The Economist Is Wrong Again (Or, Why Memory Is History)

First, The Economist published a book review a few weeks ago that criticized Edward Baptist’s book on slavery by saying that it was not “objective” because, according to the reviewer, “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains,” a review that was met with thoughtful rebuttal, understandable scorn and justified ridicule.

But that was two weeks ago, and things had died down, which probably explains why The Economist decided to stir the pot yet again by publishing an article claiming that “Memory is not history.”

But here’s the problem: yes, memory is history.

Because history is, at its essence, the study of the past as it relates to humans. And memory is a vital part of that process of relating the past to peoples both of the past and the present.

The article is problematic in any number of ways. It opens with the Museum of Memory in Chile, where “a map of Chile shows the 1,132 detention centres set up after the coup, each marked with a flashing light. In videotaped testimony, victims matter-of-factly describe the torture and sexual violence to which they were subjected.”

Yet the article then goes on to implicitly suggest that such memory-sites are engaging in “subjective and selective” practices in providing their own understanding of the past. This is highly problematic in any number of ways. First, most historians understand that the pretension to any true, “objective” history is a relic (one that, as The Economist’s review of Baptist’s book makes clear, The Economist itself seems to be entirely unaware of). Yes, there are dates and names (though even those can be subjective – are we using the Julian calendar, the Jewish calendar, the Islamic calendar, or indigenous calendars?), but dates and names aren’t history. History is the study of processes, of change over time, and how those processes affected and were affected by people and by historians. Given the multiplicity of worldviews, cultures, classes, experiences, etc., there cannot really be any non-subjective history, as each person understands and interprets the past (i.e., “does history”) in different ways.  That is not to say that different ways are equally valid – Holocaust deniers come to mind as a more obvious example of less-valid interpretations here – but history itself has been built on reconciling and interpreting the past based on differing accounts and views.

Just as problematic in the article’s implication that memory is “subjective” is the tacit suggestion that there can ever be an “objective” source. The author is likely thinking, in a very Rankean sense, that the written word is more “legitimate,” be it in the form of government data, official documents, or, in the case of Argentina, concrete numbers. Yet these themselves are highly problematic. The article cites the original Truth Commission’s findings, in the mid-1980s, that the Argentine military disappeared “only” 8,960 people, not the 30,000 that is usually cited. But this is problematic in that A) the Truth Commission itself did not happen in a vacuum, but took place in a fraught political climate where the military still had sway, B) forensics were not nearly as developed then as they are now, making tracking the disappeared more difficult, C) it left no room for the events in which entire families would have been disappeared, making it more difficult to know their fates, D) it left no room for people who had not been in contact with loved ones for years and who were disappeared, and E) understandings and analysis of both forensics and human rights have since pointed to 30,000 being closer to the “actual” number than the 8960. And in some ways, the exact number distracts from the main point, which is: the Argentine dictatorship killed (at least) thousands of its own citizens in a brutally repressive and efficient regime.

And it’s not like these regimes did not try to shape memory themselves; even they (unlike The Economist) acknowledged both implicitly and explicitly the importance of memory. That was one intention and effect of using disappearances – regimes could literally silence groups who disagreed with or opposed the regime’s own vision of history, effectively trying to monopolize both nation and history (hardly “objective” projects). Indeed, even as such regimes collapsed, they were well aware of the need to shape history in their own way, be it through the destruction of documents (an issue still at the heart of Brazil’s Truth Commission), or even in the destruction of physical sites, as Argentina’s government destroyed prison centers in order to “eliminate evidence” of their crimes. Some of these physical sites are gone, erased from history.

Or rather, they would be, if it weren’t for memory. Because through the memories of survivors of these regimes, they were able to not only recount the horrors of torture, but to help map and uncover sites of torture and disappearance. So if the regime happened to tear down a major torture center where thousands of disappeared passed through, and then built an overpass over it to “erase” it from history, through memory, we have been able to return such centers, and their victims’ stories, back to the historical narrative. How do I know? Because I’ve been to such sites. That’s exactly what happened at the Club Atletico torture center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, torn down and with an overpass built over it, but now an archaeological site where they have uncovered the remains of the building and turned the location into a memory site, effectively “rescuing” the site and its history of torture and returning it to historical narrative. How were they able to do this historical rescuing? Through memory.

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The memory site at Club Atletico in Buenos Aires, under the overpass that the military built after tearing down the torture site.

Another major problem with the article is its reliance upon false equivalency, an argument that, as I and others have commented before, is extremely flawed. The article claims that “The historical truth silenced by “memory” is that the cold war in Latin America was fought by two equally authoritarian sides.” As Lillie notes, this is nonsense. Yes, leftist groups, often armed, sought revolution that would fundamentally transform society, and yes, such groups committed acts of violence against perceived “enemies.” But “equally authoritarian?” Even if armed lefts had taken power, we’ll never know if they would have committed violence on the level of the right-wing dictatorships, because the armed and revolutionary lefts did not take power. The right did. Thus, the article is effectively implying a counter-historical “what if” which, while an entertaining and occasionally useful thought exercise, actually is not history (unlike memory). Put another way, whether it was in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, or elsewhere, there was never an equality of violence. While armed leftist groups sometimes (but not always) committed acts of violence, they never had the apparatus of the state, the military institutions that could and did work en masse to repress, torture, and terrorize the population, or the bureaucracies that could cover up or elide the use of such repression. And that’s to say nothing of the systematic use of censorship and the stripping of individuals’ political rights that authoritarian regimes of the right did commit. Put another way: not all leftist groups were either armed or advocated violence, and even those that did neither theoretically envisioned regimes that used torture and terror against the population writ large, nor actually implemented such regimes. The right did. To suggest that “both sides were equally authoritarian” is nonsense, because in order to be authoritarian, you actually have to have access to the instruments and mechanisms of power that allow you to rule in an authoritarian fashion. The leftist movements, armed or unarmed, never did; the right-wing military dictatorships did.

Is memory alone history? Of course not. To rely on memory alone is equally methodologically problematic for historians, and that’s why we often use other sources, written, visual, or otherwise, as well. Yet memory is a part of history. Memory provides a way for people who are often ignored by the “official” sources to be heard, whether it be an illiterate worker who can leave no written record, indigenous peoples whose histories are passed down orally, or just marginalized groups who are finally given to speak beyond those “official” (yet far from “objective”) written sources. Likewise, the study of collective memory itself is increasingly important to historians, as it helps us understand the relationship between historical process, historical moment and context, and public memory – put another way, it helps us understand historically why we remember what we remember and, by implication, what we’ve forgotten (intentionally or unintentionally) and why.

Is memory history? Not in and of itself, no. But memory is a part of history, and a vital one. In light of recent items published in The Economist, it’s unsurprising they fail to understand the basic practice or theory of history. Fortunately, we can remember their failings.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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