The Memory Industry

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Lawrence Weschler, director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU,  Ian Buruma, frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and the Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard, and Kanan Makiya, professor of Middle East studies at Brandeis University, take a critical look at our urge to commemorate.  All three will participate in the all-day symposium "Second Thoughts on the Memory Industry" Saturday, May 7th at NYU.


Ian Buruma, Kanan Makiya and Lawrence Weschler

Comments [41]

Bengi from Bronx

We must take from the Holocaust to serve as a compass and map to guide us forward… [and] not bury our heads in the sand; we must not shake off the threat in scorn and disregard. Has the world learned this lesson? I doubt it. Have we learned this lesson? I believe we have.. When the People of Israel and the IDF say ‘never again’ – we mean it.” Benjamin Netanyahu May 2, 2011 (on Holocaust Remembrance Day.)

May. 12 2011 03:52 PM
Eli from Tel Aviv

No Forgiveness for the Humiliation

Ma’ariv May 2, 2011 by Ruti Sinai

Israel is addicted to the memory of the Holocaust. Every year, it commemorates the victims and clings to the stories of their heroism. It prefers, however, to forget the living, whose only sin was to survive the horrors. The state’s attitude towards the survivors has always been complex. Israel was established as a refuge for them, but they were received with mixed emotions. Their image was exilic and weak, passive and submissive, the complete opposite of the image of the Jew who was fighting against his enemies to create a new Jewish society in Israel.

[A]t least seven large bodies and dozens of smaller bodies deal with assistance to the survivors.

The main beneficiaries of the confusion and complication are hordes of bureaucrats and lawyers who maintain the Holocaust “industry.” There is no lack of money. The company set up by the government to locate and return assets of victims to their heirs holds assets estimated at NIS 800 million or more. No heirs have been found, or will be found, for most of the money, and it is mainly intended for poor survivors.

Another important use has been found for the money—over NIS 20 million per year are allocated for the operation of the company and the salaries of its employees and directors.

Every old person in Israel deserves to live out his or her life with a minimum of suffering and a maximum of dignity. This is especially true when speaking about individuals who live every day, every month, every year in the shadow of searing longing for loved ones who perished. In Israel we have a hard time realizing that they, too, were heroes. In a ghetto or a concentration camp, the mere acts of staying alive, every breath and every bite of moldy, stale bread were acts of heroism.

Instead of providing for their needs quietly, in private, we hold festivals of poverty around them. Today there is nothing done for Holocaust survivors, not one shekel is budgeted for their benefit without hails of glory and a PR campaign, complete with photo-ops. Take, for example, an invitation that was sent yesterday ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day. “I am pleased to invite you to the launch ceremony,” wrote the media advisor who wrote the invitation. For what? A new perfume? A new collection of jewelry? Nope. An aid project for hospitalized Holocaust survivors, “initiated and administered by the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims' Assets. The name of the project, “Aid to Holocaust Survivors,” was undoubtedly thought up by the best PR minds.

Nazi Germany tried to steal the spark of humanity from the Jews. The State of Israel is stealing the last shred of dignity from the survivors. For this suffering there can be no forgiveness, no excuse for the humiliation.

May. 12 2011 07:44 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I 1st noticed what I called a "victim contest" during the Crown Heights riots. Whichever side could prove its victimhood was worse was therefore the *only* victim, & that meant whatever it did to the other side was "self-defense." Since then I've seen similar patterns in many other conflicts all over the world. I wonder what it takes to move past that.

May. 06 2011 12:55 AM
DTorres from Nathan Strauss Projects

Had Osama Bin Laden, backed by USA/CIA when fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, been killed fighting the
Soviets, would we then claim that the
Soviets killed our freedom fighter?

May. 05 2011 04:40 PM
Cab from NYC

Remembrance should perhaps include acknowledging that we are capable of crossing the line between hero and villain in our own traditions.

My mother told me of the horror of the man made famine in the Ukraine during the Stalin era. Her family folklore also included the Zaporozian Cossacks from centuries ago. My father's family goes back to the Civil War, the Revolution and before and includes some ancestry from Native Americans as well as those who settled on their land.

