Sunday, April 26, 2015

What We Remember and What We Forget

There was a fascinating article in today's Boston Globe about why we remember some historical events and forget others.  The author, Christopher Klein, began with a discussion of the tragic sinking of an American ship, the Sultana, in 1865.  More than 1,800 of the passengers (including many soldiers returning home from the Civil War) perished when the Sultana's boilers exploded.  Even today, 150 years later, it remains "...the greatest maritime disaster in American history."  And yet, most of us, myself included, either know little about the sinking of the Sultana, or have never heard of it.  "And as the 150th anniversary of the tragedy arrives, expect to hear the same thing you have heard about the Sultana for the last 150 years — nothing. Unlike the sinking of the Titanic, which claimed 300 fewer lives, the Sultana disaster never spawned any Hollywood blockbusters, theme park-style attractions, souvenir plate collections, or breathless anniversary commemorations."

It's a very interesting question:  why do some historical events almost immediately recede into history, barely recalled, except perhaps by those the event affected; while other events attain an almost iconic status in our collective memory, remembered annually with parades or commemorated with monuments?  I gave a talk recently about an event of great significance when it happened in Boston in 1919-- the "great molasses flood"-- a huge molasses storage tank ruptured, covering a large part of the city with the thick, gooey substance, killing about twenty people and injuring 150 others. More about that event, which dominated the newspapers all across the country when it happened, can be found here:     
But just as quickly as the molasses flood made the news, it was soon replaced with other major stories.  Today, other than local historians and readers of Stephen Puleo's excellent book about it ("Dark Tide," published in 2004), the molasses flood is rarely discussed. 

What we remember as a culture and what we forget is worth considering, especially given the ongoing battle by some political figures to rewrite history, eliminating events that put their country in a bad light.  We are seeing this even now with the government of Turkey's refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, and the government of Japan's unwillingness to acknowledge that during the second world war, their army used Korean girls and women as sexual slaves.  In some Muslim countries, leaders insist the Holocaust never happened. And let's be honest:  through the years, there have been American politicians who tried to downplay slavery, or who insisted school history books should promote the view that America never did anything wrong.

Of course, it's human nature to want to sanitize the past.  Many schools talk about Columbus as a great explorer, but avoid discussing how brutally he treated the native peoples; history books often teach about George Washington as a great president, but many avoid mentioning his ownership of slaves.  I can sort of understand taking a simplistic view when teaching little children, but even in college, some of the famous people I was taught about had their "blemishes" removed, with their anti-black or anti-Semitic views conveniently omitted.  

I don't have a good answer for why some events stick in our collective memory, and why some don't; nor do I have a good answer for why some people become famous, while others who (in my view) made important contributions to society are totally forgotten.  But I do know it's important to keep having this discussion, and especially, it's important to ask if we are being told the entire story.  Unfortunately, these days, there is so much information being thrown at us, from TV, radio, social media, movies, etc. It becomes hard to fact-check all of it, and some people don't even try.  It seems that many of us just go from celebrity scandal to celebrity scandal, from political crisis to political crisis, each new thing replacing the one that was such a big deal only a few days before.  (Media critic Douglas Rushkoff addresses this eloquently in his book "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now." 

I am not a person who worships the past, but I do believe it holds some important lessons.  And I am not alone in believing that.  There are many fake quotes on the internet, but this one by philosopher George Santayana is quite real:  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense. Scribner’s, 1905, p. 284).  It's a quote worth contemplating when watching, reading, or listening to the news:  which stories will continue to resonate with us in the future, which stories will we quickly forget... and why?

1 comment:

  1. it's important to ask if we are being told the entire story. Unfortunately, these days, there is so much information being thrown at us, from TV, radio, social media, movies, etc.