Posts Tagged ‘Historical amnesia’

The future of historical amnesia

August 13, 2012

I’m continually surprised at the number of people who know little and care less about events before they were born.  Since I was 30 or so, I’ve been muttering to myself, “Kids these days!  They think history began with the Kennedy assassination.” “…with Watergate.” “with the Reagan administration.” “…with the Monica Lewinsky scandal.” “…with the 9/11 attacks.”

Historical knowledge gives you a frame of reference for understanding the present, as well as providing a reminder that things weren’t always the way they were today.  Without knowledge of history and culture, I would be at the mercy of the advertising, propaganda and the mass media.  If I didn’t remember the Joe McCarthy era, or have knowledge of the internment of the Japanese during World War Two, Big Red Scare of the 1920s or the Alien and Sedition laws in the early days of the American republic, I might regard our present Homeland Security state as normal

My earliest historical memory is of World War Two.  I don’t remember Pearl Harbor, but I remember patriotically collecting scrap paper and metal, and I do remember how my third grade class was given the day off in honor of V-E Day.  My earliest memory of a political argument was from when I was in the sixth grade, and I argued for re-election of President Harry Truman against the challenger Thomas E. Dewey.

But World War Two didn’t occur merely because Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were evil people.  It had its roots in World War One and the blood-and-soil nationalism of the 19th century.  Truman and Dewey didn’t come out of nowhere.  They were the political heirs of Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, of the Great Depression and New Deal, and of the conflicts of the Populist and Progressive eras around the turn of the previous century.

It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect everyone to be as fascinated with history as I am.  But I continually find people who consider themselves to be highly educated who are ignorant of basic historical facts.  I wonder whether this historical amnesia is distinctively American or whether it is universal in the modern world.

Click on xkcd for cartoons and occasional infographics like the one above.

Historical amnesia and the Great Depression

September 1, 2011

I was born in 1936, too late to have any memory of the Great Depression, but my thinking has been shaped by my parents’ stories of life in the 1930s.  Very few Americans have living memories of that era, and the number is dwindling of those who, like me, have second-hand memories.

It is lack of historical memory that makes our President and Congress so willing to dispense with the firewalls and safety nets that were created in the 1930s and 1940s to buffer against another Great Depression.   It is lack of historical memory that makes we the people so undisturbed by the recreation of the conditions that led up to the Great Depression—irresponsible financial speculation, rising debt, concentration of wealth in a few hands.

I don’t think there will be another Great Depression exactly like the first.  But there is a saying attributed to the philosopher Hegel:  Whatever has happened, can happen.  The Great Depression happened.  There is nothing to stop another one from happening except human action.