As a historic 2016 dissolves into a new year, William Faulkner’s famous quote — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — seems especially prescient.
After all, “Make America Great Again” helped propel President-elect Donald Trump to the White House after a campaign against Hillary Clinton that seemed to alternate between a referendum on the Obama and (Bill) Clinton eras.
And this week’s news narrative was dominated by the enduring, if not endless, enmity between Israel and Palestine, and the most recent reheating of the Cold-War era as the U.S. slapped sanctions on Russia for Moscow’s meddling in the election Trump won.
Other recent events — and how they correspond to a new Pew Research Center poll on what Americans identify as the 10 most significant events of their lifetimes — suggest the past is present, too.
The key determinant driving the top responses in Pew’s poll is shock: 9/11 was listed as the most significant historic event regardless of the respondent’s generation, geography, gender, race, income, education,or politics. And while that searing event is etched as a moment in time, the terrorism at the root of it reverberates today in tragedies such as last week’s terrorist truck attack in Berlin and the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara. Collectively, these and other violent spates continue to shake societies and as a result roil geopolitics.
For baby boomers (aged 52-70) and those in the so-called Silent Generation (71-88), another stunner landed on the list: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Boomers named it second, after 9/11, and Silents said it was third, after 9/11 and World War II.
U.S. participation in that war was sparked by an earlier shock, which was also in the news this week when Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese prime minister accompanied by a U.S. president to visit Pearl Harbor. Abe expressed condolences, but not regret, just as Obama did not apologize when he visited Hiroshima last summer (nuclear weapons are another “past” issue that resurfaced last week after a Trump tweet caused concerns over a new arms race).
Interpretations of seminal events such as Pearl Harbor are nearly as important as the incidents themselves. Framing and phrasing can be durable and indelible, too. Consider FDR’s famous “a date which will live in infamy” speech, in which he described the “unprovoked and dastardly attack” 75 years ago.
And while the tragic assassination of JFK seized the country’s collective consciousness, the enduring Kennedy mystique was also advanced by political positioning — including from former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, according to a compelling film released last week.
In fact “Jackie” suggests that in her immediate grief, the first lady (played by a pitch-perfect Natalie Portman) considered her slain husband’s legacy.
In just one of the film’s examples, Jackie, riding with Bobby Kennedy alongside JFK’s casket, asks the ambulance driver what he knows about James Garfield and William McKinley. He can recall nothing about those two assassinated predecessors to President Kennedy, but of course is well versed on Abe Lincoln. So Jackie tells Bobby that they need books on Lincoln’s funeral, and commences a contentious planning process for a procession despite Secret Service security concerns.
Later, alone in the White House, a deeply distressed (and drinking and pill-popping) Jackie plays the soundtrack to Jack’s favorite musical, “Camelot.” Within a week, in her first post-assassination interview for an article she has editing control over, that’s the metaphor she suggests for her husband’s presidency. Her words endured, and decades hence some still refer to the Kennedy era as “Camelot,” despite a harsher historical assessment than the hagiography formed after Dallas.
This shaping of collective memory is part of a pattern, said Alejandro Baer, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota whose academic focus includes the sociopolitical consequences of memory narratives.
“When an individual remembers events of the past we usually tend to think of this as the result of a psychological process (a sort of neurological substratum that allows us to retrieve that information in our brains), but remembrance is to a large extent the expression of social processes,” Baer explained in an e-mail.
Jacqueline Kennedy seemed to intuitively understand this social process, and was strikingly successful in shaping a national narrative of her husband’s presidency.
And yet collective memory of the Kennedy assassination and funeral is distinct from the perception of the president’s years in office. The same dynamic is reflected in the collective memory of 9/11 compared with the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were listed lower in the Pew poll.
9/11 is “such a salient and strong memory,” Baer suggested, “because its significance is uncontested across groups otherwise attributing different meaning (or none at all) to other historical events. … It created a kind of solidarity and consensus that few other events generate. That consensus is reinforced through cyclically returning anniversaries and remembrance ceremonies, but also through terrorist attacks in the present, which bring that memory back to life and make it salient.”
Which recalls a less celebrated, but equally meaningful Faulkner quote: “Memory believes before knowing remembers.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.