of remembering, as Chan describes it in the passage with which I began.

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To be continued.