In every generation, there is a set of defining memories, a handful of collective historic events imprinted on people’s experience which shape their outlook of how society operates. Often beamed into our living rooms or, increasingly today, into the palm of our hands, these are happenings which are deemed of undeniable shared importance. This is especially true for how these events clarify the rules of the game but also of how they may challenge perceptions of our individual role in larger or sweeping trends of history.
For my era’s cohorts, who came of age in the 1980s, you may find the fall of the Berlin Wall as one such example. In addition to a feel-good imperial corporatism at the heart of it, there was also a sort of punk-rock ethos in the mix that felt important to be aware of. For those of us who watched it on TV, the memory is one of seeing regular, everyday men and women, all placed on an international stage so suddenly and working together to tear down, even with their bare hands, a longstanding political symbol of oppression and failed ideology. And while I remember a few hammers being brought out, what is most impressed on my mind all these decades later is a blurry image, real or not, on the TV of someone holding up a can of Coke in the dusty aftermath.
You might wonder, at first, why a can of Coke is all that important to mention, especially if the memory might not actually be true to events. But this is like asking why seeing someone fall from a tall building might still invoke, two decades later, memories of the smoldering Twin Towers in anyone who was old enough at the time to now remember those events. But in 1989, to those on the other side of the wall, that decadent, sugary beverage meant a celebration that the West had won because it was a drink which had been banned on that side of the divide. And it mattered less how we got to that ending point (the official Berlin Wall story is about simple miscommunication and dumb luck) because it matters more for what it means for us going forward.
The world had changed, and with it, so had we.
Memories like these, usually just a handful or two, fashion a generation. While the Baby Boomers had JFK and Apollo moon landings, the rest of us who came after have the terror dream that swept the country after 9/11. And the financial volatility and loss that came after the 2007 global financial crises, as well as every other consequence these two events ushered in. In fact, it’s said that Bin Laden chose the Twin Towers for their symbolic value to the US. And the reaction their destruction would provoke. And whether or not the banks coordinated in some way to cause the Great Recession, which I think likely given some of the evidence, the American dream, built partially on the self-pride of owning a home, was shattered.
As a rule, you can tell a lot about an age and a people by which memories are deemed as collectively above all others, and in turn, how those people choose to respond to those events. Although the former isn’t always found preserved in complete details within the official history books, the latter almost always is. In either case, that ability to glean more profound trends, not from what is outright stated, but from what is below the surface, even when it’s in a more raw, undiluted form, becomes a robust tool. With it, you can make individual decisions and gauge depth in our cultural values. You can also find meaning among your fellow man and forge alliances on mutual insight.
For this reason and to come the long way around to the point of this article, you’re likely to see an expanding strategy to combat this tool by those in power. After all, when you’re looking for ever-increasing control of a population, you can’t have lessons being taught outside the authoritative accounts, no matter how stupid or backward those accounts are. And you can’t have any analysis which supersedes the official chronicle, especially none that might allow groups to effectively organize on their own.
What might this expanding strategy look like and how effective might it be?
It’s social amnesia. And it’s very effective.
Whether intentionally or simply reflexively, those in charge have given us a year of forgotten events. And a landscape where it’s difficult to collect any meaningful developments, let alone pass along what they might mean. One day, in the near future, an entire generation might only be able to recollect a blur of empty occurrences and rank trivialities elevated to panic-inducing levels. And those events which define generations and which inform us about what our collective codes of conduct are will be replaced by a vague set of dizzying, never-ending emotions and nonsensical scapegoating of the very real problems we face.
Since it’s about to wrap up, the Chauvin trial is a perfect example of this strategy in action today. For anyone who’s even half following the proceedings, you get the sense that the media is willfully trying to misreport what’s happening, presenting the exact opposite situation of what the jury is hearing. Instead, what we’ve been given by pundits are vague, emotional complaints presented as if they’re award-winning legal arguments. Equally true, you have national-stage politicians out in public discussing the trial and coming very close to directly inciting violence. And even as these same politicians conjure up non-existent insurrection plots over the most commonplace statements. Assuming the officer is acquitted, and I think it pretty likely, the widespread violence that may follow could be intense. And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if none of it is widely reported on since it’s not advantageous for the current administration to have it be recorded in the public ledger.
Memory holed, as the new saying goes.
We have yet to find out where this extreme experiment in social amnesia will take us. But it will probably end with a society that has no shared history. But worse, it may also lead to new generations with no store of knowledge and experience to drawn from or learn about. If history is any lesson, in such a world, there are no lessons beyond crude trickery or outright brutality. Instead, all we get are ramblings, nonsense, and a rampage of insanity. It might not surprise anyone if historians look back at this time, and despite a wealth of digital data, they struggle to piece together a coherent narrative of anything that was really going on. They may even wonder how we failed so spectacularly at preserving our most basic wisdom.
The only thing they might learn about us, really, is that, in our day, history might have rhymed, as it’s often said. But we couldn’t be bothered to remember any of the lines because we had already burned the books long ago in the bonfire of our rage. Forgetting, it seems, what we might fight to retain or safeguard for ourselves was preferred over all else. Even the memory of who we were wasn’t sacred.
I suppose that you could call it the ultimate in poetic justice.