The Fragility of Memory

Last week, I overheard some American students talking after their Arabic class about the recent past.

In their late teens and very early twenties, they expressed their bafflement over the international actions of their country, especially when it came to the Iraq War.  What struck them most was the futility of the whole premise and the flimsiness of the justification for the invasion, occupation, and subsequent military actions.

Two questions, in particular, stood out.

“How did [the Iraq War] happen? Who actually believed all this stuff?”

To clarify, these are students studying politics and international relations, and who are focusing on the history, politics, and peoples of Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  They applied to come and study in a foreign country (in this case, Morocco), and who are working towards the aim of making relations between the United States and MENA countries more amicable.

The Absence of Memory

These are also kids who have spent the majority of their lives with wars going on the background yet have no idea about what exactly brought that about.  True, they could speak vaguely about the role of the G.W. Bush Administration and the ties that members of his government had to defense contractors, as well as other random bits of information, but they could not enumerate the details, much less articulate the larger picture of the past 15 years of conflict.  Simply put, they had no idea.

These young students had no idea that the Iraq War was overwhelming supported by the US Congress and the population at large.  They had no idea that Congress authorized the use of force in this conflict.

 

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Data provided by GovTrack.us

 

They also had no idea that the selection of Saddam Hussein at a threat requiring decisive military action and a campaign of “shock and awe” was built upon years of conflicts, international human rights violations, the real threat of chemical weapons’ use, feelings about the “good” Gulf War, straight up mockery of the Iraqi dictator, and ideas about what a 21st-century military conflict looked liked, all of which helped bring about the feelings of good will towards the idea of a war in Iraq in the first place.

 

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In 2001, Saddam Hussein was featured as Satan’s lover in the movie “South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut.” Image via SouthPark Studios

 

They had no idea that being vocally against the war and against the use of force was openly and contemptuously vilified by world leaders and pundits alike. They had no idea that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and its “Mess O’Potamia” segments were shocking and subversive because it went against the government and the national mood at the time by openly criticizing the make-it-up-as-you-go-along policy and wishful thinking of the Bush administration.

They had no idea that the shift towards an anti-war stance gained ground between 2006 -2007 to the point that by 2008 anti-war positions were now a majority, eventually giving us today’s anti-intervention and isolationist measures for other conflicts, such as the non-intervention in Syria.

 

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Data collected by the Pew Research Center, “Public Attitude Towards the war in Iraq: 2003-2008”

 

 

They had no idea and they are only ten years or so younger than me.

The Social Role of Memory

The experience I had with these students illustrated the importance of a collective memory and the need to preserve that memory even among those who, by all measures, ought to be the most familiar with it.  This interaction also drove home the ways in which memory and our own specific understanding of situations, our knowledge of facts and events, and the way in which we interpret them, influences our choices and the rationale behind them.

Today, we in the United States will select our next President, along with other members of congress, local officials and congressional leaders, and decide ballot questions in our respective states.  We will make these decisions based on our own views and visions of our communities, the world, and the roles that we believe people should play within each.  We will vote based on how much we trust a candidate and think she or he is fit for office, and how much that candidate’s party reflects our own beliefs, values, and role that the government plays in American life.

We will also be overtly and subtly influenced by our personal memory of the recent and distant past.    We will be influenced by whether or not our memory of a former Secretary of State’s  handling of a private email server paints her actions as stupid or as obstructing justice.  We will be influenced by whether or not we remember that in 2007, it was revealed by a Congressional hearing into the dismission of 8 U.S. Attorneys that over 20 million emails, a number of which related to the Iraq War and its aftermath, were permanently deleted by a sitting president and his Cabinet.

 

We will be influenced by our memories of a candidate who says so many vile, despicable, racist, xenophobic, and sexists things–to say nothing of his political about-faces and contradictionsthat journalists are keeping track of it all.

We will be influenced by our memories of a candidate who has been dogged by the political scandals of her husband, by decades of vilification, lampooning, and smear campaigns by her opponents, and by the fight-to-the-death reality of politics.

 

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A 1996 New Yorker piece about then First Lady Hillary Clinton and the vitriol slung at her.

 

Aside from the candidates themselves, we will be influenced by our memories of a time when the middle class experienced job stability and income stability, and of a time when being a high-school graduate meant that you could get a good blue or white collar job and avoid unemployment.

 

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Source:  US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics

 

We will be influenced by memories of communities before they experienced the devastating effects of opioid addiction, H.I.V. epidemics, and increases in poverty. 

We will be influenced by memories of a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were the only power on the world stage and could, as such, stand unrivaled by political, social, and economic others.

We will be influenced by memories of a time when jobs seemed to remain in communities and when people bought goods from down the road, not from overseas.  We will be influenced  when company loyalty was rewarded with a pension. (Editor’s Note: I hate to break it to you that long distance trade has been the mainstay of healthy economies since the very beginning, and not having a mixture of the domestic and foreign has been very, very bad.  See “Phoenicia,” “Roman Economy,” “Darien Scheme,” among others.)

We will be influenced by memories of a time when personal sacrifice by military service was something honored, respected, and asked of millions of Americans.  We will also be influenced by memories of times when those sacrifices were not honored, when they were reviled, and when they were pushed into the dark recesses in the hopes of being forgotten.

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Image by John Darkow, Columbia Daily Tribune c. 2013 , reprinted by The Denver Post

We will be influenced by memories of a time when women were legally barred from voting, were not admitted to law schools or other institutions of higher learning, did not hold public office, and could be fired from her job for getting pregnant, to say nothing of being taken seriously as a candidate for the highest public office in the land.

 

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Anti-Women’s Suffrage Ad c. 1920.  Source: unknown NY newspaper.

 

 

We will also be influenced by our memories of a time when the demographics of the United States tilted favorably to white, married heterosexual Americans, and when the laws of the land overtly and covertly supported white supremacy and its place as the “de-facto” representation of what an American was.

All of this and more will influence us as we vote and as we go forward from this election into what will continue to be a very bruising political and social future for the United States, based on what has been said and done in both the recent and not-so-recent past.

The Obligations of Memory

What remains after the election is our job to preserve these memories, to explain them, and to do our best to ensure that those who come after us, understand all the factors that went into this moment.  Like the students I encountered, members of our own generation and those to come will wonder how we got here.  They will look for explanations as they try to understand this very moment in time that we are all so desperate to get out of.  They not only want to know how we got here but they need to know how we got here.

For us, that means that after we vote, we have to step aside and play the role of historians and memory preservers.  We have to understand how people supported the 2016 political candidates, how they voted the way they did, and how the various issues that were in play during the 2016 election came to be.

More importantly, we must be guardians of memory immune to our own personal and private vitriol.  We must be accurate when we report the anger, the pain, the frustration that drives this electorate.  We must be unflinching in our honesty about how brutal we have been to one another, as well as about the ugly sides of the American political and social consciousness that stepped into the limelight during this election.  Going forward, we must avoid character assassination and slander.  We must train our eyes to not play favorites, to calmly and coolly assess the factors at play and to not resort to hollow straw men in our characterization of people.

We must do this because the day is coming sooner than we think when we will have to explain ourselves.  We are our best guardians of this time, of this moment, of how we all came to be here in this moment — yet what we are guarding is so fragile it is easy for it to disappear in the space of a decade or less.

We will have some serious explaining to do.