Is remembrance always good for society (or sound history)?

Fascinating piece in the Guardian 

…in the American south after 1865, after the guns of the civil war fell silent, another form of battle raged over whose version of the conflict – the victorious Union or the defeated Confederacy – would prevail. As the recent debate in the US over the Confederate flag demonstrated, that battle over memory, though diminished, still goes on today. And just as collective historical memory blighted the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, today the same is true in Israel-Palestine, in Iraq and Syria, in the Hindu nationalist populism of India’s Bharatiya Janata party, and among jihadis and Islamists both in the Muslim world and in the Muslim diaspora in western Europe, North America and Australia.

This is not to suggest that there is an easy solution. On the contrary, it is probable that the need of human beings for community, already compelling in times of peace and plenty, comes to feel like a psychic and moral necessity in troubled times. But at least let there be no turning a blind eye to the high price societies have paid and are continuing to pay for the solace of remembrance.

Collective historical memory is no respecter of the past. This is not simply a matter of inaccuracy, wilful or otherwise, of the type one encounters in the many contemporary television miniseries that attempt to re-create a past historical era – Showtime’s The Tudors, say, or HBO’s Rome. When states, political parties, and social groups appeal to collective historical memory, their motives are far from trivial. Until well into the second half of the 20th century, the goal of such appeals was almost invariably to foster national unity. It would be comforting to believe that damnable regimes have been more given to this practice than decent ones. But the reality is that such efforts to mobilise and manipulate collective memory or manufacture it have been made by regimes and political parties of virtually every type.

  • Dominic Hendron

    Generosity Generosity Generosity

  • Redstar

    The problem is there is never an agreed version of the past. Currently we have Unionists banging on about Republicans revising history- what they really mean is it doesn’t fit with their own version, and so it goes on.

    Indeed I was amused by MC Causland this week commenting that the FAI were ” wallowing in the past” by having a reference to 1916 on their teams football shirts- ” wallowing in the past !!!!” – this from a community which can’t get past 1690!

    Remembrance/dealing with the past is a very difficult indeed impossible circle to square as when it comes to controversy or conflict we will all naturally gave a different version, view, standpoint which if we change would make our own remembrance pointless.

  • aquifer

    Our recent past was pretty brutal and squalid, with the twin evils of violence and intransigence generating a lot of suffering that can fairly be seen as unnecessary and self-indulgent. Going over a lot of past events risks generating even more selective remembrances and real anger.

    When the current form of light touch democracy and external economic regulation robs politics of content that can compete for attention, we risk creating a theatre of atrocity that only serves the extremists of either side.

    I am content that we get the past via drip feed in little lumps of justice truth and comfort for the families of victims, delivered judiciously by professionally qualified truth identifiers.

    Criminals conspire to conceal truth, whereas the state is obliged to record it, so revelation is likely to favour perpetrators and their propagandists over victims.

  • Redstar

    Ah if it were that simple!

    What happens when the state are the criminals……

  • Gopher

    They tend to separate state from ideology or invent a reason for the war like States Rights for the Confederacy. Can be tricky when the most famous siege and one of the most clear cut victories in history are named after criminals like in Russia. The “Kursk” sinking is a bit ironic. Germany gets round it by naming things like “Rommel”or “Lutjens” with links to criminality one would have to scrutinise and scrupulously looks after its fallen even now in Russia. The Monarchy has steadfastly refused to ever let one of its ships be named “Cromwell” even during a world war which is a bit petty. The Republic, it seems to prefer to link ideology to state probably due to the lack of history outside that narrow ideology and insecure identity which leads to difficulty remembering other events and a distortion of facts to suite the crib. Never met anyone who denied Catholic’s were hard done by “Stormount”, it’s a given, met plenty who still excuse the troubles. Perhaps that’s down to criminality.

  • Starviking

    I don’t think the Royals have a direct input into the naming of Royal Navy ships, that’s a job for the Ship Naming Committee. Approval has to be sought for ships with Royals names though.

    On the subject of Cromwell, the Army did name a WWII tank after him.

  • aquifer

    Or the criminals get in charge of the state?

    Some people must call for truth up to the point when it will be revealed.

  • Turgon

    Of whom are you asking the generosity? Since you said it three times a threefold answer seems fitting.

    Of the criminal perpetrators: indeed wholly appropriate though too often lacking from them.

    Of those who neither suffered wrong nor committed wrong: maybe reasonable but possibly a bit presumptuous.

    Of the victims: wholly inappropriate for anyone to ask let alone demand they be generous least of all towards the perpetrators.

    Yet the last two are the forms of generosity all too often asked nay demanded of people here in Northern Ireland.

  • Redstar

    The problem here is the State is/was so heavily involved with nefarious activity it’s impossible to see the dividing line between state and paramilitary activity. Anyone who doubts that need only pay heed to Cameron’s admission that at one stage the state was supplying 80% of the UDAs intelligence

  • murdockp

    the unfortunate thing in NI is the truth identifiers have Audi A6’s and houses in the South of france to pay for hence the creation of the lucrative legacy troubles industry which has as much interest in bringing closure to the victims and families as Denny has in exporting pork Sausages to Saudi Arabia.

