Curating our Memories

If we had the obligations of institutions like museums, all of us would probably have to periodically amend the landmark narratives in our lives that we have incorrectly remembered.

There are no shortage of examples of museums and archives that have been forced to correct their narratives about past events.  Was a painting in a gallery actually the property of a Jewish family who had to forfeit it to the Third Reich? Is that tribal dress portrayed in an exhibit of an indigenous group really accurate, given recent and revised histories?  Do our textbook descriptions of the American Constitution adequately treat the deference to slave-owning that historians and progressives now see in some of its provisions, including the electoral college?

Remember the Lerner and Lowe song in Gigi sung by an older couple?

He: We dined with friends.
She: We ate alone.
He:  A tenor sang.
She: A baritone.
He: Ah, yes, I remember it well. That dazzling April moon.
She: There was none; and the month was June.
He: That’s right. That’s right.
She: It warms my heart to know that you remember still the way you do.

On big and little matters, we tend to curate our own histories with details that still seem clear. One personal example: I was certain I witnessed the mayhem of the 1968 Democratic Convention in front of a television set in a basement playroom on Quebec Street in Denver. I can still picture the black and white images of the horrors unfolding on Michigan Avenue in front of the Hilton Hotel, vivid as if they were yesterday. The “clear” mental image stays because it marks the sinking feeling that must come to most young Americans when they first encounter a national trauma that pushes aside a simpler faith in national invincibility. The storms of American political and cultural life are an unintended national birthright, forcing amendments to exceptionalist narratives that finally must give way.

But I digress. The problem with my memory is that I could not have been in my parent’s basement in Denver. In 1968 I was living in Sacramento California, where almost no one has a basement. And I was a senior in college, not the higher schooler I remember.  The dates are irrefutable markers. If we functioned like public institutions, all of us would probably have to rework the landmark events in our lives that we have curated as mental exhibits. This amounts to the same kind of historical refurbishment that now happens regularly, using the tenets of critical race theory, the #Metoo movement, and other redefining perspectives. At institutions like the Smithsonian or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the creation of amended narratives must now go on all of the time.

I have not checked, but I wonder if the National Constitution Center In Philadelphia has tempered its assessments of the founding document to reckon with the last President’s trashing of what seemed like well-established norms. The emoluments clause prohibiting the use of the office to make money is a case in point. Similarly, writing history texts for grade-schoolers has become an occupation that now leaves some school boards and publishers figuratively bloodied. The question of who gets to tell the stories of our collective past has turned into its own kind of battlefield.

Psychologically, we are not well-positioned to abandon inaccurate narratives. As has been much discussed through the recent election and its aftermath, Americans are like most people who resist new corrective narratives that bump up next to older inaccurate ones. As noted elsewhere, the tension between the two creates an uncomfortable form of dissonance we would like to avoid. And so we often take the avoidance route: only considering evidence that confirms what we already believe.

The Fiction of National Security

Recent episodes in Boulder, Atlanta, Michigan and the U.S. Capitol suggest that we are captives to a parallel universe of safe euphemisms.

        “Militia” in the Michigan Statehouse             Seth Herald/Reuters

No country has used more language or money to promote its ostensible goal of guaranteeing the “freedom” and “security” of its citizens than the United States. But it is obvious to anyone paying attention that these terms have become “rhetorical coverings:” words that are now more anesthetizing  than useful, diverting attention from the nation’s catastrophic spasms of self-harm. Recent episodes in Boulder, Atlanta, Michigan and the U.S. Capitol suggest that we are in for a tough time. It seems like one risk to our safety is unexpectedly coming from our eulogistic language of citizen rights.

When we use the terms “homeland security,” “national security” and–for some–even the idea of the “Second Amendment,” we are thinking with familiar and commonplace terms that rarely get a second look. But the terms themselves have become mystifications, perversely enabling routine and bloody assaults on ordinary citizens.  Compared to most peer nations like Canada, Spain or Britain, per capita murder rates in the United States are three and even four times higher.

Verbal instruments of civil governance are obviously important. But as many Russian or Hong Kong residents will tell you, they can also be a form of deflection: a rhetorical veneer of false assurances that shift attention away from problems that need solutions.

 

Even as the nation fragments politically, civilian vigilantes with the judgment of zombies are free to walk among us with unearned bravado and more firepower than the local police.

The fact is, “legal” gun usage framed as a form of “personal freedom” and a “constitutional right” now guarantees a continual churn of violent assaults usually initiated by young men left adrift and socially isolated.  Many have been captives to growing attitudes challenging the effectiveness of national institutions, ranging from Congress to higher education. The impulse is for a dangerous minority take up arms against perceived governmental malfeasance, collecting weapons that are better classified as military rather than recreational.

To be sure, the Biden administration has moved a step in the right direction by at least formally acknowledging the idea of “domestic terrorism.” And we even have a federal document—the Patriot Act—that defines it. But, as yet, and mostly because of the premier constitutional covering of “Second Amendment rights,” the nation is no closer to securing protections against the murder of its citizens than it was 100 years ago.

As the nation fragments politically, civilian vigilantes with the judgment of zombies now feel free to walk among some of us with an unearned bravado and the rhetorical cover of “constitutional rights.” They often carry more firepower than the local police, emboldened to parade around some state houses and college campuses as “militias.”  They have costumed themselves in the garb and weaponry common in shooter games and feckless Hollywood films. With attitudes that are as lethal as their guns, they can claim an ersatz “freedom” for themselves even while they create levels of national insecurity.