The idea that we can all be the villains in each other's histories is not an easy one to accept. There is a good probability that we are all descended from people who had caused suffering as well as those forced to endure it. Remembrance should reinforce the need to treat all others as we would like to be treated.

America is a land where the past, while not forgotten, should put aside, for reference rather than reverence, for the purpose of moving forward and creating a more positive and peaceful future.

May. 05 2011 02:22 PM
Linda from Potomac, MD

There are other functions of memory- namely as a cautionary tale and also to create and reinforce empathy. The function of the Passover seder is specifically to convey to our children, as the Haggadah from which we read is phrased in first person- reading "when I was a slave in Egypt- the suffering of the Jewish people under the slavery imposed by the Pharaohs of Egypt. The hope is that we will be defenders of freedom because we know what it is like to not be free!

May. 05 2011 12:56 PM
Vic from .

Speaking of, "the memory industry", (truth, myth, & brain-washing) it's amazing (a-mazing) how the evidence on the controlled demolition of the World Trade Center Towers has been overlooked, ignored, & covered up by the power & control interest$ in our society.
Years ago, WBAI had the courage to challenge the "official story", & to promote an investigation of 9/11 by broadcasting the narration of the the documentary film, The 9/11 MYSTERIES - Demolitions.
This effort never gained momentum, & the issue fell into the dubious category of "conspiracy theories".
Is it a conspiracy to state the fact that these massive Twin Towers collapsed to the ground (into their own footprint) at near free fall speed...?
How would this be possible without the aid of controlled demolition?
Concerning "the memory industry", would you, Mr. Lehrer, be willing to comment on this fact, & on the, 9/11 MYSTERIES - Demolitions ?

May. 05 2011 12:21 PM

Conclusion of comment:.

As Jared Diamond wrote in" Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," the societies in which the elites, the leaders, were disconnected from and little affected by the factors causing pain and decline among their people were the societies which failed.

Are we headed for a big Fail?

Too bad we don't remember the lessons of the turn of the last century's Progressive movement, those of the Great Depression. Too bad we don't build on the strengths JFK and LBJ brought to our society with Medicare and Medicaid and much else.

Today, we're instead having a re-do of Hoover's administration. Hoover believed that jobs programs were necessary to get the country out of the depression of his term in office, but he cut way back when the money men of his day persuaded him that we could not go into debt to save the economy.

Even FDR was affected by the money men, the austerians of his day, when he cut programs too soon and unemployment went up again.

Now, our Democratic president and many DC Democrats are being influenced by the money men, the austerians.

So strange how we so often repeat past mistakes.... But not strange that there is a feeling of unease, which may extend to remembering an event such as 9/11.

How many people actually place flowers on the graves of those killed in our wars on Memorial Day? Or realize that used to be regularly done?

May. 05 2011 11:36 AM

Re: Remembering and memorialization --

I fear that the politicization of 9/11 is leading to some people reacting negatively to the idea of remembering what happened and those who died and how all suffered.

Using 9/11 to go into an illegal and unnecessary war in Iraq, along with possibly an unnecessary war in Afghanistan (good intel and police work would have done much more to bring the perpetrators to real justice, not just vengeance, but that is my opinion), along with many little and secret wars is causing negative feelings about that awful event.

Now, using the expense of those wars to subsequently claim there is no way to try to manage global warming, for just one example of problems deeply affecting our society, is perhaps causing the negative feelings associated with those wars and the obvious lack of action on problems which affect every person in our nation, and some affecting every person in this world to transfer to remembering 9/11.

Just a thought. I've noticed almost a numbness about the death of Osama bin Laden. It's almost as if he was so much yesterday's news (and Bush when president did say he seldom thought about OBL). As if OBL really had no effect on what's happening to real people's outside-the-Beltway lives.

