A Loss of Memory?
In a recent Esquire article entitled "The Cold Open" by long-time contributor Charles P. Pierce, we are reminded of the power of memory, of our mandate public witness to history and politics, and our obligation to join together with others in order to shape a better future for our nation and our world. Pierce invokes the prescient words of Czech author Milon Kundera, who saw the struggle for independence from Soviet domination as one of "man against power... memory against forgetting." It is a timeless caution to all who profess to be democratic. He (Pierce) goes on to state "sooner or later, the effort to forget and to unknow becomes too much of a burden for too many people and they force the collapse of the system. Humans are driven to remember. Humans can crack from the effort it takes to deny and to forget. The consequences can be therapeutic or they can be catastrophic, for people and for the political societies into which they organize themselves... Without memory, there can be no connection with the world, nothing salvaged or brought forward. Without language, memory is orphaned. Without both of them, history is mute... Language and memory must work together not only to preserve the past but to illuminate the present and to build a future."
(Esquire magazine, May 2016-pp. 3-4)
Though I have not endured the brutality of a totalitarian regime, I have become a captive of my government and I cannot forget the prison experience. I will not remain silent nor will I "unknow" the things about man's cruelty towards others which have been revealed to me. Instead, I will gather together our stories--our language and memory-- and unite our collective voices to give words to anguish and sorrow, to ask your patience and understanding, to seek reconciliation and restoration of dignity, to demand that we not be forgotten. The risk of ignoring each other and dismissing one's humanity in the rush to judgment and punishment brings us far too close to the machinations of past and present authoritarian states our government all-too willingly and easily criticizes while simultaneously "forgetting" that which we do to our own citizens and to those who have no power to defend themselves. Suffering in the name of justice is a universal event that binds us together as humans and we will all be touched in our lives at some point, to some degree, by forces beyond our control which bring tears and anger and an intimate knowledge of helplessness. I beg you, as Charles P. Pierce has admonished us, to "remember what we are capable of doing to one another if we lose faith in every institution of self-government, especially those into which those into which we are supposed to channel our passions to constructive purpose." (p-4) Whereas Pierce was referring to the bloodshed of this nation's Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address to a people still torn asunder by hatred and violence, its message is no less imperative today as we witness political discord and our country's growing public cancer regarding the perception of "other" within our borders. Even our neighbors have become suspect and our hearts and minds have hardened to the communities behind bars we know so little about, yet turn away from in our revulsion and reactive obsession to "unknow."
Our prisoners deserve better things from us. They deserve hope and forgiveness equally tempered with the need for discipline and self-responsibility. They deserve a fair and balanced sentence which guarantees the offer to start a new without bias and intolerance. They deserve to be remembered for their goodness in spite of their failings, for their potential to achieve greatness if given the proper opportunity. These thoughts must be foremost in our hearts and minds if we are to welcome them home into our fold and our society once again. Our prisons are legally bound to be institutions of promise and healing not merely instruments of prejudice and division, expected to be centers of education and encouragement not only sites of denigration and failure-- we must stand together. We must find the conviction we once had to believe in each other, to uphold our shared rights as a democratic people. And our courts and legislatures must be charged with the greatest responsibility of all, a duty which requires the vision to see beyond punishment and blame to offer compassion, to feel empathy, and to build up the human in all of us.