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New Political Science, Volume 24, Number 4, 2002

Is There a Right to Forget? Historical Injustices, Race, Memory, and Identity

Gregory W. Streich Central Missouri State University


This article critically








evaluates the argument that individuals and nations Since our histories shape our identities, forgetting is

unnecessary, impossible, and politically problematic. Cosmopolitanism als to combine memory and de-essentialized group identities with

allows more

individu- universal

identities. this right

Further, to avoid

governments have no right to forget the grappling with the legacies of historical

past, since injustices

they could use in the present.

Against the view that time heals all wounds, I argue present requires us to recognize the legacies of historical to promote some form of restitution.

that promoting

justice in


injustices such

as slavery


I. Introduction

In this article I examine the tension between two recent proposals of how we, at the dawn of the 21st century, should attend to history. One, made by Jason Hill, is that individuals have a right to forget where they came from in order to construct new, anti-essentialist identities. A second, made by Elazar Barkan, is that nations must apologize and/or offer compensation for historical injustices if there is to be atonement and reconciliation.1 If the governments of Germany, South Africa, Japan, and the United States asserted a right to forget their pasts, critics would argue that countries cannot and must not forget, especially the injustices of the Holocaust, Apartheid, “comfort women,” and slavery. Hill’s right to forget, then, conicts with Barkan’s argument that we must remember and rectify.

The current debate about apologizing for and/or providing compensation for the historical injustices of slavery in the US illustrates the tension between forgetting and remembering our past. This debate is not just about whether we should forget or remember, but also about how the past is interpreted. We know that slavery happened. There is evidence in the form of laws, documents, statistics, ex-slave interviews, etc. However, this evidence does not give us one

  • xed meaning and interpretation of this history. Because history is both inter-

preted and remembered, our interpretations differ depending on whether our

1 Jason Hill, Becoming a Cosmopolitan: What it Means to Be a Human in the New Millennium (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littleeld, 2000), p. 5; and Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices (New York: Norton, 2000).

ISSN 0739-3148 print/ISSN 1469-9931 online/02/040525–18 Ó 2002 Caucus for a New Political Science DOI: 10.1080/073931402200002536 3

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