Monday, August 29, 2016


We all know that memory is selective. That is not news for most of us. But it is shocking to realize just how selective it can be. Some of the things we (as a culture and as individuals) suppress are so big, it is amazing that we let ourselves get away with it.

In New England, they have long had a proud tradition of remembering that they were the first in the nation to abolish slavery. Over a century before the Civil War ended slavery in the South, Connecticut and Rhode Island passed gradual emancipation plans. In Massachusetts, it is more of a mystery as to how dismantling slavery came about—most likely it was a combination of public opinion, legal cases, and a clause in the Massachusetts constitution guaranteeing freedom and equality for all—but here too slavery was considered banned.

So strong was the impression of New England’s noble attitude that, for a long time, many New Englanders believed either that slavery had never existed there or that it was very mild. What they had a harder time remembering was that freed slaves were not treated as equal citizens. But that’s not the part that shocks me. (Though it should. One contemporary in 1796 acknowledged at one and the same time that denying civil rights was such a bad thing to do that it could be called civil slavery and then insisted they had a right to do it because every society can decide who gets to participate in civil rights and who doesn’t.)

New England remembered itself as the birthplace of American patriotism and freedom. They celebrated the heroes of the Revolution. But they chose not to remember that some of these heroes were black men who served in the Revolutionary army. They erased black soldiers from history. In one case I read about long ago, they literally erased one such man. If I recall, there was a famous painting made in the 1790s which depicted American patriots in battle. One of them was black. When the painting was reproduced in textbooks for children, the black soldier was removed.

Why do that? Why not remember that black and white soldiers fought alongside each other? And how could they champion emancipation of slaves and then deliberately fail to remember the many black men fighting in the same cause they all participated in? One answer is that emancipation served more to promote the self-image of white people as true believers in freedom than to help the freed slaves who would never be granted full civil rights. And the removal of black people from the history of the Revolution had something to do with the same racism that denied civil rights.

Whatever your answer is, this stands as a grand example of the selectivity of historical memory.

Everywhere you look, you can find more examples of incredibly shocking deletions. In The Descent of Man, Darwin expressed his firm belief in the moral and intellectual inferiority of savages. He was convinced that savages would never help a stranger, whereas Europeans would, (“humanity is an unknown virtue” in savages, he would write) and gave his full assent to a Spanish maxim “Never, never trust an Indian.”

Darwin had completely forgotten that, in his younger days, in the Diary he kept while on board the Beagle, he had given examples of South American Indians helping strangers, often shipwrecked European sailors. Of the Patagonian Indians, he noted “their usual disinterested noble hospitality.” (In later published editions of his journal, the word ‘noble’ was dropped.) None of this made it into Descent. It is one good sign of how hardened Darwin’s racism became in his later years. He chose not to remember some of the good qualities in native peoples that he himself had some acquaintance with.

Darwin erased hospitable savages from the world just as surely as those textbooks erased a black man from a painting, and for the same reason: So he could create his own painting which bore no resemblance to the real world. This was selective memory in the service of bad anthropology.

I could go on and on with other examples, like the failure of scientists today to remember that, fifteen years before The Origin of Species, Robert Chambers assembled much of the same evidence for evolution (the common descent of species) that Darwin would. He was in fact the first to prove that evolution was a more probable theory than special creation. But scientists and scholars have chosen to erase this from historical memory. It is that kind of selectivity that takes my breath away. These are the kinds of cases that make one think deep unconscious forces are at work.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

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