The Right to Remember

Eduardo Galeano is an influential Uruguayan writer who sees the world for the way it is, not the way they want us to see it. In his thought-provoking book from 1998 Upside Down, this passage is one of the most eloquent evocations of the power of history I have come across. If a book such as this one genuinely did become a ‘primer’ to be read by all young people, the future would have a very different mindset than the present:

‘Forgetting, the powerful say, is the price of peace, and they impose on us a peace based on accepting injustice as an everyday norm. They’ve gotten us used to a peace in which life is scorned and remembering prohibited. The media and the schools don’t do much to help us integrate reality and memory. Evert fact appears divorced from the rest, divorced from its own past and the past of every other fact. Consumer culture, a culture of disconnectedness, trains us to believe things just happen. In capable of recalling its origins, the present paints the future as a repetition of itself; tomorrow is just another word for today. The unequal organisation of the world, which beggars the human condition, is part of eternity, and injustice is a fact of life we have no choice but to accept.

Does history repeat itself? Or are the repetitions only penance for those who are incapable of listening to it? No history is mute. No matter how much they burn it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. Despite deafness and ignorance, the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is. The right to remember does not figure among the human rights consecrated by the United Nations, but now more than ever we must insist on it and act on it. Not to repeat the past but to keep it from being repeated. Not to make us ventriloquists for the dead but to allow us to speak with voices that are not condemned to echo perpetually with stupidity and misfortune. When it’s truly alive, memory doesn’t contemplate history, it invites us to make it. More than in museums, where its poor old soul gets bored, memory is in the air we breathe, and from the air it breathes us.’

Eduardo Galeano, Upside Down – A Primer for the Looking Glass World

Galeano Cover

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