wholepeace

NEVER FORGET! — The Fog of History and the Mutability of Memory

In PeaceAble, Politics on August 21, 2017 at 10:29 am

Never forget!
We mark the anniversaries on our calendars. We set up memorial and statues. We raise money. We write it down in the history books.
But we do forget.
We remember the dates and the events. We mark them as points on a timeline. It’s been fifty years since X, 100 years since Y, only 10 years since Z. It feels longer or shorter.
Doctoral dissertations are written to analyze them, put them into the larger context, explain them. These are the things that made a difference, that changed us. If it hadn’t happened, how would we be different, what would be better, or worse?
But still we forget. We remember the dates and the events, but forget what is most important. We remember the events and forget the history; remember the details and forget the human.
John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States was shot and killed, November 22, 1963, while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. John Connolly, the Texas Governor was also shot, but survived. A man named Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the murder, but was himself assassinated before he could stand trial, by a man named Jack Ruby. Ruby died in prison of a fatal disease he knew he had before he shot Oswald, and before he could stand trial. In the hours after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy stood next to Lyndon Johnson as he became president. Was she still wearing the dress with her husband’s blood on it? I was sitting in a chemistry class in Holbrook, Massachusetts, when we got the word. The announcement was made. The President has been shot. Classes are dismissed. A friend and I walked home together, looking at the people passing in the street, and wondered who knew and who did not. In our inexpressible teenage fear and confusion and inability to really understand, we laughed at the absurdity of it all. The President was dead, everything was different, but we didn’t know how or why or what it would mean to us.
But these are things I know. I couldn’t tell you where my memories and my knowledge intersect. My memories are reconstructions from the details I know, but I couldn’t tell you if those are really the most important details or just the most vivid. By the time we got out of the sixties, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both dead. The next twenty years saw a President resign, and two more Presidents shot. I know these things more than remember them.
We all forget.
I know that I do not remember World War Two. I don’t remember Hitler or the Nazis, Mussolini or the fascists, Hirohito or Pearl Harbor. I know about these things but do not remember them any more than I can remember the Alamo or the Maine.
We can, as we look at current events, look at the history books. We can read about the Holocaust and the concentration camps. There are still a few people alive who were there, who were old enough to know, but after seventy years, they are growing ever fewer. But what a few remaining individuals will remember, the culture will forget.
We can look at history, we can learn from history if we want, but history isn’t memory. History is a collection of stories told from other people’s perspective on still other people’s memories.
What we do remember is our own happiness, love, successes, passions, and gifts; we remember our fear, grief, pain, and anger. And we want to own those feelings. We don’t want to share them with anyone else, unless we can see something to gain from that sharing. And in remembering any of these things, in sharing them with others, we change the memories themselves, sometimes very subtly, sometimes deliberately and significantly.
I was taken by all the young faces among the Nazi groups. There is no point in trying to tell those young men about how we remember Hitler and Mussolini and their victims. There is no real point in trying to explain to young people waving Confederate flags what should be remembered about slavery and the Confederacy and the Civil War. They remember only their own feelings of victimhood and who the alt-right has told them are their oppressors. It is easy to believe a lie about the present when it is wrapped in a lie about the past; and you have memory only of the lie.
Memorials are by definition about memory, but they are also about the lies we tell ourselves as a society and a culture. So are museums. When someone put nooses on displays at the African-American Museum and on a tree at the Smithsonian, my first thought was, “were there none already there?” If you really wanted to erase the history of America in the 19th and 20th centuries, removing all trace of nooses would be a good place to start. If you want people to know that the past is prologue, that who we are today is still inextricably tied to who we were then, we need more memorials to nooses – and to those who were hanged for the crime of not being white enough. Memorials tell us what we are encouraged to remember. But every memorial, every museum exhibit should be checked to see what is being remembered and what is not. If we move Confederates’ memorials and statues of their leaders from the pubic square into museums, we aren’t erasing history, we aren’t erasing memory, but we may be able to put history into clearer context, memory into the stories we tell about the past.
In spite of the memorials, regardless of the history books, we will forget. We will forget – in the only sense of that that matters – the 9/11 attacks. Quickly, without thinking about it, what was the year? Did you hesitate, doubt yourself, get rattled by the challenge? That is what forgetting looks like. We have, for all intents and purposes, forgotten Pearl Harbor, forgotten the internment of the Japanese-Americans, forgotten what got us into the war in Europe (Pearl Harbor was about the Japanese, not the fascists). We have forgotten about the Cuban missile crisis, and when it is raised in discussions about the current situation with North Korea, we may struggle to see the relevance. Our memories of Columbine High Sc hool have faded to a vague knowledge that kids were shot by kids, and somehow heavy metal music was to blame. Those who weren’t there, on the ground, dealing with the reality of it, are already forgetting Sandy Hook. Memorials won’t stop this erasure of memory and history won’t revive it.
Perhaps we need to stop trying to memorialize things before we have done what we need to do to change what is. After the end of the Civil War, nothing was done to substantially change the cultural, social and economic realities that existed both as the cause of white bias and black slavery; or as the result of tearing down those institutions. After WWII, the world moved on, but the end of the war was not the end of Nazism, fascism, or hatred of Jews, Blacks, homosexuals, and all who were not white, western and self-rewarded with manifest destiny.
Pick an issue or an idea that is amplified by our current political and social polarization. You will find that at its heart is forgetfulness. “Giving” women the vote did not mean we forgot that they were supposed to be second. Electing a mixed-race man with an African American wife did not mean that we forgot that white men were supposed to be the superior race and therefore entitled to special privilege. Instead, we forgot that events change outward more quickly than they change culture; and culture, not any event, is how we express our collective memory of who we are supposed to be.
When people talk about “normalizing” white supremacy or misogyny or xenophobia or homophobia, or violence as a way of dealing with conflict, they are missing the point that those things were already normal. We never changed that, we just rather willfully forgot it.
People talk about the “teaching moment.” Perhaps the Trump Presidency can be such a moment, if we will let it. But who will do the teaching? And what will be taught? If history is any indication, we will fail to change what needs changing and eventually forget what most needs to be remembered.

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