David Rieff Discusses Memory and Justice at the Human Rights Workshop

In his 1905 book The Life of Reason, George Santaya penned the famous saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Human rights activists generally agree.  The idea that a reckoning with and a remembrance of history is necessary to secure a peaceful future forms the basis of modern truth commissions, investigatory bodies charged with unveiling past human rights violations in order to prevent further abuse.

The importance of the past, however, is not a universally-held opinion. David Rieff, a prominent non-fiction writer and critic, visited the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights on October 13 to argue in favor of forgetting the past in his talk, “Do Peace and Justice Always Go Hand in Hand, and Is Either Better Served by Remembrance or by Forgetting?

Rieff began his talk by conceding that “I don’t like to be designated a contrarian, but I think there’s something wrong with the human rights movement.”

The error, he thinks, lies in the notion of memory as a reconciliatory tool. Rieff recounted his experience reporting in Belgrade, Serbia in 1993 during the Bosnian War. He interviewed a radical nationalist who gave him a piece of paper that read “1453” – the year that Constantinople and the Roman Empire fell. The nationalist looked Rieff in the eye and uttered, “We the Serbs are defending the Europeans against the Ottomans.”

He explained that the nationalist used the past as a license to justify ethnic cleansing policies against the Muslim Bosnians.

“Memory cherry picks history for the purpose of the present,” he remarked.

Reiff pointed out that the Bosnian Civil War fits the larger pattern of victims eventually becoming victimizers. He referenced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as another incident in which former victims have weaponized memory for their political ends. For this reason, he is skeptical about glorifying victims – an action he believes human rights activists are too quick to do.

Reiff argued against a duty to the past because it is too abstract, detached, and monumental. He told the members of the audience that they probably meaningfully remember where they went to high school but not the events of the civil war. This statement was intended to show that the largely-American audience does not even recall the past its culture is supposed to remember.

“There is too much to remember,” Rieff said. “Everything will be forgotten in time.”

And since a true commitment to the past is an impossible task, Rieff sees memory as a subjective political tool rather than an objective good.

“Memory is a historical option. What do we want to remember?” he closed.

The Human Rights Workshop is a part of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights, a center at Yale Law School that offers students and graduates diverse opportunities to apply the lessons they are learning in the classroom to further the cause of human rights and to examine human rights practice critically. It also brings critical human rights discussion to the wider university community.