Cultural Memory, Cultural Dementia

As the population ages, more people suffer from dementia, a devastating disease which shatters a person’s soul. Its main symptoms are loss of memory and the ability to focus.  There is often difficulty communicating; it’s a struggle to find the right words. At its onset, dementia is often hard to detect because everybody forgets things, everybody has trouble concentrating sometimes.  Even well-educated people in perfect health often find themselves unable to find the right word: ‘it’s at the tip of my tongue.’ The first signs can be trivial, like forgetting where you left your keys. At a later stage you don’t know your own family, you can’t keep your balance, you can’t function as a person.

Dementia and culture

Dementia also affects societies and cultures.  “Cultural memory preserves the store of knowledge from which a group derives an awareness of its unity and peculiarity.”  It binds people, makes them into a cohesive group.  When cultural memory breaks down, the integrity of a society goes with it.  Its members will have trouble relating to, never mind communicating with each other.  People will search for other identities that have a more coherent cultural memory. It doesn’t matter if it’s fabricated memory, as long as it’s accepted.  Race, economic class, gender, hairstyle can all become the definition of who you are.

At first symptoms of the loss of cultural memory might be trivial.  But as they progress, history is forgotten; ideals lose their meaning.  With today’s speedup of information, with today’s information overload, we’re forced us to abandon reason in favor of pattern recognition. This results in a dismemberment of history in which all context, all meaning is lost.

Fragile cultural memory

steinbergs paper bag
antique shopping device
apple pie
motherhood and C12H22O11

Let’s start with a trivial example.  Environmental protection is a fundamental of faith, more so than motherhood and apple pie.  (motherhood is trans-phobic; apple pie has too much C12H22O11).  Up until the 1980’s your groceries, or whatever you shopped for was packed in a paper bag.  The bags held a lot, but without handles you couldn’t carry more than two at a time. If there was anything sharp in the bag (like a box of Kleenex), it tore.  If there was rain or snow, it would fall apart. But worst of all, paper bags cause deforestation. When plastic bags became widely available, we saved the environment by abandoning those fragile, inconvenient paper thingies.  But now we’ve abandoned that fragile, inconvenient cultural memory.

Perhaps you’re too young to remember, and your parents never told you bed-time stories about carrying groceries…

Many people must have forgotten, because cities from Honolulu to Montreal have banned single-use plastic bags.  One of Canada’s largest grocery chains has pledged to remove plastic bags from all its stores by January, 2020. I wonder if the executives who made this decision ever do their own food shopping.  Paper bags are a pain in the ass for shoppers, just as they were forty years ago.

Our society has forgotten about some other things, more important than bags.  9-11 for example. We remember that the buildings came down, that lives were lost but we forget why.  Instead, we try to protect the feelings of those who celebrated the destruction. The New York Times said, “18 years have passed since airplanes took aim and brought down the World Trade Center.”  “Airplanes took aim?”  The NYT wants to reshape our cultural memory. It promotes cultural dementia.

Thomas Jefferson’s Koran

Barbary War
Battle of Barbary Wars

Keith Ellison and Rashida Tlaib, Muslim members of Congress were sworn into office with Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Koran. They both extolled this volume as proof that Islam has a long history in America. What they “forgot” was that Jefferson’s Koran was published to facilitate the conversion of Muslims to Christianity.  What they also “forgot” was that President Jefferson launched the Barbary Wars, to defend American ships and citizens from North African states who used the Koran to justify their piracy.  That Muslims forget such things is understandable. It’s frightening that non-Muslims refuse to remember. Forgetting who assaulted you is a sign of dementia; an invitation for aggressors to attack again.

Falun Gong protesting
Falun Gong vigil

Many people look favorably on socialism.  Indeed a poll found most women between 18 and 54 would rather live in a socialist country than a capitalist one.  Anyone remember the Soviet Union, Stalin, the Berlin Wall? How about North Korea? The President of China, Xi Jinping has unleashed waves of repression against any form of dissent.  Remember the Falun Gong, who are imprisoned, killed, and their body parts sold to medical tourists?  The Chinese occupation of Tibet?  Anyone care?

Communicating cultural memory

Enough about cultural memory.  Let’s talk about difficulty communicating.  Do you understand the sentences “Hou is laughing,” “I called hee,” “Xe likes xemself?”  Wikipedia lists fourteen versions of gender-neutral pronouns. How do you know what to say to a butch looking lady, or is it a man? A woman’s face and clothes with beard stubble?

Confusion isn’t just in the gender wars.  Gay used to mean cheerful. Terrorists are called militants.  Illegal aliens are undocumented immigrants. “Deaf” is a culture rather than a disability.  You have to be demented to describe an illness as a “culture.”  How about cancer culture, or Multiple Sclerosis culture?

A whore or prostitute is a sex worker.  Bald people are follicly challenged, fat people are horizontally gifted.  You can’t call anyone a psycho, stupid, or use any of a host of what used to be common ways of expressing yourself.

Social media have impaired our communication.  The success of Twitter says most of what needs to be said about our ability to focus.  The ubiquity of cameras and recording devices has created an input overload. We don’t need to remember, because everything has been recorded.  Our ability to manipulate images and sound means that our cultural memory can be molded to fit our (or our masters’) inclinations.

When you’re having a discussion with a person with dementia, it’s best not to ask them to fill-in-the-blank questions, but rather give them multiple choice.  Rather than “what did you have to eat,” ask “did you have fish or chicken?” It relieves the pressure of remembering. With a demented cultural memory, YouTube, Facebook, Photoshop fill in the blanks.

Demagogues and hellholes

When demagogues lie and rant about the evils of Western civilization, we don’t remember enough to point out the beauty, the countless accomplishments of Western civilization.  The United States, Western Europe, Israel and other similar nations lead the world in scientific, cultural, and medical advances. They are the first to stand up for individual rights and freedom, to send food to the hungry, water to the thirsty.  These are the places that people clamor to get into. Yet they are vilified by their own citizens when compared to the societies that the masses are trying to escape.

When these demagogues accuse Western civilization of destroying those foreign societies, we don’t remember enough (because we never knew enough) to point out that those hellholes were destroyed by their own people, by their own culture.  So we hang our heads, mumble apologies, take the blame and welcome the people responsible for so many ills. If this keeps up, we will soon lack the cultural memory, the understanding needed to hold us together, to enable our society to function.  And like the proverbial lonely demented person, our once-vibrant society will be locked away, as other peoples (perhaps from those hellholes) will take charge of what we built. There will be no memory of the beauty that was.

society suffering from dementia

What's your take?