Synopses & Reviews
The conventional wisdom about historical memory is summed up in George Santayana’s celebrated phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Today, the consensus that it is moral to remember, immoral to forget, is nearly absolute. And yet is this right?
David Rieff, an independent writer who has reported on bloody conflicts in Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia, insists that things are not so simple. He poses hard questions about whether remembrance ever truly has, or indeed ever could, “inoculate” the present against repeating the crimes of the past. He argues that rubbing raw historical wounds—whether self-inflicted or imposed by outside forces—neither remedies injustice nor confers reconciliation. If he is right, then historical memory is not a moral imperative but rather a moral option—sometimes called for, sometimes not. Collective remembrance can be toxic. Sometimes, Rieff concludes, it may be more moral to forget.
Ranging widely across some of the defining conflicts of modern times—the Irish Troubles and the Easter Uprising of 1916, the white settlement of Australia, the American Civil War, the Balkan wars, the Holocaust, and 9/11—Rieff presents a pellucid examination of the uses and abuses of historical memory. His contentious, brilliant, and elegant essay is an indispensable work of moral philosophy.
In "Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World," David Rieff looks at a city that was long the epitome of the American Dream and is now, for many, the emblem of the American urban nightmare. Writing before the riots of 1992, Rieff found not a city of dreams but a city of bitter contradictions. A city that, like the United States itself, was being transformed by immigrants and refugees from Latin America and East Asia from an extension of Europe to a diverse patchwork of the peoples of the world. This is an L.A. that has never been described before, "a brilliant and disturbing examination," as Joan Didion called it, "of the America we have not yet faced."
A leading contrarian thinker reflects on how the search for truth and justice can conflict with cultural reconciliation
About the Author
David Rieff is the author of eight previous books, including andlt;iandgt;Swimming in a Sea of Deathandlt;/iandgt;, andlt;iandgt;At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Interventionandlt;/iandgt;; andlt;iandgt;A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisisandlt;/iandgt;; and andlt;iandgt;Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the Westandlt;/iandgt;. He lives in New York City.