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August 12, 2006

30% of Americans can't remember year of 9/11 attacks

Garance spots a disturbing statistic:

Some 30 percent of Americans cannot say in what year the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington took place, according to a poll published in the Washington Post newspaper. [AFP]

Worse still, according to the same article, 5% of Americans don't know the date or the month in which the terrorist attacks took place.

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But hey, they do know the most important thing- that Saddam was behind the attacks!
I see one third of a nation ill-informed, ill-educated, ill-bred. And it IS in despair that I paint you that picture.

I've always had an interest in history, even when I was a young child, and so very early on I learned that most Americans have no such interest. More than most cultures, I think, Americans disregard the significance of history. Living in America is a bit like living in a nation where everyone has amnesia. Right after 9/11 people said it would never be forgotten, but of course, it will be forgotten.

I don't mean any of this as criticism of American culture. Americans tend to emphasize things that may really be more important than history. A very good book I read on the business culture in Germany versus the business culture in America compared the standard approach of German executives to American executives when solving a problem. The German executive, when delivering their report, will normally start off with a historical summary of the problem, to show that they were thorough in their research. For the American executive, the important thing is to show how creative and innovative they are, so they will list all the ideas they came up with during a brainstorming session, and then the reason why some ideas were rejected.

The Germans emphasize thoroughness and historical background, the Americans emphasize creativity and innovation. Given a limited amount of time and money, one can't do everything, and I'm not sure either culture has an obvious advantage over the other.

But, without a doubt, the American culture does not emphasize historical memory.

One is reminded of Rantes (who believed himself to be an alien) in Man Facing Southeast. In talking with his therapist, he explained that his race was interested in trying to understand humanity's greatest weapon: "your stupidity."

But we've always been at war with Oceania.

I can't say as I've ever heard of a study where 100% of people answered correctly. There always seem to be at least 5 % that either get totally freaked out by being asked questions by strangers or just woke up from one of those great naps where you can barely remember your name.

I swear, if you asked "are you alive?" to 1000 random non-vampire people, only 95% would say yes.

In a related development, 32% indicated that they had no idea when the War of 1812 began, and 27% professed ignorance of who was buried in Grant's Tomb.

When I was in Los Angeles and the Rodney King riots happened in 1992, the single most bizarre thing about it was how quickly it was finished. We had the riots, and it was wall-to-wall TV news coverage, taking over the airwaves, 24/7, for all the days of the riots. The TV news quickly settled into the talking point: "this has nothing to do with civil rights. These are punks." "Nothing to do with Martin Luther King." "Punks." "Punks." "Punks." For that three days, I heard "Punks" more often than I heard "Earthen Berms" during the Gulf War.

But I'm telling you, by three or four days _after_ the riots, nothing; the weekend following, the news led into some of their stories saying, "one of the things people are doing to get back to normal is...", and then after that weekend, not a single thing further. I never saw the riots covered or referred to on TV after that, but once. There was one retrospective on PBS a year later. That is actually the last thing I've ever seen or heard about the riots.

For 9/11, though, there's been many a talk show and online article about the survivors, if not the event itself. Also, a lot of the events since then, like the Iraq War, have referenced 9/11, though as we all know, Iraq had nothing at all to do with 9/11. Yet even with this reinforcement, Americans still forget.

It's true: Americans do not pay attention to history. During the Iraq invasion, I saw on the news an Iraqi Shi'ite confronting an American soldier, and saying, "President Bush's father told us [Shi'ites] to rise up against Saddam in 1992. You remember that, don't you? So we thought he would help us get rid of him." When he said, "you remember that, don't you?", he frowned, because he obviously had no confidence at all that the American would remember the incident.

I like studying history because it gives you a broader view, and things make sense when you put them in historical context. If you don't, it's just a jumble of random occurrences. For a historian, dates aren't the only important thing, or even the most important. If names and dates are the _only_ element in your study of history, then your study will be horribly shallow. But to make sense of the world, you must remember _some_ important names and dates.

Americans don't pay attention to history because they're not trained to pay attention to anything. They can't be bothered to read, and in any case, the peaceful environment that they would need in order to focus on reading is constantly shattered by all our endless noise pollution: the blaring television, or the leaf-blower man, or the screaming, unmuffled engine of the local brain-dead thug's Honda Civic. Trained first to be consumers and spectators, TV-watchers, Americans are trained to search for a way to avoid actively and critically thinking. Our hatred for tyranny seems to have morphed over the years into a hatred for discipline. This indiscipline turns our brains from useful tools into storm-tossed, vapid, passive receptacles. Rigorous logic, requiring active assessment of information, is disdained in favor of the random, incoherent, emotionally-driven ideas and nonsensical combativeness provided by the television or other stimuli around us.

