The Price of Memory Loss


Reading time – 3:10; Viewing time – 4:35 .  .  .

Here are a couple of examples to make a point.

First, whatever your position on the issue of abortion, just for the moment set aside your religious or moral views, as well as your notion of rights, and focus on practicality.

Regardless of public memory, a lot of abortions really did occur prior to the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. For wealthy women, abortions might have been quietly performed in the examination rooms of their OB/GYNs. For others that option wasn’t available, so abortions often were done in a filthy office or back alley by untrained brutes. Many women suffered greatly from complications like severe infections and even loss of fertility. Some bled to death.

When Roe was decided, abortions came out of those filthy offices and back alleys and moved to safe medical facilities. A lot fewer women experienced complications and far fewer died. That’s the practical piece.

It’s easy to wag fingers about abortions if you don’t have a memory of how bad it was before Roe, which is not to say that all who oppose abortion are unjustified; rather, it’s to say that if Roe is overturned, as is de facto incrementally happening, there will be a huge uptick in the use of filthy offices and back alleys. The price of our memory loss is that a lot of women will suffer and some will die because we no longer remember how bad it really was.

Here’s another example of the practical effect and the price of the loss of historical memory. This comes from Gershom Gorenberg’s piece in The American Prospect:

“As historian Tony Judt showed in Postwarhis great work on recent European history, the Western European welfare states created after 1945 were not products of wild idealism. They were the ‘insecure child of anxiety.’ People understood that the political extremism of the 1930s was ‘born directly of economic depression and its social costs. Both Fascism and Communism thrived on social despair, on the huge gulf separating rich and poor.’ The welfare state was a means to keep the black-shirts and brown-shirts in the past.

“One reason, perhaps, that America built so much less of a welfare state was that it was not left so shattered by the war. Obamacare was a very late, partial effort to fill in the most glaring gap, the lack of a national health-care system. Trump hasn’t given up on destroying that.

“But then, Trumpism is a new movement born of social despair and the renewed gulf between rich and poor. Despair sells the tickets to Trump’s mass rallies, and anger handles the amplifiers for his hateful rants. [emphasis mine]

“How is it that a large minority of Americans could vote for this man, or that a majority of Britons could have voted to leave the European Union, or that the new authoritarianism is rising in European countries wounded so deeply seven and eight decades ago by the old authoritarianism?

“I won’t argue that there’s just one reason. But I suggest that a major contributing reason is that eight decades or nine is the span of a human life. Someone who was 13 in September 1939 is 92 or 93 years old today. We are running out of people who can give firsthand testimony of the war itself, much less of the political madness that gave birth to the war. The last earthquake was so long ago that too many people have forgotten the purpose of the strict building code that followed it.”

With a loss of historical memory we humans have a way of reverting to old ways that were terrifyingly destructive. That’s easy to do with leaders spouting slogans and shibboleths and wild promises of restoring the greatness of some mythical, fictional past. But those slogans, shibboleths and wild promises have a way of making us blind to the full reality of the suffering and destruction they bring about.

The point is that the price of memory loss, whatever the issue, is far too great. That is why we – all of us – must remember.

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Copyright 2019 by Jack Altschuler
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2 Responses to The Price of Memory Loss
  1. Paul Winsor Reply

    In response to your questions below:

    How is it that a large minority of Americans could vote for this man, or that a majority of Britons could have voted to leave the European Union, or that the new authoritarianism is rising in European countries wounded so deeply seven and eight decades ago by the old authoritarianism?

    It is possible that the reason many of us are pushing back against society is basic evolutionary biology.

    It is natural for humans (all creatures) to pursue growth. Growth is a matter of survival. When living in an abundant environment people tend to be caring and willing to accept win-win solutions. However, to grow in times of scarcity, the only option is to take from others. Win-lose scenarios. Assuming the despair being felt by populist citizens is due to scarcity and irrelevance, how else would we expect them to feel and act. They can only win if they take something from others and they are being driven by their genes.

  2. Jim Altschuler Reply

    Congress MUST find a way to put a stop to Trump’s flagrant disregard for our laws, human rights and human dignity.

    Women are not toys that can be played with and manipulated. The least of them is far more valuable and important than Trump; the greatest of them should be the POTUS or, at a minimum, VPOTUS.

    Human memory is, in fact, brief … and convenient. We conveniently forget anything we don’t like, or anything that costs us “face” or integrity or money or what we don’t understand (it’s far too much work to endeavor to understand).

    I was born immediately after WWII so I have no personal recollection of the war, only the history that I was taught in school and the anecdotal information shared by those who served in the war. I have to rely on that information to make my decisions on the issues mentioned in this blog. That information tells me that socialism and communism are not the way things should be run while my concepts of right and wrong tell me to treat all people with dignity and respect, no matter where they were born or what manner they believe in God (or don’t) or what their beliefs are or what their sexual orientation. This information tells me that what Trump believes or doesn’t believe, what he thinks is the right way to treat people, and what he thinks is the right thing to do IS WRONG. Just my opinion.