Sunday, October 18, 2009

Three Hundred Million People Can't Have a Collective Memory.

AMERICA IS TOO BIG. It's too large to have a two party political system. It's too big for a national health care plan. It's too big to have standardized education requirements.

And it's too big to have a single collective understanding of our nation's history.

Roger Launius, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, asked the question: should memory be unified (one people, one nation) or should it be fragmented and personal.

My answer is that it's impossible to have the singular approach. There are just too many of us. We come from so many different places, with so much different baggage. What we deem to be relevant often is of absolutely no interest to other folks.

It is way too easy to manipulate the past in order to further certain agendas. Launius asserts that some national figures wanted a historical narrative that served the public good and buttressed the nation-state.

I can't even tell you how much that offends me. Especially in the case of the Enola Gay. Seriously, you want to use the plane that delivered a bomb that killed 140,000 people as a booster for the nation's ego? Maybe they should blast "Rock You Like a Hurricane" in the exhibit hall. I'd feel so proud.

I'm not just saying this because I'm half-Japanese. I visited Nagasaki's Peace Park (above, circa 1994) and it made me sick to my stomach. As an American, I felt so guilty. The argument that dropping two atomic bombs saved American lives is ridiculous to me. We massacred innocent people, not just those with weapons. It was inhuman.

The National Air and Space Museum, which is devoted largely to war and the constant pursuit of "progress," is a tool of the government. Now, I'm depressed that so many children visit the place.

History cannot be objective. It is open to interpretation, and that is a wonderful thing. The problem, I imagine, is ensuring that society functions with a backbone of common ground.

And this is why I think the nation is just too large.

What is deemed important in one community may not be important to another community. With more than 300 million people, our lowest common denominators are few (hello, American Idol?). Our museums should focus, I think, on serving the local populations, teaching them about the region and it's place in the world.

(I'll have thoughts on the Horton/ Horton book later ... I purchased the wrong book!).

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