Forget History

At the end of John Sayles’ masterful film Lone Star, the two main protagonists have just discovered that their life-long love is doomed as they are brother and sister. They sit in a disused drive-in, an outdoor cinema, and contemplate how the vagueries of personal and collective history have conspired to their predicament. What now? Are they destined to forever live apart because of events over which they had no control? The woman tenderly takes her lover’s hand and says, “forget the Alamo.” In other words, forget history, let’s not be constrained by memories of things past, let us forge our own future. Forget history.

History is, among other things, the active recollection of significant facts and events which have shaped our world. I want to reflect on the ways in which commemoration can contribute to the repetition of the past in destructive ways but also how it might prevent genuinely new and creative solutions to ages-long conflicts. We are told that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, is there not also a case for saying, those who are determined to remember the past are doomed to repeat it? I think it is instructive to contemplate not only what we choose to remember by why.

The case for remembering our past has been well made and often. Without history, we are told, we cannot understand the present in which lie the seeds of the future. Without history we cannot understand ourselves for we, like everything else, are its product. Without history we cannot understand human nature for only by looking at what mankind has done can we grasp what mankind is. Without history we cannot understand how civilisations rise and fall and how our own might avoid that fate. And so on and so forth. The case for remembering is strong, but is there also as case to be made for forgetting? Let us explore a couple of examples.

In Northern Ireland, various groups organise parades to celebrate their cultural identity and to commemorate certain significant moments in their past. Typically, they will march through selected parts of their town proudly displaying the symbols and emblems of their particular group. Bands will play the tunes which most clearly capture their memories and emotions. There are around 1500 such marches or parades every year. About 70% are by pro-British groups and the rest by Nationalist or pro-United Ireland groups. Whilst most are innocuous and peaceful, some are deliberately staged at the most historically sensitive times and in the most sensitive areas of a particular town. The intention, at least in part, is a provocative act of power over ‘the enemy’ as well as a means of reminding them that past wrongs will never be forgotten. Violence has been part of this ancient tradition for so long that a Parades Commission had to be set up to regulate the more controversial marches. Whilst there has been a significant decrease in the degree of disturbances over the last few years, there is no doubt that this determination not to forget has been one of the key factors in the painfully slow progress of genuine peace in that part of the world.

On 10th October 680 AD (61 AH) in Karbala (modern day Iraq), an event took place which is generally accepted as the definitive moment when Sunni and Shi’a Islam split forever. This was the Battle of Karbala, during which Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) grandson Hussein Ibn Ali and 72 of his followers were massacred. The repercussions of this moment have shaped the fraught relationship between to two main versions of Islam every since, and are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This event is remembered every year in the one of the largest peaceful pilgrimages in the world, Arba’een. Around 30 million Shi’a Muslims converge on Karbala to  remember Hussein’s martyrdom, his death at the hands of “hordes of savages.” It is an event during which tensions are high and emotions can run riot. Shi’a grievances are thus kept alive year after year and in times such as ours help to fuel tensions and conflicts between two sides which seem to have forgotten the significant common ground they share and the beautiful ideals which gave birth to their faith.

No-one of course would deny anyone the right to remember those things which have shaped their history and identity but, there is a kind of remembering which highlights uniqueness at the expense of common humanity, which wallows in its own sense of victimhood and which refuses to let bygones be bygones. There is a certain kind of patriotism which becomes nationalism which becomes exeptionalism which becomes exclusivism. To celebrate identity is also to emphasize difference and to celebrate the very things which are often obstacles to people living in peace with each other. Those who are determined to remember history in this way are indeed doomed to repeat it. Is it therefore sometimes not wiser and more courageous to forget history?

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