Outside the Versailles-like atmosphere of Washington, and outside those in the media and press who serve as courtiers and mouthpieces for those in government and in power, people are in serious economic trouble. Longest, deepest jobs losses since the Great Depression. Huge discrepancies between incomes of the top 1% and the bottom, what, 50% 60% 80%? And growing, with ever more tax cuts for the very wealthy considered more important that jobs for the unemployed, the disemployed. Now, everyday necessities, such as food and energy, are going up in price, while the overall inlfation level rises little. But for people who must buy these necessities and don't have the wherewithal to buy higher value newest Ipads at the same price (which a Fed member said meant the cost of living wasn't increasing), these necessities are eating up almost all their discretionary income. The standard of living for the non-wealthy is falling. As is longevity for the non-wealthy.

But, in Versailles, the topic is wars and deficits and cuts to the social safety net. For FDR, Social Security was just one leg of retirement security, along with pensions and personal savings: The three-legged stool. Obama is saying, well, let's just break one leg now, the other later, while the Republicans are saying, no, no, no, break them both immediately! All people must save for their own old ages, whether they are poor, working class, lower middle, etc. Just because your entire paycheck goes for necessities doesn't mean you can't save like someone with loads of descretionary income, folks.

May. 05 2011 11:34 AM
Lisa Osborne from Long Valley, nj

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of our Civil War, a confederate flag can still (after 150 years!) stir deep pain and hatred, no matter the intent of those who only may wish to honor soldiers, brothers, fathers and friends caught on separate sides. I have lived in NY and in the deep South and I doubt that we will as a people forget the anger of the symbolism of the Twin Towers afire, as someone choosing to attack our civilians in such an unprovoked and aggressive manner- not in 10 morr oe 100 more years, no more than will we continue to fight whether the flying of the Confederate flag is showing loyalty to fallen soldiers who were our countrymen, or is a symbolism of hatred and racism. What our history does confirm is that the reasons for, the errors made, and the possible coconspirators never brought to justuce - may be lost among the commercialism of the t-shirts, bumper stickers, politics and politicians, and any tourist sit or memorial itself, as those who have never walked through the streets of NYC and craned their necks at the heights og the towers will not truly be able to grasp at the vast empty space both laterally and skyward, for where the Twin Towers stood, especially as the remaining buildings are erected. It could very easily appear at ground level to a first timer as a planned green space. Just as tourism through the south doesnt give one the truest sense of what and why each family chose a side and fought.

May. 05 2011 11:27 AM
Elpe from Brooklyn

There is a huge, beautiful column in the middle of Fort Greene Park that few people know the name of. It's the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument. Over 10,000 people died during the American Revolution on horrific prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay (where the Brooklyn Navy Yard is.) These were not just soldiers but civilian men, women and children - anyone the British deemed the enemy throughout their control of NY during the war. More people died on those ships than died in battle during the revolution.

I always like to ask my friends and fellow New Yorkers if they know what the column is for, and I've yet to find anyone who does. September 11 will go down in history like a Pearl Harbor, but so many important historic "never forget" moments are forgotten over time.

Maybe it's instinctual to hang onto historic memories that play along with our current thought, and to drop those that contradict what we want to believe. Clearly (as demonstrated with all the anglophile attention to the royal wedding) it wouldn't necessarily gel with our modern world and our modern allies to remember what those 10,000 died for and who killed them.

May. 05 2011 11:17 AM
Harry from - USA

Tell your news reader that the CNN poll shows more Democrats than Republicans want Osama's photo released ! NPR news - still a joke.

May. 05 2011 11:04 AM
barlow from astoria

Your guest mentions "great art" would have been necessary to make a memorial successful. THat is the answer: a great tradition of art, or a great individual artist can create a timeless memorial that will speak for generations. All this discussion is too much intellectual parsing of societal issues...great art eliminates all this. Even Roberta Smith this week questions "painting... its status as a precious, high-skill commodity". Great art would offer a lot to discuss other the medium itself.

May. 05 2011 10:59 AM
anon from New York/New Jersey

I am hoping the 10th anniversary of 9/11 will put the rest the nonstop exploitation of the event. I think that rather than abandoning the survivors that will be helping them - they need to heal and move forward and as long as we need them to be "martyrs once removed" they won't be able to.

p.s. Peter King is the worst offender! He needs therapy for PTSD. I say that in all sincerity.

