History, Memory, and Forgetting Part 3: The Backlash Against Remembering

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

—Milan Kundera The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

I had drafted the first two installments of this three-part series of posts and was working on this one when the news of the discovery of the remains of 215 indigenous children on the grounds of a former residential school in BC broke. I paused for a day or two, uncertain of whether I wanted to talk about it here, in the context of my broader theme of history, memory, and forgetting. Part of my hesitation is I honestly lack the words for what is a shocking but utterly unsurprising revelation.

I must also confess that, to my shame, one of my first thoughts was the dread certainty that we’d soon be treated to some tone-deaf and historically ignorant column from the likes of Rex Murphy or Conrad Black or any one of the coterie of residential school apologists. So far however the usual suspects seem to be steering clear of this particular story; possibly the concrete evidence of so much death and suffering perpetrated by white turnkeys in the name of “civilizing” Native children is a bridge too far even for Murphy and Black et al’s paeans to Western civilization and white Canada’s munificence.

What I’m talking about in this third post of three is remembering as a political act: more specifically, of making others remember aspects of our history that they may not want to accept or believe. Scouting as I did for anything trying to ameliorate or excuse or explain away this evidence of the residential schools’ inhumanity,[1] I found my way to a 2013 Rex Murphy column that might just be the epitome of the genre, as one gleans from its title: “A Rude Dismissal of Canada’s Generosity.” In Murphy’s telling, in this column as in other of his rants and writings, conditions for Native Canadians in the present day are a vast improvement over historical circumstances, but the largesse of white Canadians and the government is something our indigenous populations perversely deny at every turn. He writes: “At what can be called the harder edges of native activism, there is a disturbing turn toward ugly language, a kind of razor rhetoric that seeks to cut a straight line between the attitudes of a century or a century and a half ago and the extraordinarily different attitudes that prevail today.”

“Attitudes” is the slippery word there: outside of unapologetically anti-indigenous and racist enclaves, I doubt you’d have difficulty finding white Canadians who did not piously agree that the exploitation and abuse of our indigenous peoples was a terrible thing. You’d have a much harder time finding anyone willing to do anything concrete about it, such as restoring the land we cite in land acknowledgments to its ancestral people. Attitudes, on the balance, have indeed improved, but that has had little effect on Native peoples’ material circumstances. And in his next paragraph, Murphy seems intent on demonstrating that not all attitudes have, in fact, improved:

From native protestors and spokespeople there is a vigorous resort to current radical jargon—referring to Canadians as colonialist, as settlers, as having a settler’s mentality. Though it is awkward to note, there is a play to race in this, a conscious effort to ground all issues in the allegedly unrepentant racism of the “settler community.” This is an effort to force-frame every dispute in the tendentious framework of the dubious “oppression studies” and “colonial theory” of latter-day universities.

And there it is—the “radical jargon” that seeks to remember. Referring to Canadians as colonialist settlers isn’t radical, nor is it jargon, but is a simple point of fact—and indeed, for decades history textbooks referred to settlers as brave individuals and the colonizing of Canada as a proud endeavour, necessarily eliding the genocidal impact on the peoples already inhabiting the “new world.” Murphy’s vitriol is, essentially, denialism: denying that our racist and oppressive history doesn’t linger on in a racist present. He speaks for an unfortunately large demographic of white Canada that is deeply invested in a whitewashed history, and reacts belligerently when asked to remember things otherwise.

This is a phenomenon we see playing out on a larger scale to the south, most recently with a substantial number of Republican-controlled state legislatures introducing bills that would forbid schools from teaching any curricula suggesting that the U.S. is a racist country, that it has had a racist history, or really anything that suggests racism is systemic and institutional rather than an individual failing. The bogeyman in much of the proposed legislation is “critical race theory.” Like Rex Murphy’s sneering characterization of “latter-day universities” offering degrees in “oppression studies” (not actually a thing), critical race theory is stigmatized as emerging from the university faculty lounge as part and parcel of “cultural Marxism’s” sustained assault on the edifices of Western civilization.[2] While critical race theory did indeed emerge from the academy, it was (and is) a legal concept developed by legal scholars like Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw[3] in the 1970s and 80s. As Christine Emba notes, “It suggests that our nation’s history of race and racism is embedded in law and public policy, still plays a role in shaping outcomes for Black Americans and other people of color, and should be taken into account when these issues are discussed.” As she further observes, it has a clear and quite simple definition, “one its critics have chosen not to rationally engage with.”

Instead, critical race theory is deployed by its critics to connote militant, illiberal wokeism in a manner, to again quote Emba, that is “a psychological defense, not a rational one”—which is to say, something meant to evoke suspicion and fear rather than thought. The first and third words of the phrase, after all, associate it with elite liberal professors maundering in obscurantist jargon, with which they indoctrinate their students into shrill social justice warriors. (The slightly more sophisticated attacks will invoke such bêtes noir of critical theory as Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida[4]).

But again, the actual concept is quite simple and straightforward: racism is systemic, which should not be such a difficult concept to grasp when you consider, for example, how much of the wealth produced in the antebellum U.S. was predicated on slave labour, especially in the production of cotton—something that also hugely benefited the northern free states, whose textile mills profitably transformed the raw cotton into cloth. Such historical realities, indeed, were the basis for the 1619 Project, the New York Times’ ambitious attempt to reframe American history through the lens of race—arguing that the true starting-point of America was not with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but when the first African slaves set foot on American soil in 1619.

