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Students in my Civil War class tend to be fascinated by the disjuncture between the Lincoln of memory, who stands tall as the Great Emancipator, and the Lincoln of history, who only very gradually embraced emancipation as a necessity of war and then later as a moral imperative.* One of the crucial moments in that evolution was the controversy over treating slaves as contraband of war, an episode during which several of Lincoln’s generals, in fall 1861, outstripped their Commander-in-Chief and began practicing not-quite-emancipation on the ground. They refused to return slaves that crossed the Union lines to their former owners, leaving those people in an odd situation: not quite free, but no longer enslaved either.
The BBC has a story up about one of the sites where that controversy played out: the South Carolina Sea Islands. I have to admit that this is the kind of article that threatens to get under my Civil War historian’s skin but then ends up totally tickling my historian of memory’s fancy. The story is “little known” and a “secret history,” says the Civil War historian? Not so! There’s a great book on the subject! And Chandra Manning is working on a new monograph about contraband camps! But then the historian of memory says, “stop being such nit-picking jerk and check out the stuff about the two Mitchels discussing their sense of shared heritage.”
Anyway, it’s an interesting (and annoying, yes) story that’s at least in part about the enduring nature of a certain kind of reconciliationst Civil War narrative.
* This formulation is decidedly too simple, I know. Consider it a kind of shorthand for the sort of thing about which scholars write long books that win prizes.
Franklin Roosevelt’s worst decision was Executive Order 9066, “Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas”, which is to say, interning Americans of Japanese descent.
The decision for internment had nothing to do with intelligence (particularly, as often alleged, from MAGIC cables) and everything to do with the conviction that “a Jap is a Jap,” as General John DeWitt said. I’ve never been very happy with historical explanations that start and end with “it’s racism,” but really … it’s racism. You can tell of course because there’s no similar simultaneous effort against Americans of German descent. You can tell because of Japoteurs and “Slap the Dirty Little Jap” and lots of other examples.
For my family, the war was the European war. My grandfather, a German-born American, had no trouble the way Japanese Americans did; he flew a bomber for the US in the war. We had the luxury of remembering the war the way white people often do – without considering how much better we’ve had it because of our whiteness.
It’s profoundly difficult to integrate the psychology of the Pacific War and the European War for the US, either when considering them from the standpoint of history or of memory.
The bill also would criminalize ‘outrageous minimization’ of the Armenian genocide.
Garton Ash, presumably wearing his poker face, points out only that “minimization” will be hard to figure, leaving out “outrageous” altogether.
Whoopi Goldberg’s reaction on first seeing Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. Apparently Nichols almost left the show because she had a Broadway offer, until a chance encounter with a fan changed her mind.
That fan was Martin Luther King Jr. Nichols recalls their conversation:
One of the organizers came up to me and said that there was someone who wants to meet you; and he says that he’s you’re best, biggest fan and I’m thinking it’s a Trekkie! [laughs] and so I said certainly and I got up and turned around and maybe 10 or 15 feet coming towards me I see Dr. Martin Luther King and I remember thinking whoever that little fan is, he’s going to have to wait, because here’s Dr. King, who walks straight up to me with this big, magnificent smile on his face and says, “I’m the fan!” because I’m sort of looking around for someone else, and he says, “I am your best fan, I am your biggest fan!” and I… I was at a loss for words, and if you know me, I am never at a loss for words.
…and so I told him I would be leaving the show, because; and that was as far as he let me go, and he said, “STOP! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television! Of intelligence, and of a woman and a woman of color?! That you are playing a role that is not about your color! That this role could be played by anyone? This is not a black role. This is not a female role! A blue eyed blond or a pointed ear green person could take this role!” And I am looking at him and looking at him and buzzing, and he said, “Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be!
Our debt grows ever greater.
There’s a transition between memory and history that happens as events stop being personal experiences and start being records. As the generation that experienced a certain era (World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, 9/11), begins to disappear from the scene, that era becomes “historical” in a way that it wasn’t before.