May. 05 2011 10:58 AM

Did I just hear, before the break, Brian say, "If global warming is real...."??

This was just after his guest was talking about what we would remember about this first decade of the 21st C after 100 years, and the guest said he accepted there would be consequences from global warming.

My understanding of the science is that global warming is very real, with many measurements saying this is actual and happening.

At this time, while science can predict various outcomes such as rising sea levels, more intense precipitation, stronger weather patterns, and, of course, higher temperatures and resulting climate change, it cannot predict exactly how much or when.

So, climate change is real, measured, and accepted as scientific fact. What will happen when is still open to discussion and research.

But, is every public radio talk show host and reporter now obligated to give a nod to the rightwing, conservatives, 21st C. knownothings, and climate change deniers?

Please, that was a slip of tongue, caused by a FOX and other MCMers* brain worm?

*MCMers -- Members of the Mainstream Corporate Media

May. 05 2011 10:57 AM
CQ from nyc

How to move on when, in the case of Japan for instance, the perpetrators and their descendants all but refuse material reparations and even national admission?

May. 05 2011 10:57 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I was born in a DP refugee camp in Germany to survivors. My mother lost everyone, including my grandmother and her first child, brothers, etc. And yet, I was not raised to be a suicide bomber or to hate forever, or to remove Germany from the map. I also happen to have been opposed to all of these Holocaust theme parks, and feel only two should have been built - in Jerusalem and Berlin. Now if the Palestinians, who suffered far, far less could adopt a similar attitude, maybe peace could really be obtained in our time.

May. 05 2011 10:56 AM
Jean Mensing from email

What is the name of the Szymborska poem. I can't find it in my collection. thank you

May. 05 2011 10:56 AM
RJ from prospect hts

two points:
* If a memorial representing the size, height, etc., of the 9/11 were built in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the entire country would be covered in memorials--over 2 million dead (conservatively) in the last dozen years.

* There's a difference between remembering as a culture/society and remembering as individuals or immediate community.

May. 05 2011 10:55 AM
Steve from Rockville Centre, NY

A historian had noted that there were the "do-nothing Europeans" and the "know-nothing Americans". That is, Europeans look towards the past and remember every historical grievance and Americans look forward. Post 9/11 I think America is now like the Europeans.
Come September, 2011, I'm flying to Antarctica so I can be as far away from NYC and all the remembering as possible.

May. 05 2011 10:55 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I was born in a DP refugee camp in Germany to survivors. My mother lost everyone, including my grandmother and her first child, brothers, etc. And yet, I was not raised to be a suicide bomber or to hate forever, or to remove Germany from the map. I also happen to have been opposed to all of these Holocaust theme parks, and feel only two should have been built - in Jerusalem and Berlin. Now if the Palestinians, who suffered far, far less could adopt a similar attitude, maybe peace could really be obtained in our time.

May. 05 2011 10:55 AM
Michael from NYC

it's not "never forget" it's "never again".

May. 05 2011 10:55 AM
LL from UWS

An eye for an eye is not about about revenge; it's about measured response, it's about justice. ONLY (the cost of) an eye for an eye.

For a better Bible lesson on the danger of wanting revenge, look at the Psalm "By the Waters of Babylon" and if you can get the audio of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermon on the topic it's one of the most moving sermons I've ever heard on the subject.

May. 05 2011 10:53 AM
Gene Miller from New York

Passover tells the story of persecution and liberation. It's been kept very much alive since the babalonian exile. I'd like to hear your thoughts about this.

May. 05 2011 10:52 AM
Phil from Brooklyn

@ Tom: You are right. Maya Lin's idea for the Vietnam War Memorial was so revolutionary at the time, but since then, no one on a memorial committee has been able to imagine anything else. Even she has moved on to new ideas.

May. 05 2011 10:50 AM
Harry from - USA

I never thought my bumper sticker could be racist!

May. 05 2011 10:50 AM
Dan from Brooklyn

I'm struck that we have virtually no culture of memory about the communities of gay men that were decimated by AIDS in the 80s. (As a Jew, I'm familiar with the opposite trend towards compulsory remembrance.)

