Jewish World Review May 1, 2000 / 26 Nissan, 5760
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
It is the issue of collective memory -- what we, as a
people, decide to remember, and what we decide to
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
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
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
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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