The premise is polemical by design, and while some historians took issue with some of the claims made, the point of the project was an exercise in remembering aspects of a national history that have too frequently been elided, glossed over, or euphemized. In my previous post, I suggested that the forgetting of the history of Nazism and the Holocaust—and its neutering through the overdeterminations of popular culture—has facilitated the return of authoritarian and fascistic attitudes. Simultaneously, however, it’s just as clear that this revanchist backsliding in the United States has as much to do with remembering. The reactionary crouch inspired by the tearing down of Confederate monuments isn’t about “erasing history,” but remembering it properly: remembering that Robert E. Lee et al were traitors to the United States and were fighting first and foremost to maintain the institution of slavery. Apologists for the Confederacy aren’t wrong when they say that the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights,” they’re just eliding the fact that the principal “right” being fought for above all others was the right to enslave Black people. All one needs to do to clarify this particular point is to read the charters and constitutions of the secessionist states, all of which make the supremacy of the white race and the inferiority of Africans their central tenet. The Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declared that the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy was that “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis, Tennessee

Bringing down Confederate monuments isn’t erasure—it’s not as if Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest disappear from the history books because people no longer see their bronze effigies in parks and town squares—but the active engagement with history. That was also the case with the erection of such monuments, albeit in a more pernicious manner: the vast majority were put up in the 1920s and 1950s, both of which were periods when white Americans felt compelled to remind Black Americans of their subordinate place by memorializing those who had fought so bloodily to retain chattel slavery. Like the Confederate battle flag, these monuments were always already signifiers of white supremacy, though that fact has been systematically euphemized with references to “southern tradition,” and of course the mantra of states’ rights.

Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee in Gettysburg (1993)

Once when I was still in grad school and had gone home to visit my parents for a weekend, I was up late watching TV, thinking about going to bed, and while flipping channels happened across a film set during the Civil War. It was about halfway through, but I stayed up watching until it was done. The story was compelling, the acting was really good, and the battle scenes were extremely well executed. The film was Gettysburg, which had been released in 1993. It had a huge cast, including Jeff Daniels and Sam Elliott, and Martin Sheen as General Robert E. Lee. Because I’d only seen the second half, I made a point of renting it so I could watch the entire thing.

Gettysburg is a well-made film with some great performances, and is very good at pushing emotional buttons. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s (Jeff Daniels) bayonet charge down Little Round Top is a case in point:

I’m citing Gettysburg here because it is one of the most perfect examples of how deeply the narrative of the Lost Cause became rooted in the American imagination. The Lost Cause, for the uninitiated, is the ongoing project, begun just after the end of the Civil War, to recuperate and whitewash (pun intended) the Confederacy and the antebellum South. Its keynotes include the aforementioned insistence that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery but states’ rights; its foregrounding of cultured and genteel Southern gentlemen and women; depictions of slaves (when depicted at all) as happy spiritual-singing fieldhands under the benevolent supervision of the mastah; Northerners as rapacious carpetbaggers who proceeded to despoil everything good and noble about the South in the years following the war; and the war itself as a tragic but honourable dispute between sad but dutiful officer classes prosecuting their respective sides’ goals not in anger but sorrow.

This last element is Gettysburg’s connective tissue. Let’s be clear: the film isn’t Southern propaganda like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. It is, indeed, high-minded and even-handed. Martin Sheen—Martin fuckin’ Jed Bartlett Sheen!—plays Robert E. Lee, one of the prime targets of statue removers. But the film is propagandistic: there is, to the best of my recollection, not a single Black character in the film, and slavery as the cause of the conflict is alluded to (again, to the best of my recollection) only once—and then only obliquely.

My point in using this example—I could just as easily have cited Gone With the Wind or Ken Burns’ docuseries The Civil War—is how invidiously the Lost Cause narrative has wormed its way into the American imaginary. It is of a piece with everything else I’ve been talking about in this thee-part series of posts. What novels like The Underground Railroad and historical reckonings like the 1619 Project—as well as the campaign to tear down Confederate monuments—attempt is a kind of radical remembering. And as we see from the ongoing backlash, to remember things differently can be threatening to one’s sense of self and nation.


[1] As I said, none of the usual suspects seems to have advanced an opinion, but there was—not unpredictably—an awful lot of such attempts in the comments sections on articles about the grisly discovery. They ranged from the usual vile racist sentiments one always finds in these digital cesspools, to one person who argued at length that the child mortality rates in residential schools were consonant with child mortality rates in the population at large, nineteenth century hygiene and medicine being what it was. This individual was not undeterred from their thesis in spite of a long-suffering interlocutor who provided stats and links showing that (a) what the person was referencing was infant mortality rates, which is not the same thing; (b) that the death rates in residential schools were actually more egregious in the 1930s and 40s, and (c) that mass burials in unmarked graves without proper records and death certificates spoke to the dehumanization of the Native children on one hand, and the likelihood on the other hand that this indicated that the “teachers” at these schools were reluctant to leave evidence of their abusive treatment.

[2] I will have a lot more to say on this particular misapprehension of “the university faculty lounge” in a future post on the more general misapprehensions of what comprises a humanities degree.

[3] Crenshaw also developed that other concept that triggers conservatives, “intersectionality.”

[4] Stay tuned for my forthcoming post, “The Conspiracy Theory of Postmodernism.”

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