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Balancing remembrance and memory in an age of anxiety

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National War Memorial in Ottawa. Image: Paul Gorbould/Flickr

Remembrance is history's original vocation, argued the German philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin, as the past becomes visible only through remembrance. But remembrance is more important than just a marker of history. Through remembrance we have an opportunity to offer gratitude, in appreciation and honour of the memories of those who sacrificed the most. Dacher Keltner, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, traced the evolution of the concept of gratitude over the past 200 years, since philosopher Adam Smith argued that gratitude is the glue that holds communities together. Keltner concluded that gratitude is more than an emotion, it is a mindset as it shifts our focus away from the self to the other. Research has shown that individuals who feel grateful recognize the importance of  expressing gratitude and "appreciate the contribution of others to their well-being."

Equally important, remembrance draws its significance as a guard against forgetfulness. Implied in the phrase "lest we forget" is an ethical obligation. But what to remember? This is a question more easily posed than answered. Walter Benjamin professed that "history is to be not merely recorded but constructed." History of war is a prime example of this since memory of war is anchored in narratives, whose articulation tips preponderantly in favour of those with the agency and means to create, produce, propagate and control them. Whether oral, written, visual or in the form of monuments scattered across squares and parks around the country, narratives are constructed, revived, and reconstructed continuously. But what is often erased or forgotten is the memory of those who were oppressed, exploited, and unrecognized, often lumped together as collateral damage. All wars are fought twice, "the first time on the battlefield, and the second time in memory," argued Viet Thanh Nguyen, as he explored memories of the Vietnam War and how irresolvable conflict over memory and remembrance of that war still lingers.

More recently, in their book, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift traced the concerted effort to reconstruct the narrative around Remembrance Day. This effort gathered steam during the Stephen Harper era in which remembrance was reinvented and recast through a "militarized" prism, and in the process Canadian history and identity were reinterpreted. In this discourse, "Canada was created by wars, defended by soldiers, and kept free by patriotic support of its military virtues." Remembrance Day became a glorification of war rather than a commemoration of loss and gratitude for the sacrifices by the fallen. Furthermore, there was no space left to articulate and include other forms of memory that sit outside the specific narrative being constructed, the memory of the victims of war, and those who espouse anti-war ethics and question the value of war.  We are reminded that "the narratives of the history" are "not fixed," as Iris Marion Young once said, advocating for the idea of preservation of memory through "reconstructing the connection of the past to the present." However, for this reconstruction to take hold, it must start by reaffirming the imperative that "ethical memory" is oriented toward justice and the other -- rather than the self. This dictates a renegotiation of "what to remember" through the inclusion of multiple voices in the narratives around Remembrance Day. It is only then that we can reconcile the competing memories about war, peace and nation-building and how to honour those memories. Until then, as we observe Remembrance Day, we can challenge the premise that some memories are more Canadian than others.

Abdul Nakua is a community organizer, activist, and a proud Canadian, Ontarian and Muslim. He is an executive with the Muslim Association of Canada.

Image: Paul Gorbould/Flickr

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