    The rest of the world has lost interest. The body count in Syria per month is greater that 30 years of troubles.

    Syrian Center of Policy Research 470,000 / 5 = 94,000 per anum = 7,800 people per month

    UN Estimate 250,000 / 5 = 50,000 people per anum = 4167 per month.

    DO you think in years to come in the middle east there will be tribunals to review every bomb and bullet fired or every murder in Iraq, Syria? or maybe human life there is less valued that here?

    We all need to fess up in a truth and reconciliation forum, draw a line under it all and move on and stop these lawyers feeding like vultures of the victims and their families pain and suffering.

    Apologies if this sounds harsh, but part f the reason we are being left behind as an economy is our refusal to loo forward and constantly referring to the past.

  • Jollyraj

    Problem with Irish historians is their love of a good yarn. Stories get more colourful the more removed we are from them, and by dint of endless repitition we end up endlessly remembering days that didn’t exist. One sometimes feels Heaney’s Beowulf is more grounded in historical fact than some of the lovingly crafted tall tales of irish historians.

  • Jarl Ulfreksfjordr

    How much “intelligence” did the UDA terrorists actually have? Did they ever kill any active nationalist terrorists, the ‘enemy’ as they might have viewed them?

    I would suggest that the evidence shows they murdered innocents. Does that perhaps indicate that they had little in the way of real intelligence on other terrorists? Or is the conclusion that the state did not know who the terrorists were and thus were unable to share information it did not have?

    If you then shift ground and conclude that the state didn’t care who the UDA terrorists murdered and that innocent nationalists were in the state’s view fair game why would UDA members need anyone else to tell them how to find such targets?

    If I tell you that 80% of my chocolate stock was a gift from my mother you might think my mum was exceedingly good to me. However if I then let you know that my entire stock consists of two Mars bars you might want to reconsider your opinion of my mother’s chocolate handouts.

  • Dominic Hendron

    I’m not asking anything I’m observing: Gordon Wilson, Jo Berry, Michael McGoldrick (snr). I’m sure there are many more. I thought your comment a bit judgemental since it presumes to know the mind of every victim and perpetrator. Guilt is a strange thing too: Can thought or attitude be a sin; does that widen the burden of guilt?

  • Gopher

    Churchill tried to get a Battleship called Cromwell but the then King vetoed it for a “Royal” ship. They then settled on naming the tank Cromwell something the King had no veto over. I believe the name was put forward by the Labour Party.part of the coalition wartime government.

  • Turgon

    Gordon Wilson. That would be the Gordon Wilson who after meeting the IRA, thought internment for terrorists was the best idea.

    Victims can be as generous as they wish to whomsoever they wish. What neither you nor I nor anyone else can do is say they should be generous or decide on how that generosity is to be shown. Indeed to use a positive term like generosity is problematic. Using the term generosity and then saying you are merely observing is dishonest. They (victims) are under no obligation to you or anyone else.

    As to sin that is a religious concept not directly relevant to the debate at hand.

  • Dominic Hendron

    I observe other people’s generosity and see it as an example to be followed. I don’t ask or tell victims how they should react to injustice no matter who they are or who are the perpetrators. I use the term generosity because it best describes what is needed in our society at the moment.

  • Turgon

    Exactly, you regard what you term as generosity as “needed in our society.”

    That is your view. Others of us think that such “generosity” has led us to a situation where murderers and criminals of different pseudo political stripes continue to hold an unhealthy degree of control over large numbers of people in Northern Ireland.

    Such “generosity” has resulted in this small part of the UK having more unsolved murders than any other part probably of western Europe.

    Such “generosity” is one of the problems holding back large numbers of people especially in working class communities. 20 years after the loyalist thugs supposedly stopped killing people they actually still are killing people as well as blighting very many lives.

    Many of us want nothing at all to do with your hypocritical self righteous criminal serving “generosity” but would much rather have justice: not transitional or other dishonest justice but real justice. That is a much better basis on which to build a stable future.

    In the absence of that (and we may never get it) we would prefer all sorts of things to your “generosity”. The “generosity” of the likes of Eames Bradley et al. has been roundly rejected. By all means promote it if you want but understand that it has been rejected as the lie that it is.

  • Dominic Hendron

    I am not referring to generosity towards thugs and bullies in any community at the present time but a generosity among the political classes in pursuit of building a better future for all now that the political route has been chosen. The sort of generosity shown by Queen Elizabeth when she visited the garden of remembrance in Dublin or the generosity shown by Prince Charles in meeting Gerry Adams. Many more of us on this Island want to see this generosity increase.

  • Turgon

    That is simply a lie. You referred to victims above in the context of your “generosity” not to politicians or “political classes”

    Try not to tell direct untruths about want you said just a few posts above. Anyone can simply look above and see that your claim about what you said is false.

