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Forget & Forgive?

In response to:

President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation—II from the November 19, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

“America is famously ahistorical,” President Obama tells Marilynne Robinson. “That’s one of our strengths—we forget things,” he adds, noting the murderous consequences of age-old enmities elsewhere [“A Conversation in Iowa, Part Two,” NYR, November 19, 2015]. Obama was not the first president to admire amnesia. Americans should forget Vietnam, urged George H.W. Bush in his inaugural address, for “no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory.” From ancient Athens on, statesmen have enjoined oblivion—forgetting and hence forgiving divisive grievances—for the sake of national unity.

But the American penchant for ignoring or, more often, anachronizing the past to support current causes has spawned baleful perversions of history. Long forgotten was slavery’s prime role as the Civil War’s cause. Still forgotten, as Obama remarks, was the Founders’ rationale for separating church from state. Likewise forgotten is their view that the Constitution be not set in stone but periodically revised.

Obsessive preoccupation with bygone triumphs or tragedies substitutes fables of glory or victimization for the checkered pasts we actually inherit. Yet we remain accountable for the whole of our collective pasts. German memory with Goethe but without the Nazis would be unpardonable, American memory with Lincoln but without slavery incomprehensible. The psychic cost of repressing traumatic memory can be as crippling for nations as for individuals. History is often hard to digest. But it must be swallowed whole to undeceive the present and inform the future.

David Lowenthal
Emeritus Professor
Department of Geography
University College London
London, England