History and political action

Tzvetan Todorov just gave a terrific lecture to the UCLA Humanities Consortium, under the title “Memories: Past Identities, Future Projects.” He criticized the use of what he called “victim” and “hero” narratives to form national identity, and argued for a critical encounter with the past and the recognition of tragedy as historical reality. The talk, an extract from a forthcoming book to be called Memory and Hope, was learned, serious, wise, and witty.

Todorov told the stories of two concentration-camp survivors (both of them members of the Resistance we are now being told was “largely mythical”) who turned their experience into valuable public action: David Rousset, who broke with many of his comrades (and suffered abuse from the likes of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty) by bringing public attention to the camp system in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, and Germaine Tillon, who refused to take sides in the Algerian conflict but who spoke out against systematic torture.

Criticizing Santayana’s aphorism about the costs of studying history on the grounds that it implies that those who do study history are assured of not having to repeat it, Todorov said, “To avoid repeating the past, it is not sufficient to recite it.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com