    You can want whatever “generosity” you want. The simple fact is that the “generosity” of Eames Bradley et al was rejected actually by the population before it was rejected by politicians.

    What most people seem to want, both victims and others, is justice. Indeed it is often what you term “the political classes” who are less opposed to your dishonest “generosity”.

  • Dominic Hendron

    The post above is about societies coming out of conflict. My response to that post is that more generosity is needed. I illustrated my point with the generous spirit shown by the three individuals mentioned above and I further illustrated my point with the generosity shown by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles.

  • Turgon

    Right so you have done another volte face. The first example of your “generosity” was victims. When challenged on it you changed that “generosity” to be from the “political classes” and now you are back to victims along bizarrely with the Royals.

    If you cannot be honest or straight about what you mean by this “generosity” you cannot expect it to be taken remotely seriously. In reality this “generosity” an ill conceived conceit to make you feel self righteous.

  • Dominic Hendron

    Your logic eludes me

  • Turgon

    I guess that its because I try to say what I mean and mean what I say. Whereas your argument lacks logic, honesty and even internal consistency.

  • Dominic Hendron

    You’re right Turgon

  • Turgon

    I know on this issue I was right.: I am not by any means always right but on what you said above it was not difficult. It seems bizarre to say one thing and try two posts later to pretend you said something different. What surprises me is that you took so long to realise you were not going to get away with it.

    I hope this little interchange has shown you that self righteous nonsense gets exposed for what it is on here. One of slugger’s many joys.

  • Dominic Hendron

    Most Definitely

  • aquifer

    Apparently the UDA/UFF did begin to hit IRA targets, aided by the lists provided by the army. Arguably this saved the lives of nationalists who were ‘more innocent’ than IRA personnel, when the UFF also did outright sectarian murder?

    And if a democratic state does not use all its powers and guile to redirect conflict away from sectarian strife and into a peaceful political arena, it could be licensing mass murder. The Provos provoked, but they could not protect innocent Catholics.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Proust has some interesting things to say about the nature of memory: memory as a filter or memory as a prism through which a certain distortion occurs. The agenda of the state when establishing and continuing a national memory is of course detectable but the partiality nonetheless doesn’t always meet the resistance it might elsewhere (not speaking about NI).
    Broadcasters’ attempts to be ‘balanced’ or ‘objective’ in this subject often betray a certain consensus which they themselves may have assumed as ‘preachers to the nation’. And why is Channel 4 making so many documentaries about the Windsor clan?
    I’m also reminded of de Gaulle’s imprecation to the nation immediately after the ignominy of the Occupation: “Vous étiez tous résistants”. National unity was certainly a goal that had to supplant the truth there … and he succeeded at least for the duration of the 4th Republic.

  • Jarl Ulfreksfjordr

    I’m not aware of any UDA/UFF murders of terrorists from the ‘other side’, but I’ll take your word that they did. To me they were, as were their nationalist counterparts, motivated simply by uncomplicated hatred of the ‘other’.

    State sanctioned killing of terrorists in the NI context is/was just wrong. If due process is challenged and at times found wanting by a terrorist campaign (witness intimidation, information not forthcoming from the public etc) then that is the price we pay for living in a liberal democracy.

    It ain’t pretty at times, and I can understand the frustration and anger that must be felt by victims (and by those working to maintain public safety) when the legal services are unable to deliver.

    Widespread terrorism was defeated by the state using its “powers and guile”. That defeat was largely down to successes in the use of intelligence rather than targeting and killing individual terrorists, most of whom were known to the security services.

    I expect the situation is much the same today. As nationalist terrorists are currently ramping-up their attempts to murder it would be tempting to ‘take them out’. The security services together with the police will know many of the current crop of ‘players’ and no doubt have many of them under surveillance. Yet it is probably difficult, if not impossible, to cover all the bases.

    In the end it comes down to investigation and gathering evidence in the hope that those who attempt to murder prison officers, and bury bombs in country parks, will be sent to prison for a very long time.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    It’s always selective and creative, the act of commemoration. And it’s generally much more about the present than the past.

    The ‘ancestral voices’ Connor Cruise O’Brien talked about might be fainter now, but we really do have to be aware on this island of the power of commemorations and ‘landmark dates’ to fire up the zealots with a renewed sense of historic mission. It can be a heady, toxic mix.

  • Jollyraj

    Sinn Fein must now be included in any definition of the State, given they jointly govern it. So, yes, I would welcome an investigation into them

  • Greenflag 2

    Revolution , rebellion , protest demonstrations and eventual uncivil war and political demise .You can fool some of the people all of the time but not all of the people all of the time . Ask any East German , Serbian , Pole , or Cambodia , Libya or anyone from a former imperial colony and you’ll discover they all end sooner or later but never in the same way . How North Korea will end nobody knows and even mushroom clouds over Seoul can’t be ruled out .

    We know how Northern Ireland will end – not with a bang but with a whimper or more accurately a lot of individual whimpers as demographics win out over bombs and bullets . Theoretically anyway .