So, too, when the remnants of an era begin to disappear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
This process can be fast. My first year students this semester were 10-11 years old when 9/11 happened, and they remember it much less distinctly than I do.
It can be slow. The flagship of Admiral George Dewey’s Asiatic Fleet from the Spanish-American War, the USS Olympia is still open for public viewing on the Philadelphia waterfront. Not for long, though. The Olympia has not been dry-docked since it arrived in Philadelphia in the 1940s and is rotting away in the water:
The waterline is marked with scores of patches, and sections of the mazelike lower hull are so corroded that sunlight shines through. Above deck, water sneaks past the concrete and rubberized surface layers, past the rotting fir deck underneath, and onto the handsomely appointed officers’ quarters below.
The ship is likely to be scrapped in the next year or so, leaving behind only the record of its existence and the history of its achievements.
As long as I’m having fun with YouTube’s “start here” feature, note this standard-issue awesome impassioned Shatner speech by Captain Kirk in “Return to Tomorrow”:
Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn’t reached the moon, or that we hadn’t gone on to Mars, and then to the nearest star?
From Noah Feldman’s “The Triumphant Decline of the WASP” in today’s New York Times:
But satisfaction with our national progress should not make us forget its authors: the very Protestant elite that founded and long dominated our nation’s institutions of higher education and government, including the Supreme Court. Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic, racial or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socioeconomic power by hewing voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds. The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph.
To illustrate this, I include a picture of that “Protestant elite” ceding their socioeconomic power:
It’s an odd op-ed all around, writing out all the people and groups who forced open the door of opportunity, often at risk of their own lives. Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, and a host of others simply evaporate from the record, leaving behind only the wise white (male) Protestants sagely extending privilege to all: the Founding Fathers of myth writ large over the entirety of the American experience. It’s a version of history to which no Irish (or Jewish or African-American or women or so on) need apply. They are, in Feldman’s formulation, eternally the beneficiaries of wisdom, but never its holders.
On May 31, 1951, Rodolfo Hernandez of Colton, California, earned his salt:
HERNANDEZ, RODOLFO P.
Rank and organization: Corporal, U.S. Army, Company G, 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team. Place and date: Near Wontong-ni, Korea, 31 May 1951. Entered service at: Fowler, Calif. Born: 14 April 1931, Colton, Calif. G.O. No.: 40, 21 April 1962. Citation: Cpl. Hernandez, a member of Company G, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy. His platoon, in defensive positions on Hill 420, came under ruthless attack by a numerically superior and fanatical hostile force, accompanied by heavy artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire which inflicted numerous casualties on the platoon. His comrades were forced to withdraw due to lack of ammunition but Cpl. Hernandez, although wounded in an exchange of grenades, continued to deliver deadly fire into the ranks of the onrushing assailants until a ruptured cartridge rendered his rifle inoperative. Immediately leaving his position, Cpl. Hernandez rushed the enemy armed only with rifle and bayonet. Fearlessly engaging the foe, he killed 6 of the enemy before falling unconscious from grenade, bayonet, and bullet wounds but his heroic action momentarily halted the enemy advance and enabled his unit to counterattack and retake the lost ground. The indomitable fighting spirit, outstanding courage, and tenacious devotion to duty clearly demonstrated by Cpl. Hernandez reflect the highest credit upon himself, the infantry, and the U.S. Army.
In Potsdam for a workshop recently, I took the opportunity to tour the site of the 1945 conference that marked the end of the last war and the beginning of the next (cold) one. Schloss Cecilienhof is a fake-Tudor mansion that the Emperor built during the Great War (yes, when the Germans were fighting the Tudors’ successors). Ex-Crown Princess Cecilie fled the palace in 1945, when the Red Army was threatening to batter down the doors. The Soviets then turned the sprawling complex into a field hospital.
