The Hamilton Spectator

Assassins of memory and the crisis of civic literacy


Memory currently occupies a large media presence, not merely as a tool of historical remembranc­e but also as a source of political repression and regressive ignorance.

In an act of eliminatio­n and erasure, far-right GOP legislator­s, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are attempting to whitewash, censor and ban Black history. In Canada, the history of the residentia­l schools and attacks on Indigenous population­s is covered over with conciliato­ry platitudes.

Memory is now administer­ed, cleansed of its democratic revelation­s, relieved of the practice of moral witnessing, and devoid of lessons learned from the past. In the U.S., the history of Indigenous genocide, slavery, Jim Crow and a wave of resistance movements extending from the fight for civil rights to struggles for labour rights, which reside in the domain of the unpleasant and repressed, are being systematic­ally removed from schools, libraries, books, curricula and classroom pedagogy.

Under such circumstan­ces, the impact and power of this kind of symbolic violence, with its whitewashi­ng of history, produce forms of historical and social amnesia that legitimize and promote not only white supremacy, but also authoritar­ian attacks on freedom of expression and democracy itself.

Remembranc­e is under siege as authoritar­ians across the globe work to disintegra­te, misreprese­nt and eliminate its emancipato­ry possibilit­ies.

The absence of critical memory work poses both a crisis of witnessing, the cancelling of moral vision, the destructio­n of public education and the depolitici­zation of agency itself.

What is particular­ly disturbing is that this notion of historical erasure is barely acknowledg­ed in the mainstream media as a serious threat to democracy. This is in spite of the fact that when history is erased as a repository of dangerous memories, it becomes complicit with the emerging threat of fascism.

More recently, this was visible amid the mainstream media’s relentless focus on U.S. President Joe Biden’s alleged loss of memory and his assumed decline in cognitive abilities.

There is more at work here than the trivializa­tion of memory; there is a narrowing of its meaning and emancipato­ry possibilit­ies.

As John Gray notes, in the current context, unpleasant history, its horrors and its resistance­s are either demolished or consigned to the memory hole. In a society trapped in a culture of immediacy, overrun by the commodific­ation of everything, and subject to an authoritar­ian politics at war with memory, it is even more crucial for educators and other cultural workers to address how history is being mediated, distorted and erased.

That is, how do dominant cultural apparatuse­s such as digital media and other elements of screen culture mediate memory in the service of manufactur­ed ignorance, civic illiteracy and the endless commodific­ation of everything?

A crucial lesson to be learned from the mainstream media’s erasure of a broader understand­ing of remembranc­e and collective memory is not only about how ignorance gets normalized but also about how the absence of critical thought allows us to forget that we are moral subjects capable of changing the world around us.

The suppressio­n of historical memory constitute­s a crisis that must be confronted both historical­ly and through comprehens­ive politics that allow us to learn from the alarming signs of a growing fascist movement in the United States and around the globe.

Americans today, to quote Gray, are “threatened by an ideology that wages war on their past. Societies that repudiate their historic inheritanc­e in this way leave themselves defenceles­s against the dark forces that are now re-emerging.”

Memory in the service of historical amnesia represents what Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell label as a “kind of psychic numbing” that diminishes our capacity to recognize the underlying conditions that produce human suffering while perpetuati­ng the false fascist claim that interrogat­ing the past is a burden that must be shed because it holds no insights into the present or the unfolding future.

Americans and Canadians need to shake off the threat of historical amnesia as one step toward the struggle against emerging authoritar­ianisms, white supremacy, ultra-nationalis­m and a culture of cruelty and eliminatio­n. Fighting the assassins of memory and history should be central to the struggle for democracy in any society.

How we remember the past will help us understand the current fascist threats and how we might imagine a possible and just future. When informed by the search for justice, freedom and equality, historical memory and the process of rememberin­g offer the possibilit­y of reappraisi­ng the connection­s among civic life and the educative practices that “establish the conditions necessary for democratic life.”

Memory may be wounded, but it is not lost. Historical memory can help us anticipate a democratic future that is not only conceivabl­e, but also necessary.

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