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Posts Tagged ‘history’

There is a fashion among scholars of America to characterize the “American character,” a fashion that waxes and wanes, writes a dean of social historians, Peter Stearns, in his new essay “American Selfie.” Sometimes sketching a national portrait fits the cultural mood–say, during the bluster of the Cold War–but at other times Americans seem such a disparate assortment of types that trying to describe any one American character seems foolish. Sometimes the portraits depict bright figures–say, Americans as ambitious do-gooders; at other times they expose dark forms–say, Americans as ambitious narcissists. And sometimes the sketches show American character undergoing dramatic change, usually for the worse, while other times they depict a stolid American character that, for better or for worse, has been constant since the nation’s founding.lexington_minuteman_its_in_the_eyes.jpg

In “American Selfie,” Stearns addresses in particular my book (after which this blog is named), Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character (2010), which he treats as the latest effort to describe an American character of enduring continuity. I appreciate that Professor Stearns felt the book worthy of such attention. My purpose in this post is to address two particular criticisms that he raises. The first, which I dispute, is that Made in America ignores or dismisses evidence of profound change toward less associational life and fewer personal connections, a loss of community. The second, which I largely accept, is that Made in America, like other books arguing continuity, insufficiently explains how a singular national character can stay so constant so long.

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Reconstructing Memory

The Berkeley campus has an eatery with an interesting name and story: “The Free Speech Movement Café.” At the 2000 dedication of the café, then-Chancellor Robert Behrdahl lauded the tumultuous student movement of 1964 for having brought adult rights to college students, including the right of  free expression, and for having broadened civil debate.

Back in 1964, however, then-Chancellor Edward Strong strongly resisted the movement – as did probably most Californians; they saw it as an anarchic uprising. Californians now have a different, hallowed memory of the the FSM; old photographs of heroes, posters, and other memorabilia are plastered all over the walls and tables of the cafe.

We have yet blunter examples of how history gets reconstructed in its retelling. Recent California law, for example, required that K-12 students be taught about the historical contributions of women, blacks, and gays. And then there is the Texas School Board order requiring that history textbooks “describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association.”

History is rewritten as much as it is remembered.

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Memorial Day reminds us of the Americans sacrificed in war; it also stimulates thought about the enterprise of memorializing.

Such holidays are one of the ways we imagine and refashion our history, one of the ways we create “collective memory.” (The Lincoln Memorial, which I recently revisited amidst throngs of tourists, illustrates another tool – monumental statuary – for shaping collective memory.)

Initially propelled by Union veterans’ desire to memorialize their fallen comrades, Memorial Day (also once called Decoration Day) expanded to cover the fallen of both sides in the Civil War. Expanding the holiday was one of the ways that Americans sought, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to reconcile and reintegrate the South. A past in which the Blue and the Gray dead were equally brave and honorable served a present need. That reconciliation, at the same time, suppressed memories of the slavery which brought on the war.

The politics of shaping collective memory around Memorial Day was mild compared to some of the struggles we have recently seen about how Americans should understand the American past.
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