The Allied leaders had wanted to hold the first post-European war conference in Berlin, but there were few places left standing after the onslaught of Allied bombing and Soviet invasion. Schloss Cecilienhof was the closest venue capable of housing the Allied leaders and staff in style, so the Soviet casualties were moved out, and Truman, Stalin, and Churchill moved in. (Halfway through the conference, the British electorate decided to replace Churchill with Clement Attlee, so you can find pictures of both flavors of the Big Three.)
According to the tour guide, 70 percent of the visitors to this site are Japanese, because, he said, this was where Truman made the decision to “launch nuclear attacks,” and they feel the need to make a pilgrimage. I was struck by the difference in phrasing – in my experience, Americans always talk about the decision to “drop the bomb.” Launching nuclear attacks sounds so much more aggressive, and even downright un-American.
I also wondered what sort of curriculum in Japan might persuade thousands of Japanese to traverse the globe to visit an old palace where Truman received a telegram saying, yes, this bomb really works. As Bart Bernstein has shown,* there was no “decision” to use the bombs, and Truman never even signed a direct order. Yet, the Japanese are there, snapping pictures, and taking the opportunity to buy snow globes of the Big Three (with Churchill, of course) in the gift shop.
*“Truman and the A-Bomb,” Journal of Military History, 62:3.
I think kb’s right: it’s worth putting Coates’s demolition of the Virginia GOP (and the Republican Party more broadly) on the front page. Responding to Governor Bob McDonnell’s decision to revive Confederate History Month, Coates writes:
This is who they are–the proud and ignorant. If you believe that if we still had segregation we wouldn’t “have had all these problems,” this is the movement for you. If you believe that your president is a Muslim sleeper agent, this is the movement for you. If you honor a flag raised explicitly to destroy this country then this is the movement for you. If you flirt with secession, even now, then this movement is for you. If you are a “Real American” with no demonstrable interest in “Real America” then, by God, this movement of alchemists and creationists, of anti-science and hair tonic, is for you.
Or, if you prefer a more scholarly approach to the issue, kevin, who sometimes comments here, suggests via e-mail that you might want to take note of Jim McPherson’s equally damning reply to Gov. McDonnell’s hate-mongering:
I find it obnoxious, but it’s extremely typical. The people that emphasize Confederate heritage and the legacy, and the importance of understanding Confederate history, want to deny that Confederate history was ultimately bound up with slavery. But that was the principal reason for secession — that an anti-slavery party was elected to the White House. . . . And without secession, there wouldn’t have been a war.
Of course we’ve covered all of this ground before. Some myths die hard.
The Times article on Roman Vishniac’s photographs of Jews in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust (a few days old now) is fascinating. I didn’t know him primarily through A Vanished World, the book that’s now (somewhat) in question. Rather, I knew first his scientific photography, probably through the many back issues of Scientific American lying around the house as I grew up. Then, when I began to look more seriously at general photography, I spent a long time with John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs, in which he’s represented by this dramatically suggestive scene.
From Maya Benton’s research, it seems that in composing the book, Vishniac winnowed down the wide variety of pictures he took, to present a vision of Jewish Eastern Europe as old, rural, narrow, timeless; and that he arranged them to illustrate narratives that didn’t really take place. Neither takes away, though, from the strength of individual pictures, especially when the suggestion of narrative within them is as strong and ambiguous as in this one. It looks like the man is telling the girl something, but what? Not exactly welcome news, I think.
So, the centerpiece of any even-slightly-traditional Seder is a detailed recounting of the Exodus story. But, as I understand it, Biblical archaeologists have complicated things lately by insisting that the Jews weren’t in Egypt for any lengthy period of time during the era in question.* “Hold on, Mr. PhD in Archaeology Smartypants, how do we know this for sure?” asks the obnoxious Jew.** Because the Egyptians were excellent record keepers, even taking detailed note of the many peoples they brutally subjugated. Which is all well and good, at least from the perspective of someone interested in the intersection of history and memory. In other words, it’s not unusual for discrepancies, rooted in methodological, epistemological, or political differences, over how the past is recalled to crop up from time to time.
