International Historical Amnesia Day: A Modest Proposal

 

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I hope here to string together a few seemingly disconnected elements and show that they are one in the same. At the end, I’d like to make a modest proposal for what I call International Historical Amnesia Day. In no particular order, these elements are:

  • In a former life, I was an American history teacher in Florida. I learned then that my students had no idea either how bad Jim Crow was or that it was functioning in their parent’s lifetimes. It is very difficult to have a discussion about racism when people forget how bad it was not so long ago. There were lynchings in this area up through the 1950s, one not so far from a house I grew up in.
  • My hometown, Jacksonville, is named after a genocidal general. Perhaps 5% of the population of the city is aware of both the Trail of Tears and Jackson’s starring role in it.
  • I was a history minor as an undergraduate. I did not know how genocidal and awful Christopher Columbus was until I prepared to teach the aforementioned American history class.
  • Is there any event as large and as intentionally forgotten as the 6/4 Tiananmen Square Massacre?
  • A few years ago, I went to Frank Dikotter’s book launch for Mao’s Great Famine. I asked several of my Chinese PhD classmates to go with me, all refused. The audience that did go was overwhelmingly white. My classmates explained, basically, that they ‘already knew’ about the Great Leap Forward and there was nothing Dikotter could surprise them with. In point of actual fact, Dikotter was revising the estimated death count of the Great Leap Forward nearly double – using CCP archives! He explained during the book launch that he was given access to archives from that time period because even cadres had forgotten that these were not ‘natural disasters’.
  • China invaded Vietnam in 1979. Nobody knows how many people died, but the Wikipedia estimate is 44,500 people – including 10,000 Vietnamese civilians. That a war happened is public knowledge in China. Why it happened, why it ended, and how many died is completely forgotten. 
  • There is the famous case of Japan’s memory of World War II, especially Nanjing and ‘comfort women’
  • To take a non-violent example, it is said that Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong was once crystal clear and lined with coral reefs visible 30m below. A century of reclamation has completely transformed it, and now almost nobody remembers what once was.

This list could go on and on.

I started with American examples to make the point that I don’t think historical amnesia is culturally specific. I think it’s common to all cultures. Ernest Renan once wrote that, “forgetting, and I would even say historical error, are an essential factor in the creation of a nation, and so it is that progress in historical studies is often a danger to nationality.” Gellner believes this is “a fine task for historians: to be a danger to national myths.”

So I propose here International Historical Amnesia Day. I set it for June 4th, a day marking the most internationally remembered locally forgotten history. On this day, we help other people remember their histories. We try to remember it ourselves. We drag the skeletons out of the closet for this one day, look at them in awe, and then put them back in the closet. It might be molded in the image of Mexico’s Day of the Dead – where we remember events and things, rather than ancestors.

More specifically, let us keep having these Tiananmen vigils and remembrances. But perhaps we can try to remember more than just that day, and that cause, for just one country. And perhaps we can even make contests of it, praising whoever can find the most historically significant but forgotten events.

 

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