Those Who Remember and Forget as I Do are My Nation.

“The essence of a nation is, that all its individual members should have many things in common; and also, that all of them should hold many things in oblivion.”

Ernest Renan, “What is a Nation” (1882)

It is easy to found national feeling on the shared memory of glorious victories over the nation’s enemies.  It is just as easy to found it in the shared memory of the nation’s humiliation by hateful oppressors.  But it is impossible to found national feeling in the shared memory of a glorious victory of one half of the nation over a humiliated other half.  When a nation has been torn by internecine strife, as most nations eventually are, national feeling must be founded on mutual and common forgetting.

There is no nation if there is no national history, and there is no national history if there is no agreement in what members of the nation remember and forget.  Note that I do not say agreement about what they ought to remember or forget. A nation that pretends to share common memories is pretending to be a nation.  A national past is most certainly a fiction, but national feeling requires a common insensibility to the fact that it is a fiction.

If you individually remember what the nation has forgotten, you have lost national feeling and parted from the nation.   If there are others like you, you and they have formed a new nation.  It makes no difference if prudential policy causes you to counterfeit the national amnesia, since you have not forgotten unless you truly forget both what and that you have forgotten.

In the essay quoted in my epigraph, the great French historian says,

“Forgetfulness, and I shall even say historical error, form an essential factor in the creation of a nation.”

You should not read that word “forgetfulness” to mean nothing but “whitewashing,” “papering over,” “sanitizing,” “bowdlerizing” or “romanticizing” the past.  But you probably do read the word “forgetfulness” this way, because we have all been conditioned by the revisionist prejudice that national memory forgets only national crimes.  If you consider the niggardly nature of human gratitude, however, you will realize that we humans forget our benefactors far more quickly than we forget our victims.  If you consider our robust relish of resentment, you will see that we humans whitewash the virtues of our enemies far more quickly than we whitewash the vices in ourselves.

New nations have been created in the disintegrating carcass of American national feeling.  This should be evident to anyone who understands the meaning of our profound disagreement in what we remember and what we forget.  Note again that I do not say profound disagreement over what we ought to remember or ought to forget, although there is certainly, nowadays, a great deal of sound and fury about that.  All of us remember what we remember and have forgotten both what and that we have forgotten.

Those who remember and forget as I do are my nation.

28 thoughts on “Those Who Remember and Forget as I Do are My Nation.

  1. Nationalism can only be strong *and lasting* on the back of a national religion. The secular nationalisms were all short-lived as strong and positive motivators.

    Since nations became first de facto, then explicitly, post-religious – national feeling has been too weak for genuine cohesion, and such strength as it has, is been negative and based on resentment/ envy.

    In other words, unless or until a Western nation puts Christianity first – which ever less possible with every passing months – the age of nationalism as a force for good is past and gone.

    • The secular nationalists tried to found national feeling on shared history and culture, which they often apotheosized as “national spirit.” As you say, this has proven to be a very wobbly base when shaken by iconoclastic criticism, mass immigration and multicultural diversity. I expect that wobbling to worsen considerably if the day comes when the nations must call for true sacrifice. When nothing is sacred, nothing will be sacrificed. The terrible irony on this side of the pond is that the Americans with the strongest national feeling are about to be declared domestic terrorists.

      • @JSM – I don’t think secular nationalism needs subversion to decline – it just fades, because not a deep enough motivator. There are many examples, but consider the rapidity with which Irish nationalism – at one time a tremendous force – faded then inverted into national self annihilation after its religious basis had gone.

    • But the religion will ultimately need to be national, based on a story of a religious founding of the nation, like the Torah is to the Jews. The Jews win against other nations precisely because their relgion is the founding of their nation whereas other religions are the founding of an international club. The American founding story has some religious elements but didn’t work because it lacked a table of commandments. Instead it had the table of anticommandments. The Jews remembered that they had been slaves in Egypt, but forgot that this was only a fiction they created and never actually happened.

      • It is always best to forget that you made up the parts that you made up. Jewish identity has obviously become the new model–what one historian calls lachrymose history and others have called victimology. Victims are allowed to have national identities, and to make demands rather than make bargains. My impression is that lachrymose history only works for groups with very high self-esteem, though. Other people just persuade themselves that they really are losers.

