Commentary Magazine

The Conscious Act of Forgetting

AP Photo/Paulo Duarte

Trayon White, the Washington D.C. councilman who earned national scorn last month when he blamed this winter’s persistent snow on the work of a shadowy cabal of Jewish conspirators, is trying to broaden his perspective. His unpublicized attempts at penance have included attending a Passover seder, meeting with local Jewish leaders, and making a sojourn to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. That last bit went about as well as you might expect.

“Are they protecting her?” White asked his tour guide. He was referring to a 1935 photograph that shows a woman being paraded through the streets by uniformed Sturmabteilung. Around the woman’s neck was a sign that read, “I am a German girl and allowed myself to be defiled by a Jew.” White adhered to his interpretation even after it was explained to him that this was an effort to dehumanize Jews and stigmatize associations with them.

Discomfited by the experience, White apparently snuck out of the tour early. The staffers he left behind were, however, no better educated about one of the 20th Century’s greatest crimes than their boss. When they were confronted by imagery of and a lecture on the Warsaw ghetto—one of many walled enclaves into which Jews were packed and denied food and medicine before they were all eventually sent to the death camps—they seemed perplexed. One asked if this was the Nazi version of a “gated community.”

Though it remains unclear if these experiences convinced White to abandon his prejudices, he did tell reporters that he was grateful to have met a lot of “good Jews.”

As the 20th century’s horrors fade from living memory, columnists and commentators have settled on the word “forgetting” to describe the powerful way in which nostalgia cleanses the memory of trauma. Increasingly, the atrocities of that period and the mock science that justified them exist only on grainy, black-and-white celluloid. But to call it a “forgetting” implies passivity. In White’s case, forgetting appears to be a choice, which isn’t forgetting at all. It’s more like banishment.

Unfortunately, Councilman White—who, at age 33, is representative of a generation with almost no memory of the great ideological struggles of the last century—is in voluminous company. According to the  Claims Conference, 40 percent of White’s fellow Millennials could not name a single Nazi extermination camp and 41 percent think the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust has been wildly exaggerated. This is disturbing, in part, because it is the result of a conscious effort.

Absorbing details about the Holocaust isn’t something that can only be accomplished in AP history classes or amid undergraduate seminars dedicated to the topic. These experiences are woven into our shared cultural heritage. To be unable to name Auschwitz, Sobibór, Bergen-Belsen, or Dachau is to have somehow failed to consume or internalize any number of books, films, and graphic novels set at these bleak outposts. Questioning the number of Jews targeted for death in the Holocaust may be the result of consuming conspiratorial and anti-Semitic media outlets. But it’s more likely that responses like these may be an effort on the part of the under-educated to appear sophisticated. After all, centrism and moderation are virtues, and the truth of a contested claim lies somewhere in between two poles. According to such thinking, the truth of the Holocaust is probably some middle ground between no dead Jews and six million killed.

This is laziness in pursuit of a shortcut to erudition, and it is the same phenomenon that has all but successfully rehabilitated the ideology responsible for the greatest horrors of the last century: socialism.

Two years after Senator Bernie Sanders ran a surpassingly competitive campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination as an unapologetic “Democratic Socialist,” a crop of young office-seekers are attempting to duplicate his success. The New York Times profile of these far-left candidates notes that their supporters, “many of them millennials,” are drawn to the notion that the government should be empowered to “combat income inequality” and rescue them from a competitive job market and its associated costs (student loans,  high rent in safe neighborhoods, etc.). These grievances are legitimate, of course. So, too, were the grievances that brought oppressive governments to the fore not just in the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany but in Western Europe (albeit with markedly less bloodshed).

Surveys have routinely found that young adults’ fondness for socialism is directly proportional to their inability to accurately define it. Conceptually, millennials are more predisposed than their elders to oppose government intervention in the private sector, but that concept has to be spelled out before young adult respondents express reservations. Millennials are apt to describe socialism as some form of “togetherness,” “charity,” or simply support for a robust social safety net. These are not jackbooted Tankies eager to defend ethnic cleansings or murderous political purges. These are not the 20th-century intellectuals who convinced themselves of the legitimacy of bloodshed in defense of a new world order. They are, however, the desired product of generations who devoted themselves to scrubbing socialism’s excesses from shared cultural touchstones.

Socialism’s revival is the product of a tireless effort by fellow travelers in the Western intellectual and artistic firmament to wash the blood stains away. Millennials who find themselves attracted to it today are unfamiliar with its legacy, and that is by design. So many of their elders looked away when the last century’s self-described socialists repurposed ancient ethnic grievances as class warfare and, at long last, got their revenge. Today, as the uncompromising logic of “Never Again” presents this generation with a series of unwanted policy dilemmas, the Holocaust is fading from memory, too. That is not the result of a passive process. Forgetting is a choice, and we must treat it like one.

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