American Memory, American Tragedy

Dylan Roof
Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old accused in the June 17 terror attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, SC.

Samuel Loncar on America, past and present

We are what we remember. And what we forget.

Racial murder is not tragic. Oedipus is tragic. Willy Loman is tragic. Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Daniel L. Simmon’s Jr., Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson — their deaths are not tragic. They are outrageous. They are victims of murder. They are a reminder that the Americans who fought to defend the enslavement and oppression of blacks are not a record of history but a present force in society, and their flag waves still.

The true privileged in any society are those who are able to forget. Blacks in America do not have the privilege of forgetting oppression and discrimination. Those in power can sustain the myth of the pastness of the past; those who suffer injustice do not need Faulkner to remind them that the past is not dead. Their present suffering, rooted in a continuous stream of myth-shattering history, tells them it is not even past. At solemn moments of “tragedy” we intone past sins and piously remind ourselves that there is work to be done. Banal platitudes sincerely expressed by the professionally insincere — politicians and media figures — are what we ought to expect. Expressing disappointment or shock at the shallowness or stupidity of people whose careers are predicated either on generating advertising revenue or winning votes bespeaks like-minded opportunism or a soft-headed naiveté, themselves major forces in a media-culture that veers between saccharine sentimentalism and the disgusting exploitation of “tragedies” to sell news.

What is crucial for American identity as both progressives and conservatives understand it is selective memory. Each calcified party ideology is formed by narratives that omit the grievous errors and evils of the party’s — and nation’s — history, highlighting only features and events that conform to its paltry but mobilizing store of historical half-truths. No political party or ideological agenda can possibly sustain its identity while openly acknowledging the most evil aspects of its own history. Best to put that behind us. Forget well enough, and you do not remember your own forgetting, and are put safely beyond the reach of discomfiting memory.

America is the land where history goes to die. Immigrants come to escape and forget a home no longer fit for habitation, seeking to make a new life unaccountable to the old country. This is one of the glories of America. But the past remains unaffected by the aggressive forgetting endemic to American identity. The victims of our forgetting are those for whom memory remains the only source of identity, even if it consists predominantly of suffering and struggle. Forget well enough and you just might make a normal, well-adjusted American. Hold too tightly to the past, whether by intent or necessity, and you are a people apart, able to progress only on the condition of separation from your history.

What policy can prevent the occurrence of murders like those perpetrated by Roof? I leave that question to the politicians. What troubles our society is an entire group of people whose existence and continued oppression are a most unwelcome reminder of America’s original sin for which no baptism of blood can atone. No hand-wringing, rhetorical posturing, or policy measures can possibly “solve” the problem of racism, because “racism” in America is a euphemism for a history of injustice in blatant violation of our founding ideals, the expropriation of people from their native lands to become the property on whose backs liberty and justice for all the whites was established. Racism signals our unwillingness to acknowledge national complicity, to accede to the claims of history.

Those who so loudly and sincerely decry racism when it is convenient to do so are the same who participate in other kinds of willful forgetting, a group from which I do not remove myself. History, not myth, is the only source of accountability for our identity. We all want the privilege of forgetting what we don’t like about the past. It is the profoundly ambiguous nature of America that that privilege of forgetting is so widespread as to represent the national character, yet so incomplete in its availability as to oppress all the more cruelly those people whose lives and history belie or betray our carefully redacted identities.

How do you deal with the civil war, with a history of slavery, with the persistence of oppression? Such questions are, rightly seen, in the same category as: how do you deal with Apartheid if you are South African, or the Holocaust, if you are German? They are questions whose very acknowledgement, if genuine, threatens the core of our constructed identities, revealing the immense fragility, and potential mendacity, of everything we hold dear. In the face of such evil, of such trauma, forgetting is obviously the only course available. Unless we, too, the “we” whose privilege it has been to forget, wish to threaten the undoing of our identity. Such an undoing is only just but there is no question it will be destructive.

So let us continue with the expected posturing, and not trouble ourselves with abstruse questions of historical consciousness, best left to irrelevant scholars. Let us not pretend but let us believe, in all of our manufactured sincerity, that the recent killings are merely isolated “tragedies,” let us not hope but be convinced that they tell no larger story that might not only indict but demolish our pleasant conception of America. What alternative do we have, if justice be so costly that we are not ensured survival after it has run its course? How tragic it would be, to lose our forgettings and be confronted with an irremovable past, with evil whose resolution would unmake our partisan fantasies and mock our self-righteous condemnations. Let’s wash our hands of memory and dip into the well of racial guilt only at the next “tragedy,” and by all means let us never consider a course of thought and action which could cause real suffering to the myth of American identity. Ernest Renan said, “Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation and it is for this reason that progress in historical studies often poses a threat to nationality . . . Unity is always brutally established.” In this sense, America is the nation par excellence.

If America is the land of forgetting, what would it do to us to remember who we really are? To learn the answer, we would have to ask all those people and groups who can never forget, who have no recourse to myth. Of that course of action, we are in no real danger. That is the American tragedy.


Samuel Loncar is the Editor-in-Chief of Marginalia Review of Books and the founder of Persephone Consulting. His work links science, religion, and values through an integrative vision of philosophy as a site of freedom and innovation. His scholarship has been published in philosophy and religion journals, including Kant-Studien, Metaphilosophy and Religious Studies. A Junior Fellow at Yale’s MacMillan Center Initiative on Religion, Politics, and Society, he writes about technology, culture, art, and the humanities and specializes in the history and intersection of philosophy, theology, and metaphysics; theories of religion, science, and the secular; and the nexus of Christianity, Judaism, and German thought. Tweets @SamuelLoncar.

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