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Posts Tagged ‘collective memory’

The “core” of American democracy, writes Matthew Robin Hale in the March issue of the Journal of American History, is a struggle over how egalitarian and communitarian our politics should be. This struggle emerged, he argues, in the mid-1790s as the French Revolution excited and mobilized thousands of Americans to discover and declare that they were “Democrats.” They were Democrats in emulation of Frenchmen’s embrace of liberté, egalité, and fraternité and in opposition to the “aristocratic” airs of the Federalists who preferred to distance the representatives from the people, certainly from the propertyless people.Playbill_from_the_original_Broadway_production_of_Hamilton

This lasting division, Hale writes, appears today as a debate between the political left of figures such as Mario Cuomo and Barack Obama who describe the nation as a family of mutual obligation and the political right of figures like Barry Goldwater and Rand Paul who decry the label “democracy” and argue that our nation is instead a formally contracted “republic” of independent individuals. (Consider the debate over health care. The political descendants of the Francophiles claim that it is a human right, that through government we should all pay for the health of our neighbors. The descendants of the Federalists claim that it is the responsibility of self-reliant individuals and the government’s role is, at most, to gently regulate the health market.)

The story of Francophile enthusiasm during the Washington administration not only informs our understanding of American political history, it also informs our understanding of our ever-changing collective memory of that history. (Earlier posts on collective memory are here and here). In particular, Hale’s account plays against the political memory in the latest smash hit, the musical, “Hamilton.”

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Great Again

Part of the exceptional Donald Trump campaign is his not-so-exceptional slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Demanding and promising a return to Glory Days is centuries-old American theme, shared by both the political right and political left, based on the conviction that today’s America is less than yesterday’s America. Trump channels a grand mythic feature of American cultural life, of our “collective memory,” the belief that we are threatened by decline. But the slogan’s appeal is not just mythic; it also taps reality for a specific segment of the population.Make America Great

(My previous post looked at another dimension of the Trump appeal: authoritarianism. Both are at play.)

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We have just witnessed the opening of the 9/11 memorial and museum at site of the destroyed World Trade Towers, an event that once more raises attention to how we Americans form our “collective memories.” (On collective memory, see here, here, here and here.) In a recent suggestive essay in the Journal of Social History, Stacy Otto argues that New Yorkers have mourned the 2001 tragedy as New Yorkers had mourned the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911.

In the earlier disaster, with eerie similarities to 9/11, 146 garment workers, many of them women and children, died, often by jumping out of windows to escape the flames. Hundreds of people, unable to reach the victims trapped on the high floors, watched helplessly.

Public mourning of the two events nearly a century apart, Otto argues, was in sharp contrast to the “modern” styles of grieving – or avoiding grieving – that had evolved in the years in between the two tragedies.

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