Memory is how individuals and societies recall past events. History, in contrast, seeks to collect the actual data of events. In society, memory is important because it forms the narrative on which we build basic concepts that drive policy.
Take this past week when we celebrated the founding of the United States on July 4. Historical facts tell us there are many days we could designate to celebrate the official independence of the United States of America. July 2 was the day the Continental Congress voted to declare Independence. July 4 is when the Continental Congress completed the draft of the Declaration. Then there were the battles at Lexington and Concord, Mass., in April 1775 that set the colonies on the path to the American Revolutionary War. Or we could look to Oct. 18, 1781, when British troops surrendered to French troops and General George Washington at the battle of Yorktown, forcing the British to the bargaining table. Then there's Sept. 10, 1783, when the war officially ended with the Peace of Paris. As you can see there is much more to the history and documentation of the events of that era, yet in the memories of Americans, it is July 4 that marks the founding of a nation that protects individual liberty against government and mob rule, while upholding representative democracy.
Memory is a selection of facts, ignoring those that don't serve the agreed upon framework. The Civil War is a key example. Another seminal event occurred July 3, 1863, when the failure of Confederate General George Pickett’s charge on Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg, Pa., forced the retreat of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, ending its last thrust into the North and the beginning of the end of the American Civil War. Gone from America's memory are the raids led by Confederate soldiers in June and July, in advance of the Battle of Gettysburg to kidnap free African Americans of the Cumberland Valley into slavery. This is to remove the centrality of the maintenance of slavery from the Southern cause and dismiss the pain of slavery, as on a personal level we forget painful incidents with family members.
In assembling arguments for reparations for slavery and America’s history of racial exclusions, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates underplayed the convenient loss from America’s memory that there were slave owners who received “reparations.” And, until the movie “Glory,” the role of African American troops in the war was not part of America’s memory. My wife’s third great grandfather, Jessie White, enlisted on Oct. 1, 1864, into Company D of the 6th Regiment, U.S. Colored Cavalry, and saw action at two Union victories later in November at the Battle at Marion and the Second Raid on Saltville in southwestern Virginia. His military file includes the claim before the Adjutant General’s Office for $300 to be paid to Daugherty White as compensation for the freedom of Jessie White, his slave, to serve in the defense of the United States of America.
Memory, in part, is the creation of a narrative that serves other concepts—like the meaning of race or patriotism. It also can serve the purpose of class. We are still recovering from the Great Recession of 2008. So far the narrative is that it was a financial collapse and that the quick actions of the Federal Reserve and the bailout through the Troubled Asset Relief Program saved the day. That means we can “remember” this as home loans gone bad. With health restored to Wall Street, we don’t need to do anything more. That serves the purposes of the 1%.
Memories also shape policies to prevent painful policy failures. Why isn’t 2008 remembered like the Great Depression? Conservative economist Milton Friedman and monetarist Anna Schwartz went to lengths to rewrite the Great Depression as a financial sector collapse followed by poor Federal Reserve policy, dismissing the need for Roosevelt’s aggressive government response. Adopting the financial system as central to how we remember 2008 is part of that same anti-government narrative.
Another narrative of 2008 could be this: Long-term imbalances between workers and managers generated huge inequality, resulting in workers’ heavily indebted position and making sustained demand for goods and services to maintain full employment impossible. Remembering 2008 as a financial collapse dismisses the pain of high unemployment in the real economy. That memory would force new policies to correct those imbalances and calls to strengthen policies that ensured workers’ jobs and incomes. Like the memory of the Great Depression.
Here is the hyperlink for Friedman and Schwartz: www.fee.org/the_freeman/detail/the-great-depression-according-to-milton-friedman.
Dr. William Spriggs is the chief economist for the AFL-CIO.