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When Memory (But Not the White House’s Guidelines) Goes Public

September 6, 2011

Politicians and poets have always interpreted historical and current events for us. Think of Richard III’s proclamation (via Shakespeare) that “Now is the winter of our discontent,” or Abraham Lincoln’s remarks about what happened eighty-seven years before he visited Gettysburg. Lest this list seem too sixteenth- and nineteenth-century, I can also add the current text on Pittsburgh city buses’ electronic displays. As of about a week ago, the displays started alternating the route number and name with “NEVER FORGET 9-11-01.”

With these examples–and many others that are less memorable–surrounding us in this 24-hour news cycle era, maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the White House released guidelines for commemorating the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. And it should have been even less of a surprise that there was a backlash against them.

The New York Times got copies of these guidelines and described them as:

detailed guidelines to government officials on how to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, with instructions to honor the memory of those who died on American soil but also to recall that Al Qaeda and other extremist groups have since carried out attacks elsewhere in the world, from Mumbai to Manila.

Showing a nice bit of rhetorical awareness, the White House actually released two sets of guidelines: one set for American embassies and consulates, and the other for Americans in the United States. Every audience, as rhetoric, composition, and public speakers well know, needs a message tailored to its particular beliefs and knowledge. Conflating an American embassy with an American small town doesn’t make sense, so thumbs up to the White House communications staff.

However, both sets of guidelines share an overarching goal of maintaining the public memory of September 11. As Edward S. Casey, a philosophy professor at SUNY-Stony Brook, puts it, “[P]ublic memory is both attached to a past (typically an originating event of some sort) and acts to ensure a future of further remembering of that same event” (p. 17). In other words, a public memory is more than the story that we have developed for history textbooks. A public memory is the story that we keep telling to each other, for each other, and in front of each other. We all have private memories of September 11, and we have the collective “Where were you when…” experience. But the need to re-invoke September 11 is what drives its public memory.

It isn’t the fact that the White House’s guidelines are buttressing September 11’s public memory that gets some people in a tizzy, though. It’s the fact that these guidelines are perceived as a revision of that public memory.

Casey goes on to say that:

In fact, a given event in public memory is subject to two forms of revision on the part of the public itself: first, a discovery of a glaringly false part of its content; second, a reassessment of its primary significance as a wider, or simply different, ethical or historical context arises. (p. 29)

It’s the second type of revision that some people are objecting to in the White House’s guidelines. The guidelines emphasize the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States’ soil, but other events in Mumbai and Manila are remembered, too. In this sense, placing the September 11, 2001, attack in a group of events diminishes its specialness–and by extension the need for its public memory. The Atlantic has observed that “these guidelines will fit in neatly with a popular meme on the right, that President Obama goes around the world and apologizes for how awesome America is.”

But the charitable–and, I think, intended–interpretation of the guidelines’ inclusion of New York City, Mumbai, and Manila is that the United States and many other countries in the world have an empathy born from these Al Qaeda and other terrorist attacks. A widespread global empathy of “we are all Americans today” emerged such that the American firefighters and policemen and businessmen who lost their lives didn’t get lost in the shuffle because the number of those who would remember them increased.

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