I'm wondering what advice the guests can give the gay community as it develops strategies of memorialization.

May. 05 2011 10:49 AM
Phil from Brooklyn

"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."

-George Orwell, 1984

May. 05 2011 10:46 AM
Bobby G from East Village

I really dislike the esthetic of the WTC Memorial. It is a permanent funereal presence, separated from the life of the city. It even has mono-cultural nature -- one type of tree. Whatever happened To Rudy Giuliani's soaring memorial, injecting new life, and becoming integrated into the vitality of the city?
To me that would honor the fallen.

May. 05 2011 10:46 AM
tom from astoria

As an artist I find that our current modes of memorial design are extremely abstract: essentially names on a wall. Think of the great art of ancient times that stops us in our tracks -- and we are visually reminded of thosw times. That is successfull memorializing. When I submitted a design for Ground Zero that was full of relief sculpture that actually depicted the life of lower Manhattan and the events of 9-11. Then I saw the jury list: people steeped in contemporary art and our bland text & minimalist tradition of memorial making.

May. 05 2011 10:44 AM
Claudia from Manhattan.

I do believe that we should remember and honor the past, but not be blinded by it.

Isn't the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict a prime example of being blinded by the anger of remembering the past.

May. 05 2011 10:44 AM
Leonard Seastone from Sayville, LI

D.H. Lawrence: There is nothing wrong with dying, it is only when they pull down the living (paraphrase)

May. 05 2011 10:44 AM
Elizabeth Lapin

Would like a comment about asking the following question: Does how we remember say something more about our own culture and who we are? This became evident to me during my visit at the Auschwitz Museum fifteen years ago, in which how hair and shoes were displayed told me something about post-war German art. Even the fact that there was a museum at all says something about the way we remember. I wrote a poem, called "The History of Hair".

May. 05 2011 10:44 AM

Someone from Georgia once told me he always dreads going home for the holidays because of his relatives' obsession with rehashing the Civil War.

May. 05 2011 10:42 AM
Gary buonanno from Ct

This isn't really new; just visit the battlefield at Gettysburg & look at every pre-1900 town square in America. The civil war was the most traumatizing event up to that time.ctWhat's new is the sheer number of traumatizing events in the last 100-or so years.

May. 05 2011 10:42 AM
Edward from NJ

Those who remember the past too well are doomed to avenge it.

May. 05 2011 10:40 AM
SKV from NYC

Never Forget is a dangerous mantra, if people interpret it as also meaning Never Forgive.

May. 05 2011 10:39 AM
Steve from Bergen County

The other day on the radio I heard a man obviously upset about the Civil War. "The Yankees came down and raped and killed our women!" How old was this guy?

May. 05 2011 10:38 AM
Kressel from Monsey, NY

"When Pharoah restored the chief butler to his position as foretold by Joseph in his interpretation of the butler's dream, he forgot Joseph. "Yet the chief butler did not remember Joseph but forgot him." (Genesis 40:23). Why does the Bible use this repetitive language? It is obvious that if the butler forgot Joseph, he did not remember him. Yet both verbs are used, "not remembering" and "forgetting." The Bible, in using this language, is teaching us a very important lesson. There are events of such overbearing magnitude that one ought not to remember them all the time, but one must not forget them either. Such an event is the Holocaust."
— Rabbi Israel Spira, the Bluzhover Rebbe

May. 05 2011 10:37 AM
MLynn Miller from Upstate NY

I have to agree with your guest about the perpetual memorialization and all the "never forgets". Seems a lot like scratching open old sores.

May. 05 2011 10:36 AM

"Our society is obsessed with commemoration and memory?" Yea, that reminds me -- Happy Cinco de Mayo! "Never Forget," man.


Which reminds me -- a belated Happy Labor Day. Can't forget that one either, comes right after Good Friday (which is...) Gotta run, I need to find the photos I took of my ex-friend's first marriage, it's right there on his "friend" request.

You want to hear about "obsessing over memories, ask a Chinese person, a Vietnamese person -- heck, even a Frenchman. Ask anybody but an American -- we are the famous forgettors! The reinventors!

May. 05 2011 09:27 AM

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