But then there’s this: why would the long-ago Jews have invented this history of oppression, history that features the enslavement of their people across generations? And why would they have memorialized this history in a story that isn’t, if you look away from the super-cool burning bush and pay attention to the other plot points, really all that flattering*** to their forbears? The tempting answer, I guess, is that today, when out groups sometimes play misery poker, trying to climb to the top of a hierarchy of victimization, it might make some sense to concoct such a tale. But! In addition to being totally presentist, and thus unsatisfying as an answer to a historical question, I also can’t think of another case, at least not off the top of my head, in which a race has made a spurious and enduring claim about the past like this one.
I suppose the problem is that it’s likely impossible to know the context in which the Exodus story was invented. And absent that context, it’s impossible to know why the story was invented, what purpose it served, how, in short, it was used to screw the Palestinians out of land. Or maybe it wasn’t invented at all. Maybe the relevant archive burned down or collapsed during an earthquake and hasn’t been excavated.
Also, matzo with butter and salt is delicious for the first few days. Happy Passover.
* Nope, no link. I’m a bad blogger. And a bad Jew. Actually, I’m just repeating snippets of a conversation I overheard involving my
** Yes, “obnoxious Jew” is redundant. Whatevs. Eat your gefilte fish and shut up.
*** Except, I mean, for the whole “chosen people” part of the story. But even including that, the Jews still come off looking like small-minded jerks, craven douchebags, and flat-out cowards during significant parts of the narrative.
Health care reform wasn’t President Obama’s Waterloo, it was his Borodino! William Kristol explains:
Barack Obama was able to muscle his health care plan through, and therefore avoided a legislative defeat that Sen. Jim DeMint had said would be his Waterloo. But Waterloo was always an imperfect analogy. Leaving aside the injustice to Napoleon of comparing Obama to him, the better analogy is Borodino.
“But,” you say, “Borodino? Um, huh? What’s that?”
Napoleon invaded Russia in June of 1812. On September 7 of that year, the Grande Armée under Napoleon’s command attacked the Russian army near the village of Borodino. Napoleon won the battle, the greatest of the Russian campaign, but at a terrible cost–about a third of his soldiers were killed or wounded. The Russian army was not destroyed, and while Napoleon occupied an abandoned Moscow a week later, the French army was never the same. It soon had to begin its disastrous winter retreat from Russia, and Napoleon finally did meet his Waterloo almost three years later.
Credit to the man to reaching back past the political standard issue historical analogies–Pearl Harbor, Munich, Hanoi Jane–but it’s probably a good rule of thumb that if your comparison requires substantial explanation, briefing, and (possibly) footnotes, then it’s not a solid one. Having said that, the Obama-as-Napoleon meme is quite widespread on the right, and is taking shape as the same sort of secret code that the Dred Scott case was for President Bush. The comparison is, at least explicitly, non-racial, and makes Obama aloof, imperial, and above all, French. We should probably not mention that Napoleon, despite his eventual exile, did succeed in remaking French society in numerous way, an influence that has lasted to this day.
Symbols often have long histories, even ones that have become synonymous with evil. The Nazi appropriation of the swastika overwhelmed any later sense of that long history, and so there is shock at seeing Rabbit Maranville, an baseball player in the early 20th century, wearing a cap with a swastika on it:
Was Rabbit Maranville a Nazi? Should be referred to as Herr Maranville, or better yet, “Hare” Maranville?
The answer is, of course, no, but the investigation at Baseball Researcher is well-worth reading. Nor was the usage confined to baseball players. A quick search of the New York Times prior to 1918 revealed a sailing boat named “Swastika”, an antique Chinese rug on auction with a lovely “swastika border,” and a “Swastika edition” of the works of Rudyard Kipling.
(Updated title per this kind correction)
|Battleship Row, 7 December 1941|
On this day on December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy” the American naval base on Oahu at Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan. Pearl Harbor has become iconic though sometimes people who shouldn’t have have nonetheless forgotten the exact date.
