of memories and the public sphere

This is a longer version of a response to Elliong Ng’s post on Sensitive Anniversary, Edited Memories, which takes up the Peking Duck’s lament:

I find it heartbreaking that here, in what 20 years ago was the vortex where it all took place, there remains in the minds of the young no image of the men and women who died in the crackdown, no stories of the bravery or even of the daily turn of events, the “Goddess of Democracy,” the sort-of hunger strikes, the meeting of Wu’er Kaixi wearing his pajamas with Li Peng, etc. Instead, it’s basically a void, interrupted with a few government talking points and state-issued photos, like those of pre-”Liberation” Tibetan serfs with their limbs hacked off by evil landowners. And I say, What can I do? And I answer, Write it down, and do your tiny, microscopic bit to keep the memory alive.

I think the question of what older people want the next generation to know and how we want them to know are interesting questions because there are important differences between establishing and nourishing a vital public sphere and sharing memories with our children and their friends. Most of us reminice with people our own age, rather than with those of us younger than ourselves. In contrast, we rely on social institutions to teach some version of history – schools, the news media, paperback novels, and hope that our children and their friends will come to some understanding of events.

Born in the mid-sixties (I’m a baby boomer by a few months), there are memories of crucial events in the history of the United States that I don’t have – Woodstock comes to me through tied dyed documentaries, rather than actual conversation; my parents talked about Nixon once while we were camping, but after that, anything I learned about Watergate, US withdrawal from Saigon, ping pong diplomacy, detente – I kind of learned in school, but mostly accessed through popular culture and Oliver Stone. Likewise, my impressions of the American hostages in Iran, the election of Ronald Reagan and subsequent fall into conservative absurdities have only become clearer and emotionally meaningful as I have aged.

Moreover, many of the complaints that young people not are politically active or aware in the way that we once were are as common in the US as they are in China. Those of us who went to college in the 1980s were defined in many ways by the end of the Cold War and the hope that that end promised. Importantly, this was still a time defined by all sorts of political ideologies that have faded and/or been found irrelevant. Those who came of age in the 90s and are coming of age this millennium have had a different relationship to politics because the ideologies that have defined the world also changed.

As a teacher, I have found young people in both the US and China to be passionately concerned about the environment, about creative freedom, and about new forms of globalization. They are also going through important historical transformation and, more often than not, we fail to see the revolutionary potential of their lives. All this to say, I don’t think we can hold young people responsible for ignorance when we don’t create a viable public sphere. Nor can we ask our children to understand what we went through and why it matters to us if we don’t find ways of speaking with and listening to them.

The question for those of us for whom 1989 matters is: why and how do we want to share this experience with younger generations?

2 thoughts on “of memories and the public sphere

  1. Interesting questions, Mary!

    Perhaps China is going through its “Reagan Revolution” which is focused on harnessing market forces. Greed is good, right?

    Perhaps 1989 is like the Vietnam War protests, where the US had its own Kent State Massacre where Ohio National guardsmen shot into a crowd of unarmed students and killed 4 people.

    As i responded on CNReviews, I don’t have a burning desire to share anything with anyone. I just would find it sad if a whole period of time and important events were just off limits for personal understanding.

    Thanks again for engaging on this topic!

    • Hi Elliott,

      I think the comparison with Kent State is precisely to the point: that too has been faded from both memory and the public sphere.

      Unfortunately, I don’t think either the US or the Chinese governments are the only parties responsible for national indifference to other possible ways of being American or Chinese, both at home and abroad. If that were true, progressive action would have a clear and ready interlocutor.

      I think that what a country chooses to teach in schools, to commemorate through public ceremonies, and to celebrate through monuments results from debate in the public sphere. In both the US and PRC, government officials and those who actually aimed at and fired on students weren’t the only ones who wanted more progressive alternatives suppressed and forgotten. Instead, there was large public support for “business as usual” despite sympathy for the “personal tragedies” of the students and their families.

      A more recent tale of how non-official forces close of public debate, even in little, teeny tiny, otherwise non-descript publics. When the US was preparing to launch the second gulf war, I was opposed. My parents have retired to a relatively conservative part of the country, which overwhelmingly supported Bushy and crew. Whenever I visited my parents and the topic of to war or not to war was raised, I was made to feel uncomfortable expressing opposition. My parents were willing to discuss with me. However, in larger gatherings, being anti-war was coded as being “uncivil” and “impolite”. That level of alienation from public discourse does result in a reluctance to speak and, in the future, to remember publicly.

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