This is the second in a series of posts.
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Part One: The American Way of Remembering (2)
[. . .] we whites seem curiously unwilling to shoulder any responsibility for our own part in racial inequity. If we’re so concerned about “personal responsibility,” shouldn’t we show more?
—Nicholas Kristof, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 7” (NY Times 10/2/16)
We both detested the war [. . . but] both knew that if Hitler was responsible, he wasn’t as important as he was made out to be and he hadn’t invented himself without help.
—Léon Werth, 33 Days, translated by Austin Denis Johnston (Brooklyn & London: Melville House Publishing, 2015, p. 13)
Léon Werth, a French Jew who fled from Paris with his wife and daughter when the conquering Germans approached the city early in World War II, wrote what became the book 33 Days during that time of flight, when he and his family were refugees in their own country. In the line above Werth is speaking for himself and a friend he made along the way—a farmer who earned Werth’s gratitude by granting him and his family genuine hospitality along their way, and whose open, discerning, and honest thoughtfulness also earned Werth’s respect.
Werth and his new friend saw that it was no more than a subterfuge to blame all the destruction of that war on the single figure of Hitler, who “hadn’t invented himself without help,” and was therefore not the only one responsible. They understood that at least a good part of the reason Hitler was being “made out to be” so important was so that those who helped make Hitler possible were could thereby hide—even, and perhaps most of all, from themselves—their own responsibility.
The same basic thing is also at issue in the citation above from Nicholas Kristof, about racism in the United States: The avoidance of responsibility. Such avoidance can take the form of shirking one’s own responsibility by hiding behind some figure who has been “made out to be” much more important. But it can also take the form of projecting one’s own failure to assume one’s own responsibility onto those less fortunate than oneself. Either way, the effect is the same. Both are handy devices for denying one’s own responsibility—for refusing to remember what one has done, and hold oneself accountable for it.
In addition, all too often such slogans as “Always remember!” or “Never forget!” are employed in the same way: to create a sheer pretence of remembering that actually does dis-service to all genuine remembrance. Similarly, all too often, “official” memorials supposedly erected to honormemory actually dishonor it in just such a way. All too often, they just piss on all genuine, spontaneous memorialization, the same way that, as Jeff Chan recounts in the citation with which I began this series of posts, one cop let his dog piss on the memorials that sprang up spontaneously on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, where another cop had killed unarmed Michael Green. To borrow Chan’s way of putting it, they practice that same “American way of remembering.”
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To be continued.