I don’t aim to repeat that with my post. What I am interested in on this anniversary is the way in which the United States memorializes its disasters. America has a series of tragic dates, which are often remembered better than the victories. Pearl Harbor–I think–is more familiar than Midway (though perhaps not D-Day). The Maine is remembered more than any battle in the Spanish-American War. The Alamo still resonates in a way that no victory of either the Texas Revolution or the Mexican-American War does. The burning of Washington rivals Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans by way of remembering the War of 1812. For the American Revolution, Valley Forge is as legendary as Yorktown. The Civil War is somewhat the exception, with Gettysburg–a victory for the United States–dominating all other events.
Fascinating also is the way in which the most recent of these–9/11 and Pearl Harbor–have become inextricably linked to their date. December 7 and September 11th have come to be an identifying label for both events. They have managed this in a way that not even July 4th can duplicate, being on the wrong day, and all.
The British do something similar with Dunkirk, the Somme, and the “Black Week” of the Boer War, among others. The British “lose every battle but the last one,” an epigraphic way of universalizing the obsession with defeat, so perhaps this is not particularly American behavior. Those events are linked to dates as well, though not quite as specifically as Pearl and 9/11: 1940 for Dunkirk, 1 July 1916 for the Somme (ignoring that the battle went on for months), the name itself for the “Black Week.”
I don’t have a reason why this might be, or a conclusion about what such a fixation means, but it strikes me nonetheless that it is odd that such a strong strain of American historical memory is taken up obsessing about such catastrophes: defeat from the jaws of victory, indeed.
BILL MOYERS: Now in a different world, at a different time, and with a different president, we face the prospect of enlarging a different war. But once again we’re fighting in remote provinces against an enemy who can bleed us slowly and wait us out, because he will still be there when we are gone.
Once again, we are caught between warring factions in a country where other foreign powers fail before us. Once again, every setback brings a call for more troops, although no one can say how long they will be there or what it means to win. Once again, the government we are trying to help is hopelessly corrupt and incompetent.
And once again, a President pushing for critical change at home is being pressured to stop dithering, be tough, show he’s got the guts, by sending young people seven thousand miles from home to fight and die, while their own country is coming apart.
And once again, the loudest case for enlarging the war is being made by those who will not have to fight it, who will be safely in their beds while the war grinds on. And once again, a small circle of advisers debates the course of action, but one man will make the decision.
We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had said no to more war. We know what happened because he said yes.
That’s it for the Journal. I’m Bill Moyers. See you next time.
Yeah, see you next time, Bill. And thanks for ruining my day.
On September 1, 1967, Siegfried Sassoon died, aged 80. He had a long and productive career as poet, novelist and memoirist, but he is remembered chiefly as one of the fine group of English poets of the First World War (along with Rupert Brooke, Israel Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, and above all Edward Thomas). For a sample of his wartime work, take “Remorse”:
Lost in the swamp and welter of the pit,
He flounders off the duck-boards; only he knows
Each flash and spouting crash,–each instant lit
When gloom reveals the streaming rain. He goes
Heavily, blindly on. And, while he blunders,
‘Could anything be worse than this?’–he wonders,
Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees…
Our chaps were sticking ’em like pigs … ‘O hell!’
He thought–‘there’s things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds.’
(Written at Craiglockhart Hydropathic, familiar to readers of Pat Barker.)
A few days ago, Ari noted that William Calley had offered a surprising apology for the massacre at My Lai. Gary Farber digs deeper in a recent, probing post — just in case you thought the massacre might have been a matter of a few bad apples, or might not have had bearing on questions in the air today.
(Also on Sept. 1, 1967, Ilse Koch, “die Hexe von Buchenwald”, hanged herself in prison, whether with remorse or not I do not know.)
On this day in 1975, Bruce Springsteen released Born to Run. The greatest rock and roll album ever produced by an American artist? Maybe not. But it certainly makes my top ten (though I like Nebraska even more). Anyway, let’s not fight about such things. The rendition above is from 1975, when Bruce was still a kid.
You’ll find a couple of more recent performances below the fold.