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History has a short memory


This is a date we won’t forget in a hurry. It already has its own name in history — 9/11 — and it deserves to be called, as Pearl Harbor Day is called, “A day that will live in infamy.” You may have forgotten the exact date of Pearl Harbor Day; if so, you are not alone.

History is a fickle thing, especially in the long term. The media announced that something is “history-making” almost daily — a golf score, heavy rainfall and political victory. I recently heard a pop concert with aged rockers from the sixties described as a “history-making” event. History-making? Memorable perhaps, if you like that sort of thing, but quickly forgotten compared to huge unforgettable historical events like wars, revolutions and assassinations when the world did turn or was pushed in a new direction.

We rarely participate in these earth-shaking events directly. We hear about them at second or third hand, as witnesses. I was a witness to the 9/11 atrocity in the strangest way, watching it unfold live on television as.

I was crossing from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson on the ferry. Millions watched it with me, and if there are enough witnesses and spectators, the event truly becomes part of history. In the past, huge events like the Lisbon earthquake or the fall of the Roman Empire were unknown to most of the people in the world. Now, events come at us so thick and fast that we can scarcely hold on to anything from the immediate past, let alone the distant past. Tests of high school and college students have revealed that their historical memories are a blur. They are more or less incapable of distinguishing the War in Vietnam from the Peloponnesian War, and who can blame them?

We are more likely to remember events that took place in our own lifetimes, but that means that we miss almost everything. I was there when World War II started, but I was only seven months old, so I missed the excitement. I also missed the Battle of Waterloo and many other big moments. In fact, now I think about it, I have missed virtually the entire history of the human race. The dramas of our brief lives seem special, and they are, but it would be a shame to forget the huge panorama of history that brought us to this point and what we can learn from it. That’s why we have books and historians.

I have a kind of crib for my failing memory in the form of a book called Timetables of History. It lists the major events in politics, art, science and so on from 5,000 BC onwards. I suppose that, by definition, most of the entries that make it into a tome like this were “history-making,” and it is sobering to see so many hundreds of closely printed pages of events that were hugely important in their own time but are now almost entirely forgotten except by professional historians.

A history-making event really does make history and, for better or worse, changes the world. There are memorials, statues, newspaper and TV reports, and perhaps parades and solemn ceremonies. History is not a rock concert or a golf game. History is serious.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.