I’ve been getting really into forgotten histories lately. In my academic life, it’s taken the form of some real decided interest in Yiddish literature from America, which I think has a lot to teach us about the development of Jewish identity in America. Every time I hear about second-versus-third-wave feminism throwdowns, I worry that we’ve either forgotten our collective history, or we’re buying the media’s version of a reconstructed history. Just moments ago, Austria won the Oscar for a film about the Nazis, and I wonder how we can balance remembering with putting that knowledge to use in the fight against anti-Muslim violence and bigotry in Europe today.
And then there’s the political version of forgotten histories, which the New Yorker hits out of the ballpark this week. Paul Kramer’s brilliant article on the issue of torture—standing in for the larger questions of imperialism and exported democracy—in the Philippine-American War is, really, an article about Iraq. Except—it’s not, it’s more than that. I don’t like to write about the Iraq war, because I feel so unqualified to say anything, but an article like this can prod even me into a statement. Read it, and learn how America’s problems aren’t in any way new—in fact, they’ve been dealt with before. And we’re ignoring everything we might have learned.
Somehow, America is in a position of having forgotten our history, and we’re looking at repeating it. (In fact, according to Mark Twain, we don’t repeat history so much as we “rhyme” it.) I don’t know how we managed to do this, because we haven’t been around that long. We strike quite a contrast to Israel, which can’t seem to forget or even maneuver its recent history at all. Usually, I think that’s a bad thing. Once you read Paul Kramer’s article, you may agree that awareness of our histories—even when they’re unpleasant, even when they make us uncomfortable or even make us fight—is totally imperative.