Thursday, November 22, 2012

Give thanks II: The gift of memory


CATALOGING WHAT we’re thankful for on our ritual feast day, in our world that seems to come at us likethisallthetime, it’s easy to be thankful for the ability to hold on to something that matters — for the ability to remember.

So much of what we consume, so many of the ways we communicate have a built-in evanescence, an almost instant vanishing. From text messages to tweets, e-mails to IMs, we’re bombarded by snapshots of information whose number and relentlessness mean that they flash by and are gone — not because they can’t be recalled (which they can, of course), but because they can’t be remembered. They don’t go deep enough, don’t last long enough, to qualify as evidence of memory. In the digital world in which we bump into one another, one emoticon or de-voweled msg or LMAO makes room for the next one. Any second now …

It’s hard not to be thankful for the gift of memory; there seem to be fewer and fewer occasions to really use it.

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Good thing we have elections to help with that. The one on Nov. 6, the latest canvass of the national mood, showed that memory persists when it counts. Americans who remember the worst economic years of the Bush #43 administration voted not to repeat its folly of imbalance, or to revisit the era of cowboy swagger in the White House.

The re-election of Barack Obama as president showed that the American people are capable of seeing past the rhetoric and bright noise that defined this last election cycle, and deciding with the vote what is in their best interests. A consolidating coalition of America’s more socially and economically vulnerable demographic components used that vote, decisively, to help pull the nation forward.

It’s something that William Greider, writing in The Nation, understands. Greider observes that “the 2012 election was a profound watershed in the life of the nation. Whatever else President Obama accomplishes or fails to accomplish in his second term, his re-election is in some ways even more significant than his initial triumph in 2008. He will be forever remembered as the president who opened America to a different future—more promising and fulfilling, more just and democratic than anything achieved in the American past.”

And who really lost the election?

“Forget Romney and the Republicans,” Greider says. “The real loser was the bitter legacy of ‘white supremacy.’ That poisonous prejudice has endured in political reality and the national culture for two centuries. It still does, though it is now cultivated most zealously only by white Southerners who took over the party of Abraham Lincoln (who surely weeps for his Grand Old Party).

"In 2012, white supremacy not only lost the election. It was a crucial factor in explaining how Obama won.”

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GOOD THING we’ve got history, too. For African Americans, remembering is a long and bittersweet second nature; in this election year, with plenty of reminders of a past that’s not really past, with memories of the vote denied, they forgot nothing of history. You’ve seen them: the black voters in Florida and Pennsylvania and Ohio who lined up a few weeks back, putting up with hours of waiting in lines that stretched for blocks in order to exercise their constitutional franchise.

It was a civics lesson, manifest evidence of remembering what they knew they damn well better never forget: The vote matters, and a vote for this president was a vote to further something essential to the nation's character.

Greider notes: “If Obama had lost, a wise history professor pointed out to me, it would have taken many years, probably many decades, before either major party would ever again dare to nominate a person of color for president. Black Americans understood this, probably better than most of us white folks. So did Latinos, Asians and a whole bunch of other 'minority' voters. African-Americans might have had quarrels or disappointments with Obama, but they understood their historic stakes in winning a second term for him.”

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If history is what we’ve learned, memory is what we’ve lived. For the nearly 70 percent of the American population under the age of 50, there’s no recollection of what happened on this date 49 years ago in Dallas, Texas, at 12:30 in the afternoon. When John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated on that grimly transformational day, it seemed to foreshadow the arrival of a kind of future, to usher in the velocities of a world and a nation tearing themselves apart ... some of which we feel today.

Those who weren’t around back then will never know. Those who were around back then will never forget it. But some of what we lost in Dallas, we regained on Election Night: that sense of the American possible, that courage and invention that, we like to think, defines us as Americans, and as human beings.

And there’s no forgetting that, and what it says about us, no matter when you got here.

Image credits: President Obama: via The Huffington Post. Black voters in Cincinnati: Politic365. Official portrait of John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler.

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