American History and the Ethics of Memory

Clintonville Plaque by Robert Walker (via Wikimedia Commons, CC A 3.0)

This post originally appeared August 11, 2015.

When I was in graduate school, I walked almost every day past a rock bearing a plaque that read “On this site in 1897 nothing happened.” You may have seen it yourself. The “nothing happened” plaque has become a minor meme in embossed iron. A flickr photo pool features several dozens pictures of it in various locations around the English-speaking world. You can even buy one for yourself on Amazon.

Many people seem to think it’s a good joke. If you stop and think about it, it’s actually two jokes.

On one hand, it’s funny because it’s a reductio ad absurdem. We live in a culture of rampant commemoration—historical markers, day- and month-long observances, commemorative street names, “On this Day in History” features. The National Register of Historic Places includes more than 80,000 sites. The “nothing happened” plaque is a joke that says we tend to over-remember—that there is literally nothing we won’t devote a plaque to.

At the same time, it can be understood as a joke that says we tend to under-remember. As the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes already knew, millennia ago, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” The world is very old: everything has already happened, everywhere, in every year of recorded history (even in poor derided 1897), and a site where truly nothing happened is indeed notable enough to warrant a plaque. Every day we tread ground where past generations lived lives from which we doubtless could learn a great deal, if only we had a way to listen to them. But without concerted efforts to remember what preceded us, we remain mostly oblivious to the archaeology of human experience.

These competing meanings of the joke present a quandary: when are we remembering too much, and when are we remembering too little? Or, more precisely: given that we can’t possibly remember everything all the time, how should we choose, and how should we remember, the finite elements of the past for which our brains (and the surfaces on which we can install plaques) have room? Memory, personal and collective, has some of the same features as other scarcity-of-resources problems, including challenges in determining the most ethical distribution of those resources.

More than a decade after the terrorist attacks of September 11, you can walk into a truck stop and find a t-shirt or bumper sticker bearing pictures of the World Trade Center and the words “Never Forget.” Most people would agree, that ought never be forgotten—and the shirts and stickers are a testament to their own effectiveness in shaping public memory. But what are we doing, and what should we do, with that memory? Few people would find any fault with its heightening our admiration for first responders or making us appreciative of the peace and security most of us enjoy. But how is memory of 9/11 shaping public ideas about the U.S.’s relationship to the Islamic world? Should it be accompanied with greater remembrance of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, about which much (civilian death tolls in the region, long-term tolls on veterans’ lives) still is not widely known?

The country’s deeper past shapes the present, too, of course. To Dylann Roof, the Confederate flag probably represented a lost past of white supremacy. Politicians who now say the flag “belongs in a museum” seem to be implying that it should be remembered differently (although no politician ventures very specific recommendations about how). Or maybe they’re suggesting it should be all but forgotten—it depends on whether one sees museums as living institutions or as society’s attic. While there may be emerging widespread agreement that the Confederate flag should not be valorized, it is much less clear exactly what we should do instead. Are there ways we could remember the histories of slavery and the Civil War that might better contribute to racial justice in our own time?

In a series of columns over the coming year, while I’m in residence at the Prindle Institute, I’ll explore questions like these that arise from the ways contemporary culture seems to remember—or not remember—various aspects of American history.

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Christopher Hager is the Schaenen Scholar for the current school year. Dr. Hager received his bachelor's degree from Stanford University and his Ph.D. from Northwestern University. He is an Associate Professor of English at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he teaches courses in American literature and cultural history and, for the past three years, has co-directed the Center for Teaching and Learning. He is the author of Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing (Harvard Univ. Press, 2013), a study of the writing practices of enslaved and recently emancipated African Americans, which won the Frederick Douglass Prize and was a finalist for the Lincoln Prize.