As the world becomes increasingly globalized, the economic implications are often a hotly debated topic. Whether one is for or against broader financial integration, it is clear that the world is growing smaller. People, cultures and businesses are becoming more connected across national boundaries. What is perhaps not as often discussed is the effect of globalization on identity and collective memory.
At the collective level, national memories help foster a common sense of the present and future based upon a shared national destiny. In order to legitimate their current positions and future plans, all regimes borrow freely from the cardinal events of the past. Even more important is the role that memory plays when it comes to the future. It provides crucial reference points against which future actions can be weighed.
Memory, however, can be a double-edged sword. It can have a severely debilitating impact on a nation’s developmental progress. In the age of modern technology, traumatic memories can transcend generational boundaries and the limits of personal experience. Cancer continues to plague the descendants of those who survived the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In Vietnam, the abnormally high rate of birth defects due to the Agent Orange defoliant chemicals sprayed in the 1970s continues to sting as a festering wound in the Vietnamese narrative.
The ability of nations to come to terms with their past is vital for their developmental progress. This is particularly true in nascent democracies recovering from an extensive period of dictatorial or military rule. Totalitarian experiences leave a fragment of fratricidal memories in the nation. Concepts like nationalism and patriotism become almost inextricably linked to the authoritarian power of state abuse.
As a result, those memories must be addressed through suitable discourses of national reckoning so that forgiveness and reconciliation can occur and unresolved tensions are not left to accumulate. South Africa, for instance, has successfully made the transition from apartheid rule to majority rule by allowing honest memory discourses in its Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Nations unable to come to terms with a traumatic past have often succumbed to personal violence, revenge, blood feuds and an almost romantic sympathy for extreme political solutions.
The malleable nature of memory makes it highly vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation. Political exploitations of memory have often been used to further highly divisive nationalistic and militant ideological claims. In Japan, resistance to an honest reckoning of wartime atrocities has allowed the rise of a nativist-alien dichotomy. Tainted and untruthful memories have greatly helped to strengthen the hand of right-wing Japanese nationalists who condemn the postwar pacifist constitution as unacceptable. Their dogmatic nationalist doctrines, girded by memory, portray progressive concepts – such as liberalism and domestic reform – as a betrayal of the nation and have created a public backlash against them.
Memory can also adversely affect us by clouding our views of the future. Some argue that 9/11 was inaccurately assessed through the dogmatic lens of the past. After equating the rise of Islamic fundamentalism with Nazi fascism and forcing a moral clarity of sorts, the Bush administration has been accused of pushing the nation into two polemical extremes, bereft of a middle ground for rational discourse. In doing so, it triggered a negative reaction from moderate Muslims enraged about American arrogance and insensitivity.
Fortunately, the traumatic memories of our collective past are quickly being displaced by the formation of broader memories in today’s globalized world. The Holocaust is a particularly fitting example of the formation of cosmopolitan memories. Since the end of World War II, the Holocaust has moved from being a tragedy felt largely by Jewish victims to that of a tragedy of reason and modernity common to the global community. As such, the memory of the Holocaust has been used to argue for greater international efforts to combat human rights violations.
Thus – because they transcend ethnic and national boundaries – these new universal memories have the potential to become the cultural foundations for a global human rights political paradigm by unbinding memory from the uncompromising structures of the nation. Our hope for the future lies in this emerging transnational framework. It is on the global, more so than the national, level that memory will continue to play its instrumental role in shaping our lives.
Michael Ang is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.
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