  2. The “progressives” have been scheming for decades to make people forget. They discovered that since Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, and Shakespeare were the literate meta-memory, they would not have to destroy Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, and Shakespeare specifically, as it were, if they simply destroyed literacy. People might remember a book-burning, after all, but deprive them of literacy and you make an absolute break between a generation benefiting from meta-memory and one that possesses no meta-memory and therefore very little in the way of short-term “newsy” memory and that — therefore — will never have to be tasked to forget. It began when, under the influence of the monster Dewey, grammar schools ditched grammar and “reading-and-writing” teachers ditched phonics. Devices, as they are called, accelerated the process.

    • The Confederate monuments represented a national capacity to remember and forget in a way that actually “preserved the Union.” Southerners were allowed to remember their heroes and dead, while everyone forgot the the divisive talk about insurrection and treason. I would say this was actually a remarkable display of the general will to remain united in a federation of equals. That will no longer exists, so neither does that nation. I am disgusted by the grotesque memories of the monument destroyers, and they are disgusted by mine. We are two nations.

      • At an abstract level I agree with you, we are two nations still engaged in an ongoing civil war. The mistake was not obliterating every trace of slavery and the confederacy after their official defeat, and allowing the conflict to continue in various forms up to the present day (the monuments were mostly built in the 20th century as propaganda moves in this ongoing war).

        What are the alternatives for dealing with two nations that claim the same territory but have radically incompatible belief systems? There’s obliteration, assimilation, partition, perpetual war…not a lot of good options there.

      • Although we are given to a certain amount of apocalyptic rhetoric around here, radically incompatible belief systems can work out a modus vivendi and share the same space. This is usually under the rule of a third party that doesn’t think much of either belief system but will come down hard on anyone who acts up. These arrangements break down when one belief system uses, or appears poised to use, state power to impose its beliefs on the other side. That was what triggered the American Civil War. Radical Reconstruction made it seem that Southern fears had been very well founded, that the Union was nothing but a mask for Yankee hegemony, and that Lee should have fought to the last man. When I read old documents from that era, I find the Southerners hated Reconstruction more than they hated the War. In any case, my view is that centralization of power is always the fundamental problem. Devolution of power is the best antidote to social strife.

      • radically incompatible belief systems can work out a modus vivendi and share the same space

        Damn you are one of those cosmopolitan multiculti people after all! Welcome to the melting pot.

        I don’t want to re-fight the civil war here, but the idea that it wouldn’t have been fought if not for those overbearing Yankees is extremely ahistorical. See the Fugitive Slave Act, for instance, which was exactly the South using the power of the state to impose its beliefs (and more significantly, its practices) on the North.

      • Radically incompatible belief systems can share the same space, but it is better when they don’t have to. A multicultural world, but relatively monocultural countries. One reason, which you should appreciate, is that, in a monocultural country, politics will be about class interests rather than ethnic interests. The melting pot metaphor is funny because it implies that a useful alloy will be made, no matter what is thrown into the pot, although I don’t suppose Zangwill knew the first thing about metallurgy. Of course The Acid Bath would have been a better title for his play, since the two main characters are stripped of their Russian and Jewish cultures.

        If my dog goes into your yard, you have to give it back even if you have a moral objection to pets. If California outlaws cars, a car thief cannot “liberate” my car, drive it to California, and sell it for scrap. A country that openly receives stollen goods is called a pirate haven. I can think of some interesting legal conundrums, though. If a criminal steals 100 pounds of weed in Colorado and brings it to Texas, must Texas police return that weed to its owner in Colorado? I’m sure this has happened, so there must be legal rulings. I’d guess they follow exactly the same reasoning as the FSA and say the weed, although located in Texas, is nevertheless governed by Colorado law. Requiring Texas to return the weed to Colorado does no require Texas to believe that weed ought to be legal.

      • If my dog goes into your yard, you have to give it back even if you have a moral objection to pets.

        Great analogy! Here’s a better one though: If the teenage girl you’ve kidnapped and chained in your basement escapes into my yard, I don’t have to give her back, in fact, my obligation is to protect her and call the cops on you.

        You seem to have missed my entire point above, which is not that the Fugitive Slave Act was bad or good law, but that there was incompatible laws and values between the two regions of the country, and for a variety of practical reasons neither side could simply leave the other to its own destiny – they were intertwined.

      • I think that is right, and that there is a limit to how much diversity a country can contain. You cannot have a civil society without laws against theft, and you cannot have laws against theft without broad agreement as to the nature of property. For instance, if that teenage girl you say I “captured” was my daughter, and I said she was merely “grounded.” There are some interesting parallels between the ethics of harboring a runaway child and a runaway slave, and I am personally thankful I have never been forced to make that judgment.