Americans pay attention to nothing unless they're paid to do so. Significant numbers of Americans will eventually forget not only the date, but the very details of the 9/11 disaster.

yeah, sure. but garance is just a blog teaser.

"it's just a jumble of random occurrences"

But none of us can know everything so there must always remain large fields of human knowledge that, for all of us, remain a jumble of random occurrences.

I wish I knew the history of African art, but for now the pieces remain for me a jumble of random occurrences.

I wish I knew the history of Japan, but for now the events remain for me a jumble of random occurrences.

I wish I knew how to repair cars, but for now, the parts of the engine remain for me a jumble of random occurrences.

I don't believe that 30% of Americans don't know the year of the attacks on the World Trade Center. I would question the methods used in the survey.

Were any of the respondents non-English speakers, or bad English speakers? As noted above was it controlled for those who may have been senile?

I deal with people all over the US. I don't believe that 30% of them are unaware of this fact.
-----

Lawrence Krubner

Your comment is interesting. I am not sure that I would agree that there is much less of an interest in "historical memory" than do other peoples.

There are regional variations even within the US. I find more interest in history in the American South than in any other region here. I speak of "local history" as well as US history, especially that of the Civil War.

I find it interesting, as a New Yorker and one who worked in the World Trade Center, that in my personal observations, the Midwest and West forgot about 9/11 in less than a year, New York/New England moved on a year after that, but the memory of that day has not been forgotten at all by my friends and acquaintances from the South. They're still angry about what was done to us, and they're still very touched and supportive New Yorkers and the courage that they displayed.

Two weeks ago, I took a visitor, a woman from Charlotte NC, down to Ground Zero. She came close to crying. She won't forget.

Some of this comes from the fact that the South being the only part of the US to have suffered a military defeat on its home soil. Every European nation will have such a loss somewhere in its ancestral memory. Those who have been defeated will I think have the much greater interest in history.

>I wish I knew how to repair cars, but for now, the parts of the engine remain for me a jumble of random occurrences.

Heh. F---in' a. Me too.

It's true, but it's like one of George Bush's classmates said, to the effect that: "How do you go through four years at Yale without taking an interest in _something?_"

It doesn't even have to be history. Take an interest in something.

I think that it's a California thing--way too many of the people here are just especially vapid, in a MySpace sort of way. I love this place dearly, but God, sometimes...

I totally understand. I remember the day very clearly, but not the date and the year (I made some calculations in my head and arrived at the correct year, though). The date became hammered into us because the event was named 9/11 but if it was not I would not have remembered the date either. But I do remember every minute of that day, where I was, who I saw, what was said, what I saw on TV, what I thought. It was too emotional for anyone to stop and think - hey, perhaps I should try to remember what year it is today because of history. Attaching a time/date/year stamp on memories is not something that everyone's brain automatically does.

I can see that. Those emotional memories are the more important ones anyway. And I would worry more if someone knew the date but didn't know details like "19 hijackers working for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda flew jets into two of the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon." You probably know all that. I will worry when people start to forget stuff like that, and they probably will. (Witness all the people who thought Saddam Hussein was responsible for it. I guess we're there already.)

Five years ago. 2006 minus five equals 2001. Jesus Christ battered and fried! 1945, 1939, 1914, 1861, 1848, 1789, 1776, 1492, 1066. Certain dates just uh, you know, stand out if you haven't been chained to the pipes in the basement all your life. Ok, perhaps not everyone needs to know that the Diet of Worms was in 1521, or that the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648, but 2001, the year that the shit we're all covered with hit the fan?

Oh well, this is probably the same crowd that doesn't remember 1859 as the year The Origin of Species was published.

"1945, 1939, 1914, 1861, 1848, 1789, 1776, 1492, 1066."

Those dates are important in Western history. Is that the only history people should know? What about, to look at just one of many possible examples, 710, 1192, 1338, 1573, 1603, 1868, 1912, 1945 (the crucial dates of Japanese history)? I suppose it is another topic for another day. I can imagine strong arguments why Americans need only know Western history. But I can also think of some strong arguments why Americans, if they are going to learn history at all, should learn about some other cultures than the culture of the Founding Fathers.

Back in 9th grade the history teacher brought me up to the map (ancient Mediterranean, I believe) and started asking me questions in a rote way and I could barely get a single millenium right, let alone years or dates. He looked at the register book and asked "I see that you have all As in all subjects, what is it about history that makes it so hard for you?"

- Well, all those dates, years, millenia...

- If you take all that out, what is left?

- The story. And what it all means.

