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
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.
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, conicts 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 & Littleeld, 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