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Jewish World Review May 1, 2000 / 26 Nissan, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports


You must remember this (Unless you don't) -- NEW YORK The cause of the dispute was uncertain; I had walked into it in mid-yell.

A man in front of a building in midtown Manhattan was screaming at people, telling them not to do business with a company inside. Evidently this had to do with some sort of union disagreement.

Another man -- a patron of the business -- was angrily talking back, telling the screamer not to tell him what to do.

"You ought to remember who built this town!" the screamer screamed, apparently referring to the work of unionized construction workers.

"Don't tell me what I ought to remember!" the other man yelled back. "I grew up in Michigan, and my dad spent his whole life as a union man building cars! Don't tell me what to remember!"

Well . . . the union issues aside, that one phrase the man on the sidewalk screamed -- "You ought to remember who built this town!" -- and the answer that was shouted back by the other man -- "Don't tell me what I ought to remember!" -- fed into something that has been very much on my mind lately.

It is the issue of collective memory -- what we, as a people, decide to remember, and what we decide to forget.

Because there is a quiet change that has been overtaking us. The importance of collective memory -- you can call it history, if you want -- seems to be waning. All of a sudden the responsibility to remember what got us here seems less of a requirement and more of an elective. We have lapsed into -- in the words of social theoretician Stephen Bertman -- a state of cultural amnesia.

Bertman sums it up by asking this question: "Can a culture deprived of memory go on? And if national memory loss implies a loss of direction, what will be the consequences for our future as a people and as a civilization? Indeed, can any culture have a viable future if it has lost touch with its past?"

Cultural amnesia (Bertman has summarized his findings in a scholarly book with that title) is not a medical affliction -- it is not as though some outside source has erased the national memory. Instead, it is a choice willingly made. What happened before doesn't matter; the past is no longer prologue -- it is irrelevant.

Bertman admonishes: "Should a patient exhibit symptoms of confusion and disorientation, a doctor may ask a few standard questions. Do you know where you are? Do you know what day it is? Do you remember what happened before you got here? Do you remember your name? Such questions, when asked of Americans at large, offer disturbing evidence of amnesia on a national scale."

He offers examples. American adults finished dead last in a nine-nation survey asking respondents to identify countries on an unmarked map of the world. Two of three American adults couldn't find Vietnam; three of four couldn't find the Persian Gulf; almost half did not know where Central America was located; 43 percent couldn't find England on a map of Europe; 14 percent could not find the United States on a map of the world.

Another survey showed that by 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, fewer than half of adult Americans polled recalled that Dwight D. Eisenhower had been the commander. Twenty-two percent did not know who America's enemies had been in World War II. In a 1995 poll, 22 percent of Americans surveyed did not know where -- or even if -- an atomic bomb had ever been dropped. Sixty percent did not know the name of the president who ordered the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan.

Now . . . you can make the argument that all of this is just more evidence of the much-reported "dumbing down" of America. But Bertman believes that it is something else -- that in our "That is so five minutes ago" society, in which yesterday immediately becomes trash to be disposed of, we are entering an era of willing amnesia, in which we forget the past as if we have chosen to hit the delete key on our computer. Freeing up space for the readily accessible new. He calls this "the power of now":

"The latest [and] least recognized threat to the preservation of the past resides in the very nature of our electronic media, which thrive on the moment and on the new. Indeed, the `power of now,' `the intense energy of an unconditional present, a present uncompromised by any other dimension of time,' suffuses our popular culture, crowding out whatever space was formerly reserved for the remembrance of things past. As our society suddenly accelerates under the influence of speed-of-light technologies, the past recedes from our consciousness. Of all the causes of oblivion, the power of now is the most insidious, because it steals our cultural memories while simultaneously gratifying us with excitement and pleasure."

Quite a lot to think about -- and all of it inspired by two angry men yelling at each other on a crowded New York street. I may have touched upon this theory before. I forget.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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