He gave me a D (instead of a deserved F), and later throughout the year asked me to elaborate on the meaning of events instead of memorized dates. I ended up with an A in history (though he continued to ask others in the class to regurgitate dates).

1984 Was Not a Shopping List: But I'm telling you, by three or four days _after_ the [Rodney King] riots, nothing; the weekend following, the news led into some of their stories saying, "one of the things people are doing to get back to normal is...", and then after that weekend, not a single thing further. I never saw the riots covered or referred to on TV after that, but once. There was one retrospective on PBS a year later. That is actually the last thing I've ever seen or heard about the riots.

For 9/11, though, there's been many a talk show and online article about the survivors, if not the event itself. Also, a lot of the events since then, like the Iraq War, have referenced 9/11, though as we all know, Iraq had nothing at all to do with 9/11. Yet even with this reinforcement, Americans still forget.

I was fortunate enough to see Anna Deveare Smith's stunning Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, about the verdict, the riots, and their aftermath, when she performed it in New York. There hasn't been nothing about it since.

Heck, the video of the beating of Reginald Denny was in the news recently when the owner sued to get it taken off of YouTube.

Which is not to say your wrong about the media in L.A. (Racism in the media? How could anyone even think such a thing???)

“. . . 710, 1192, 1338, 1573, 1603, 1868, 1912, 1945 (the crucial dates of Japanese history)? “

Yes, it’s true, European/American history is not the only history or even generally the most important history. However, Americans inherited such a huge wad of law, culture, politics, religion, etc. from Europe that it’s a pretty good place to start. Historical literacy in the United States requires an understanding of say, the Christian Reformation and the American civil war, as opposed to say, the origins of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration, though the events of 7 December 1941 are incomprehensible without some knowledge of both. There is no “Western History” fundamentally separable from ”Eastern” or “African” history, but a resident of Tokyo, or Lagos, or Atlanta should have a grasp of local history first, as that is most germane to his or her responsibilities as a citizen.


“ . . . I could barely get a single millennium right, let alone years or dates. “

People differ. I can remember historical dates and names easily, but can never remember the birthdays of my own family, and I struggle with names of neighbors and colleagues. History as a subject though is stories. How is it people think it’s crucial to know minutia of pop culture fluff trash like Star Wars or old TV series and not the stories of the people and events that literally made us? America is awash with people who are intelligent, capable, skilled, college grads and all the rest; they can tell you about every character in the Lord of the goddam Rings or Gilligan’s Island, but have never heard of the Mexican cession or Seward’s folly. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the people who can’t remember 9/11 being in 2001 can remember in which superbowl Janet Jackson showed us her dug.

I was fortunate enough to see Anna Deveare Smith's stunning Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, about the verdict, the riots, and their aftermath, when she performed it in New York. There hasn't been nothing about it since.

I wish I had seen that.

Heck, the video of the beating of Reginald Denny was in the news recently when the owner sued to get it taken off of YouTube.

(For those who may not remember, Reginald Denny was the truck driver who was pulled from his 18-wheeler and beaten during the 1992 riots.) A year or two after the riots, I drove through Compton at night (for those of you who have questioned my sanity anyway, here is proof positive). The gangs were all out on the street corners, _owning_ the street corners, "thowin' up they set," to quote Ice Cube. There was a semi truck behind me; instead of simply sitting at a stop when the lights were red, every time he'd ride his accelerator, brakes off, "vroom--vroom--vroom," like he was saying, "OK, the _second_ it turns green, we go, right?" And I thought: I _know_ this guy's thinking, "Reginald Denny. Reginald Denny." It's terrible to laugh about that, but for some reason I found it funny. "Fuck _this_ shit! Don't waste time!", he was saying.

Which is not to say your wrong about the media in L.A. (Racism in the media? How could anyone even think such a thing???)

I remember Jesse Jackson showing up the day after the riots (for the partisan among us, there was an instant Democrat presence immediately after the riots, where some days elapsed before we saw a Republican face arrive). He said: "I addressed this issue [of police treatment of minorities] in Nickerson Gardens last year, but no-one would listen to me then..."

I had never heard of Nickerson Gardens, which turned out to be a South Central (excuse me, Sowf Central) LA housing project; so of course what I heard was: "I addressed this issue last year in knickers and garters, but no-one would listen to me then..." :) I thought: no wonder.

But don't you get it -- America has recovered its innocence!
Until the next time something awful happens, and all the TV pundits begin maundering about how America has lost its precious innocence.
In my life I've seen America lose its innocence many times -- most recently on 9/11/2001, but also when JFK was assassinated, during the Vietnam War, Watergate, etc.
Americans' forgetfulness of their nation's history is inseparable from their belief in their nation's innocence. That belief can be shaken momentarily, but never destroyed.

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