Posts Tagged ‘memory’

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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Depressing Comparisons

An August post on a sociology blog began, “For the last several decades, depression rates have been on the rise at a rapid pace.”

Source: Andrew Mason via flickr

That assertion has appeared in many places over recent years. The blogger provided no reference for the assertion. I think I know the initial source of the claim; most writers who declare that depression has been rising probably read it in – of course – The New York Times.

Research indicates, however, that there was no rise in depression rates over the last several decades. The key studies relied on for the claim that depression rose had one or more important  flaws. Understanding those flaws helps us understand the difficulties of discovering and making historical claims.


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As usual, officials around the nation spent part of June trying to confiscate fireworks or at least discourage their use – in San Bernardino County, California, and in Prince William County, Virginia, for example. These routines are the residues of what were once were much wider struggles over how the Fourth of July should be celebrated.

Many communities try to stage what they call “traditional” or “old-fashioned” Fourths of July – and many bemoan their failure to do that. The effort to reclaim a “traditional” Fourth goes back at least a couple of centuries. Americans have long had differing ideas about what that tradition is or should be, arguing over how to properly celebrate our Independence Day. Are we really looking to find a traditional Fourth or to invent one?

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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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