“Would you tell me which way I ought to go from here?” asked Alice.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get,” said the Cat.
“I really don’t care where,” replied Alice.
“Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Three weeks ago, I mused that we are generally unaware of the ways that distortions like racism have invisibly warped and continue to warp history. These distortions have real-world consequences. Giving an example, I wrote, “Politicians advance solemn declarations and advise revising laws based in their good faith understanding that real insights have been gained by re-imagining the past…”
At the time, I had other politicians and declarations in mind; I did not know that the Minneapolis City council was preparing to vote the next day on a resolution declaring December 26, 2012 through December 26, 2013, “The Year of Dakota,” and calling for real world events like, “forums, events, symposia, conferences and workshops….” to educate the public about the content of the resolutions.
You can read the text of the declaration in this blog post by Minneapolis Second Ward Council Member, Cam Gordon, who thoughtfully credited Chris Mato Nunpa for sponsoring the resolution. It appears on the December 14, 2012 Council meeting video here starting at 10:20.
Last week, the St. Paul City Council passed a similar resolution on January 9, 2013, which you can watch here starting at 5:00.
Speaking generically, another year to dig deeper into the many stories of 1862 is a great idea. But the “Whereas”es in these particular resolutions got me. “Whereas” means “taking into consideration the fact that…” In other words, it signals that the clauses following the “whereas” are factual.
Factual to whom? That’s the rub.
This 150th commemorative year, I have been encouraged that in public and in private, Dakota and non-Dakota speakers alike acknowledge that there are many perspectives on the past, and that there is much to be gained from sharing and listening to multiple points of view.
That is a main theme emerging from Truth and Reconciliation efforts in Northern Ireland and South Africa: honoring the memories of multiple, diverse, communities combats the extreme nationalism that leads some to commit genocide against others who do not share their point of view.
But the 1862 resolutions passed by the Minneapolis and St. Paul City Councils are predicated on a singular re-visioning of the past. “Whereas” leaves no room for other, equally necessary, stories; it excludes them as untrue.
Despite the expressed hope of members in both councils that these resolutions will generate healing and reconciliation, international Truth and Reconciliation efforts suggest these resolutions may have the opposite effect.
Privileging any single story leads to division, even violence. Not healing.
John D. Brewer has helped facilitate the Truth and Reconciliation process in Northern Ireland. I have found food for thought and suggestions for meaningful action in Brewer’s article, “Memory, Truth, and Victimhood in Post Trauma Societies” (2006), available for free in the “selected papers available for download” list toward the bottom of the page linked in his name.
7,000 word papers on social psychology are not every reader’s cup of tea. But I hope to entice some of you to read it by excerpting below a passage that illuminates what these resolutions for what they are, even if the council members did not recognize it: a road map to selective nationalism.
Do we want to go there? Again?
Remember the resolutions nationalism birthed in 1862 and 1863? “Kill the whites!” and “Annihilate the Sioux!”
Nation-building has warped this story since 1862. 150 years is long enough.
Excerpt from John D. Brewer, “Memory, Truth and Victimhood in Post-trauma Societies” in G. Delanty and K. Kumar, The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism (London, 2006). Excerpt from pages 4-6 of the text linked here.
“Nations and memory are indivisible. Misztal refers to ‘communities of memory’ (2003: 155), in that memories help to mark social boundaries and define collective identity. These groups – families, ethnic, racial or religious communities, whole nations or global diaspora networks – are in part constituted by memory – that is, they are made up as units in part from the sense of shared past and common journeying that memories furnish – but these communities also help to constitute memory, in that they socialize us into what should be remembered and what forgotten. It is for this reason that there is such a strong link between memory and nationalism.
There are several dimensions to this relationship. Social memories are often linked to features of nationhood, to the physical and symbolic places, landscapes, cultural and historical sites and events that constitute the nation. We have personal memories of places and landscapes that link us collectively to the nation. Nations need a narrative by which to construct a sense of nationhood – a historical narrative of the past, a sense of the travails and triumphs on the journey to nationhood, a sense of collective identity and solidarity and so on – all of which memories help to supply. Nations require a sense of their past for reasons of social cohesion, memories of which are embodied in acts of public commemoration and in public memorials, in public images, texts, photographs and rituals that socialize us in what to remember. Nationhood also requires us to forget. Deliberate collective amnesia or denial helps in nation building since it excludes from the national narrative items that in the present here-and-now are problematic. These items might be anything that prevents the construction of the nation as an imagined community and which blur the social boundaries that mark the nation or which disrupt the formation of a common identity. They might also be any items that suggest that the members of the nation do not share a common destiny. Nations need to forget things from the past that dispute a common journeying to nationhood amongst its peoples and things that suggest a parting of the ways in the future….
The link between memory and communal violence is clear from this summary (for a fuller account see Ray, 2000). Social memory is one of the processes that people go to war about and memories of the violence can keep the enmity going. A comment on each is appropriate. Memory is often deeply embedded in the conflict precisely because memory defines the boundaries between the included and excluded groups, it shapes the identity of one’s own group and that of the marginalized other. The state or the powerful dominant community can manipulate memories – and history generally – to create an enemy and justify violence against them. Memories help to construct racial separateness; they can divide people into separate and distinct imagined communities. Public acts of remembrance or rituals of commemoration of past wars, usually done in honour of the victor who gets to write history from their point of view, can keep alive old divisions and continually reinforce the cultural inferiority of the vanquished and maintain some ethnic group as despised; and the vanquished can have their own ‘sad celebrations’ to keep alive their servitude and defeat….
Memories can also be used to develop a sense of vengeful justice, as Ray puts it (1999), in which some group feels ‘good cause’ to attack another to avenge some supposed or real historical affront. Ray explores how senses of the past were used in the Balkans as part of the genocide that befell the collapse of Yugoslavia because some groups had a distorted notion of themselves as having ethnically pure homelands in the past, which they wished to recreate. This analysis has much broader application. Notions of ‘historic homelands’ often lead to contested borders (Robin and Strath, 2003) and thus to violence in the name of justice, revenge, loss or restoration. For these and many other reasons, memory is implicated in war….”