Jeff Jacoby

Other civil-rights advocates strike the same foreboding tone. Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree insiststhat black voting rights are "being threatened at a level we haven't witnessed … since before the Voting Rights Act was passed." A spokeswoman for MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says the court's ruling "tries to disenfranchise Latinos and minorities from voting." The NAACP's Sherrilyn Ifill expresses alarm at a decision that "leaves virtually unprotected minority voters in communities all over this country.… This is a real threat."

I realize that part of this is posturing for effect by those with a vested interest in provoking racial anxieties. But I don't doubt that much of the fear and anger is genuinely felt, kept alive by communal memories of slavery and segregation that still exert a powerful psychological toll. To most Americans it may be an obvious and happy fact that the evils of Jim Crow are gone for good. For too many blacks, however, the chains of remembrance make it impossible to believe that the old racist impulses aren't still smoldering, ever ready to ignite.

Our capacity to remember, and to draw meaning from our memories, is invaluable to our humanity. I was raised in a Jewish tradition thatraises remembrance to the level of religious obligation – "Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out from Egypt" is one such injunction – and among a community of Holocaust survivors for whom "Never Forget" became almost an 11th Commandment.

But there is such a thing as remembering too much, of being so focused on the horrors of the past that present realities become permanently distorted. A child who lived through the Depression becomes a lifelong hoarder of string and scraps, incapable of accepting that the abundance she knows today won't be gone tomorrow. The same thing can happen to communities, groups, and nations. Collective remembrance can be ennobling and enriching. But it can also be debilitating.

Many American Jews, for example, are so indelibly shaped by historical memories of Christian anti-Semitism that they find it impossible not to be suspicious of the sincere philo-Semitism so common among evangelical Christians today.

Or consider a more global example: the impact of collective memory on modern European defense policy. Scarred by two horrendous world wars, much of Europe came to the conviction that military might and nationalist feeling are fundamentally illegitimate, and that security is best ensured through treaties, multilateral organizations, and the minimizing of sovereignty. The result, time and again, has been a rift between US administrations that believe in peace through strength and a European establishment that embraces appeasement as the safest response to aggression.

It is true, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her passionate Shelby County dissent, that "what's past is prologue." But what it is prologue to is not always more of the same. Sometimes the evils of the past really do lead to heartfelt — and permanent — progress. Even if some people, paralyzed by memory, cannot bring themselves to believe it.


Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.