      • a.morphous wrote:

        You seem to have missed my entire point above…

        Lord help me, but I’m beginning to develop a deep-seated hatred for this a.morphous dude, and all he represents. If I’ve read that line from him once, I’ve read it a hundred times at least; it seems like the ‘nice way’ of saying, “you’re too stupid to understand what I was saying, so let me clarify for the likes of your ilk and its common stupidity.”

        FYI, a.morphous, we usually know what you’re getting about, but simply see things from a different perspective you’re apparently too stupid, and/or, incorrigible to understand. Now that we have that cleared up,…

      • Well my apologies if I’ve impugned anybody’s intelligence. Maybe you understand me perfectly. But in case not, let me expand and restate my point:

        The pre-civil-war US had different and incompatible legal regimes. In the South, it was perfectly legal to own human beings as property, and slave owners were free to imprison, exploit. rape, torture and murder the human beings that were considered their property. In the North, such ownership was not legal and such activities were serious crimes, as well as moral atrocities.

        In theory the two parts of the country could have continued to maintain separate legal systems, in accordance with the federalist ideal. In practice this didn’t work out, and the Fugitive Slave Act was only the most egregious example of it not working out. The FSA obligated Northerners to adopt the moral stance of Southerners, should they encounter an escaped slave. It legally obligated them to commit acts that they found not only morally repugnant, but criminal under their local system of government . This is why it was especially hated, and disobeyed, and is generally considered to be a major step in the polarization that eventually led to war.

        I was answering this passage from JMSmith:

        These arrangements break down when one belief system uses, or appears poised to use, state power to impose its beliefs on the other side. That was what triggered the American Civil War. … Southern fears had been very well founded, that the Union was nothing but a mask for Yankee hegemony,

        And demonstrating that in fact (at least in this respect) it was the South’s attempt to assert legal hegemony over the North that led to Civil War.

      • It may sound pedantic, but my understanding is that American slave-owners owned the labor of the slave and not the slave himself. They were not “free” to do anything they liked with their slaves, such as, for instance, feeding them to the hogs when they became a net cost to the plantation.

        In the days before the War, abolitionists justified their illegal acts with an appeal to a “higher law.” This takes us into the very difficult question of civil disobedience and a citizen’s proper attitude towards what he regards as an unjust law. This can be especially difficult for Christians because of that whole damned to Hell business. I think religious and moral exemptions are sometimes justified, but also think that these must be principled and narrowly defined. Otherwise the polity falls apart by limitless personal nullification. The recent “bake the cake” controversies have reopened this question, but my sense is that liberals are not defending personal exemption owing to moral scruples in this case.

        As I said earlier, I’d like to know if I have a legal obligation to report marijuana stollen in Colorado and transported to Texas, and if Texas law enforcement has a legal obligation to return it to its owner in Colorado.

      • It’s true that the law governing what slave-owners could do to slaves varied over time and region. There were even rare cases of owners being prosecuted for the murder of slaves! But, fine points of the law notwithstanding, for the most part slaves were considered property that could be bought, sold, and disposed of without restraint.

        I imagine it would be pretty interesting to study the legal systems we would now consider criminal (Nazi Germany, the Confederate slaveocracy) and see how they justified themselves and defines and managed the various categories of non-people they had to deal with.

        Your marijuana analogy is not very apt. if the weed itself was a person with rights under law in one jurisdiction and not in another, then it might make sense.

      • Perhaps a better analogy would be extradition of a criminal for a crime that is not a crime in the country that extradites the criminal. I would guess this is done in some cases and not in others. One would have to balance the good of international comity against whatever degree of badness was involved in aiding the punishment of which the extraditing country disapproved.

  3. The irony is significant. The Southern states, as they were, were the closest thing to actual nations that whites built on this continent. All the aspirations of twenty-first century “nationalists,” especially those who are Christian, are surpassed by the reality that was destroyed by the merchant utopians here on my native soil. The Yankee’s real triumph was making people forget. Like the falconer he slipped sovereign Christian nations into the bag, replacing them with the morsel of abolition. Southern people built monuments to try to keep their children’s eyes off the morsel.

    Despite the true belief in the academic ranks (see these comments), slavery was just the closest heavy object the empire-builders found at hand to pummel my people with spiritually. The real war was fought within the history books.

    The concept of “religious nationalism” is an oxymoron. A nation is a people. It’s in the word itself. Any other definition is remembering something that never happened.

