The Right Coast

April 04, 2004
On the Virtue (and Vice) of Forgetfulness
By Gail Heriot

I went to the Cirque du Soleil this evening–a wonderful show that I recommend highly. But I won’t waste your time or mine by trying to explain why. You’ll get a better idea from the web site. Right now I’d rather write about what I saw in the parking lot.

Since the Cirque du Soleil is from Quebec, the trucks behind the tents all bore Quebec plates–something we don’t see a lot of here in California. I’m not sure that I’d noticed one since I used to vacation in Maine as a child. Back then, Quebec license plates contained the innocuous slogan “La Belle Province.” Unbeknownst to me, that had changed in 1978, when the motto “Je me souviens” (or “I remember”) taken from the Quebec coat of arms was adopted instead. It remains on license plates there today.

"Remember what?" you might ask. The motto was stamped onto Quebec license plates not long after Quebec separatists were swept to power in provincial elections in the late 1970s. They didn’t care for the tourist-board-sounding “La Belle Province;” indeed they probably weren’t too keen on any reference to Quebec’s provincial status. They remembered a glorious French past, of course, but the main thing they remembered was the defeat of French forces by the British on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. And they’re still not very happy about it. “Je me souviens” remains a rallying cry for the cause of separatism today.

I’ve got no horse in that race, but if I were an English-speaking Canadian, that license plate might give me the willies. In this country, a similar license would be unthinkable. Georgia simply cannot adopt a slogan like “We haven't forgotten General Sherman” to replace “The Peach State.”

Why would an “I remember” license plate be unlikely here? Part of the reason is that Americans really don’t remember. For good or ill (and I think it’s both), we’re a forgetful people. If there’s anybody in the entire country still stewing about something that occurred in 1759, they won’t admit it. That kind of memory isn't much admired. Remembering is for Europeans–Serbs and Croatians, Greeks and Turks, or English and Irish. Many of us are descended from people who came here precisely to get out from under long, bitter, and useless feuds.

Forgetting sometimes gets us in trouble. We forgot about the first bombing of the World Trade Towers; we forgot about the U.S.S. Cole. And we do a less than stellar job of teaching new generations about the ideas that created the nation. Forgetfulness has cost us dearly and it will probably cost us again in the future. But it has its positive aspects too. Americans don’t bear grudges the way that some others do.

Sure, it would be nice if we could remember the things that ought to be remembered and forget the things that are best forgotten. But I doubt the distinction can be drawn cleanly. Perhaps no matter what we do, we will err slightly on one side or another. If that’s the case, maybe it’s better that we be slightly forgetful.