Unthinkable: Is all this remembering such a good idea?

The difference between the reality of the men of 1916 and the way they are being used is ‘enormous’, says David Rieff

Patrick Pearse: as a product of his time he would have “hated” the idea of same-sex marriage.

Suffering from commemoration fatigue? Don’t worry, the decade of centenaries programme has only another six years to run.

What's the point of it all, you might ask yourself. American author and critic David Rieff has been doing just that. His latest book, In Praise of Forgetting, is a timely reminder of the healing power of political amnesia. He is an avid reader of Irish history and literature and has been a regular visitor to Ireland. He observes the current commemorations with mixed feelings.

And 1916 is “the easy one”, he points out wryly. “What are you going to do about 1921?”

From reporting as a journalist on conflicts in Africa, the Balkans and Central Asia in 1990s, Rieff saw how collective memory could be wielded for good or ill, and how “active forgetting” could be a greater aid to conflict resolution than “active remembering”.


His analysis here forms part of a broader critique of the human-rights movement, as he argues that certain goals – such as peace and justice – are incompatible in practice. He provides today’s idea: “Since in the long run forgetting is our fate, then in the shorter run maybe there are times when it’s better to forget.”

George Santayana said “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. You disagree, why?

“It seems to me there is no empirical justification for this. There is no evidence that people who remember the murder of the Jews and the Roma in Europe by the Nazis are less likely to do terrible things.”

But is there a moral duty to remember the Holocaust?

“To be very blunt, it will be forgotten eventually. Everything will be forgotten. That’s the other point of departure.

“In the case of the Holocaust I would say: why is it moral to remember the Holocaust? Is it that by remembering the Holocaust we are not going to commit future genocides? History would suggest that’s not true.

“So then you come back to morals. You could say it’s the duty of people to remember the most horrible things. I’m not against that, and I’m particularly not against it while the people who suffered the affront are still alive.

“I think honouring their suffering has a moral value in itself. And there is a value to truth . . . but once the survivors and their children and even their grandchildren are dead, what are we doing when we are remembering? First thing, we are not remembering.”

Sure, no one will have a direct memory of the events. But is it morally wrong to stop commemorating? Take the 1916 Rising: should it be forgotten? 

"There are moments when remembering can be valuable, but often it's not going to be that clear-cut. "I think we are much too influenced by the fact that both of the great world wars of the 20th century ended in complete victory by one side, and unconditional surrender permits the victor to impose its view of what the collective memory of the event should be on everybody else. But most wars have not ended that way.

“Most wars have ended with either slaughter or a deal. And if there is a deal, then who is to say whose memories are going to triumph, and how are you going to morally legitimise one version over another?”

You reject, then, a Kantian – or absolutist – imperative to remember?

“If I have any politics any more I’m an anti-Kantian. I mean, Kant said you couldn’t lie even to save a life, which seems not just inhuman but ahuman.

“If you believe, as I do, that values are incommensurable then you are faced with making rather poor choices. That’s what seems to be so incredibly wilfully wishful-thinking of the human rights movement – that all good things should go together.

“My experience in war zones is that to get peace you often have to take injustice, and then you take your choice. Is it more important to you that the guns stop or the abusers are punished?

“My choice is almost invariably peace. I’ve seen a lot of war, and I think oppression is not as bad as war.”

In your book, you pose the question: “Must we deform the past in order to preserve it?” Is that the case with 1916 – that we have created a more liberal or acceptable narrative surrounding the rebellion and its leaders?

“The past, for a critical historian, is not about comforting the present. On the contrary, it’s about emphasising the strangeness of the past, whereas commemoration is about using the past for the purposes of the present.

"I walked through the streets of Dublin, and I said to myself: here is this modern European country, where 25 out of 26 counties voted for gay marriage, I mean [for] Patrick Pearse it would have been inconceivable to him; it's not just that he would have hated it – of course he would have hated it.

“The difference between the reality of these people and the way they are being used is enormous. There are a number of shops that sell clothing, and there are these laminated replicas of the Proclamation: behind it there will be women’s clothes that would have offended – with the possible exception of Connolly – every last one of those 16 men.

"We are back to some extent to Roy Foster's Vivid Faces book, where it seems to me one of the points he makes is that so many of the important figures of the Irish revolution had not wanted the state that they got."


Question: Should you forgive and forget?

Jorge Luis Borges replies: "I don't speak of vengeance or forgiveness; forgetting is the only vengeance and the only forgiveness."