  4. I think we can defend the old South without overlooking its defects and weaknesses. As everyone knows, the old South produced many great statesmen, and there is truth in the argument that this was a direct consequence of the “feudal” structure of Southern society. But the South did not produce many great artists, authors and myth-makers, and by the nineteenth century the pen was indeed mightier than the sword. I am not saying that the South was devoid of literary talent, or that the literary establishment did not marginalize Southern writers (unless they ratted on the South), but that the South has always been retarded in the culture war. As you say, the real war was fought in the history books, and this is something the South was slow to understand.

    To say that a nation is a people defines a word with its synonym, and begs the question, what then is a people. Obviously birth is part of the answer, since nativity is right there in the word. But nationality also has a spiritual aspect that includes ideas, tastes, beliefs, memories, and things that have been forgotten. I wrote about this a couple of years ago in a post about the Southern poet Sidney Lanier. The civic nationalist would have us believe that nationality is identical to citizenship. This is false, but we should not react by retreating into the falsehood that nationality is identical to race. In any case, the real question is how much diversity can a nation have and still be a nation.

    • There is something sinister about the word “citizen.” It recalls the ubiquity of denunciation in the revolutionary condition and casts the shadow of the guillotine.

      • It’s one of those titles that seems like a promotion until you figure out what it really means.

      • In Roman Society, citizenship was an extremely limited privilege. It was not universal by any means, and to call onesself a citizen of Rome was to declare that you are subject to the laws of Rome, and so the penalties of Rome, and bear the responsibility for protecting and perpetuating her institutions. This is what St. Paul was invoking when he called himself a citizen of Heaven: It was over and above Roman citizenship, which was widely understood to be a privilege, so how much more of a privilege is it to be a citizen of Heaven? To be subject to the laws (and so penalties) of Heaven, and bear the responsibility of protecting and perpetuating her institutions (the Church).

        Universal citizenship makes that concept meaningless. You join a nation by birth, you become a citizen by law. When you become a citizen by birth, you don’t feel any obligation to the Laws, don’t feel bound by penalties, don’t feel any affection for your institutions. It’s the same way that universal basic income just raises the threshold of poverty without actually relieving poverty.

        It is this universal citizenship that casts the shadow of the guillotine–the hand that giveth can also taketh away, and if a democracy rules by popular sovereignty you continue to live at the pleasure of your neighbors, and not by any legal right to continue living. The French Revolution was a revocation of the (legal) right to life by a sovereign people, who get to decide what citizenship is and means.

        Limited citizenship in the Roman style is less like a guillotine and more like Atlas. You take upon yourself the burdens of state. This is why Roman diplomats would act not as representatives of the Roman state, but as the Roman State embodied. Roman citizens took on an element of that.

        Citizenship in Heaven is still a privilege at least. Small comfort if you find your head in a Guillotine, but that discomfort is short-lived (pardon the pun).

      • My understanding is that classical citizenship was closer to a peerage than to the come-one-and-come-all citizenship of today.I would like to hear what an ancient Roman would say if he were told that men would one day have “dual citizenship.” I think it is telling that a modern American, when protesting against government incompetence, identifies himself as a “taxpayer” rather than a “citizen.”

      • JMSmith wrote:

        It’s one of those titles that seems like a promotion until you figure out what it really means.

        I had this conversation some years back with a good friend who was lamenting the point that his Indian/Native American ancestors were not included as U.S. citizens in official documentation. My simple, straight to the point, question to him was, “why in God’s name would they *want* to be considered U.S. citizens? U.S. citizenship ain’t all it’s cracked up to be!” (I wasn’t asking for their sakes, but for his) We needn’t concern ourselves with any of that now in any case; we might all be “citizens” under the USG now, but we’re “subjects” first and foremost. In case one of you naysayers doesn’t believe me, just take a good look at the paperwork filed next time you’re stopped for a “traffic violation” on a public roadway; if you’re not a “subject,” rather than a “citizen” on those documents, you deserve a cupi doll.

        This is part and parcel of why I think it the “mother of ironies” that convicted criminal “Native Americans” in Oklahoma (and hard-core criminal types, at that) are now fighting back against the system with appeals to the effect that, ‘we were never under your government or supervision to start with.’ And, moreover, they seem to be winning!

      • As I was reading your comment, an email popped in from my wife describing the VIP treatment she is at this moment getting at the County Tax Office. I’ve wrangled with those trolls before, and so know they look down on homeowners as troublesome dregs of society. I used to go there and complain that the method of property assessment punished good behavior, such as maintaining one’s house and yard, while it rewarded bad behavior, such as letting the roof fall in. They looked at me like I was stupid, and after half a dozen fruitless complaints, I decided they were right. All the money I’ve spent on the exterior of my house should have been spent on the interior, where the tax assessors can’t see it.

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