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The politics of public memory, from Watergate to Iraq

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

These remarks arise from a commentary on Michael Schudson’s 1992 book Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past. Despite its title, Schudson’s book is not really about Watergate. It is about the public nature of remembering important things.

An individual may remember and forget what he or she likes, but once a version of past events is accepted and shared by a group, as a collective construction, it is on public record. It is not just a memory but a citable memory.


Citable memories are versions of events that we can point to when we want to justify our versions of what happened, of who we were, or want to be. They can be given as reasons for action. And they can give us something to scrutinise. A public version of events gives us, among much else, a point of reference against which people may be held accountable for their roles in what happened.

Language and remembering

If you want to construct a shared memory, your main tool will be language. Language is how we most readily create new states of mind in others. We use language not only to tell people things, but also to hint, persuade, coerce and cajole.

Our choices of words can make a big difference to whether we succeed or fail. Subtle differences in choice of words can have real-world effects. Take, for example, the words chosen by different media outlets in describing events in the US city of Baltimore in April 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Fox News used “riot” twice as often as it used “protest” when describing people’s actions. CNN used the words with equal frequency.

Clearly, political motivations to depict events in different ways lend themselves to specific linguistic choices. One could counter that the alternative wordings merely play to the intended audiences’ preferences: CNN viewers would rather think of the Baltimore actors as protesters, Fox viewers as rioters. Our basic understanding of what happened is the same. Or is it?

2015 #BlackLivesMatter actions at the News Corp headquarters on Wall St. All-Nite Images/flickr

Psychological research shows that the words we choose to describe a scene can create different memories of that scene, and therefore affect our beliefs about what happened. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has spent her career studying the false memories that cause witness misidentification and subsequent wrongful convictions.

In one of her earliest experiments, Loftus showed people a film of two cars in a collision. When the experimenters played the film, they would remark in passing to some of the subjects that the cars “hit” each other, but to others they would say “smashed into”.

Later, they asked all of the subjects to estimate how fast the cars were going. While all of the subjects had seen exactly the same film clip, and thus had witnessed the same objective event, those who had heard “smashed into” estimated the speed of the cars as being significantly faster than those who had heard “hit”.

So, a seemingly subtle difference in choice of words when reporting what happened can alter people’s very perception of a scene by changing the way they mentally encode and remember it. Such is the power of words to create memories. The language you choose in constructing memories can actually change your perception of reality.

Beliefs as reasons for action

Nothing is done without a reason, especially in politics.

Richard Nixon would surely not have resigned from office without a very good reason. He had tried to suppress incriminating information, then in turn had tried to suppress his attempt to suppress that information. But when his actions became public and undeniably true, he became accountable for those actions.

George W. Bush addresses the nation to announce the invasion of Iraq. White House

This is what accountability is about: making your actions, and your reasons for action, available for scrutiny by others. But of course it’s complicated. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration’s official reason was that, according to available intelligence, Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The stated reason for action was a belief about how things were. Did the administration actually hold this belief? Other reasons for action cannot be ruled out, and indeed have been suggested.

Whatever the case, here is the point: a public version of how things are can stand as a reason for action in so far as it can be pointed to and cited as justification for that course of action. That’s what public memories provide.

The moral status of information

Intelligence of the kind cited prior to invading Iraq in 2003 can play a crucial role in the public construction of memory. Such was the case with Watergate. The whole thing started and ended with the activities and outcomes of surveillance.

Richard Nixon delivers an address to the nation in 1974 in response to subpoenas for the White House tapes. Nixon Library and Museum

A critical catalyst in the Watergate saga was the publication of the White House recordings and the subsequent discovery of the “smoking gun” recording, in which Nixon is heard proposing that the FBI director be asked to halt the investigation into the Watergate Hotel break-in. Thanks to the technology of sound recording, certain facts became not only public but also publicly undeniable, so they had to be acted upon.

What, then, is the status of information collected by surveillance? If we agree that the outcomes of such information being made public are good, then we may be grateful for the release of that information.

But there are legal and moral issues. One issue is the content of the information: should it be public or not? Another is the way in which this information was procured: illegally, unethically, both? There is much room for debate here.

Agents of leaks such as Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange have released classified information whose gatherers did not intend to make it public. Edward Snowden was motivated to expose mass surveillance by what he saw as a “divorce of power from accountability”, referring to the US National Security Agency’s massive gathering of citizens’ personal data. Assange said that “true information does good”.

Julian Assange defends the release of classified material, saying that ‘true information does good’.

But bad can sometimes come from the release of certain truths. This is why there are constraints on what is available under the Freedom of Information Act, a point that Schudson solemnly defends.

For most people, there are facts that we would rather remain private. As champion of privacy Glenn Greenwald put it:

… as I’ve debated this issue around the world, every single time somebody has said to me, ‘I don’t really worry about invasions of privacy because I don’t have anything to hide’, I always say the same thing to them. I get out a pen, I write down my email address. I say, ‘Here’s my email address. What I want you to do when you get home is email me the passwords to all of your email accounts, not just the nice, respectable work one in your name, but all of them, because I want to be able to just troll through what it is you’re doing online, read what I want to read and publish whatever I find interesting. After all, if you’re not a bad person, if you’re doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide.’ Not a single person has taken me up on that offer.

Glenn Greenwald speaks on ‘why privacy matters’.

But what about the situation when a government acts on the basis of intelligence that is said to exist but is unverifiable by citizens because it is classified? When information used as a basis for action is classified – for whatever reason – there is an accountability problem. It is a matter of judgement whether the key information should be kept secret, and there will always be deeply differing views.

Such is the nature of the information we use to construct public versions of how things are: some things should be concealed, others revealed, but we cannot always agree on which facts fall into which category. Who is allowed to know what happened, what people did, what they said?

The answers depend on how you rank the relative interests of the many stakeholders involved. It is possible that there is no right answer.

Watergate in American memory

Schudson’s book is a masterly study of how versions of events can become facts. The Watergate case study shows brilliantly that while facts are important, so are our interpretations and portrayals of those facts.

As history unfolds, everybody involved has a stake in trying to construct and promote a version of events that will stick, and that will serve certain purposes. So if people who write history are after the facts, they will need to unravel all of that construction and promotion. As Schudson put it:

No-one who would remake the past can do so without encountering enormous obstacles.

One obstacle is that “in liberal societies, multiple versions of the past can safely co-exist”. People will choose the version that suits them, depending on which channel they watch, or which party they vote for.

Even if we cut through the spin (whether “rioting” or “protesting”, people in Baltimore were burning cars and buildings), interpretations are always open. As Schudson writes:

All stories can be read in more than one way.

So while Nixon was able to say, in 1977, “I didn’t think of it as a cover-up”, a former supporter, Republican congressman and federal judge Charles Wiggins, was able to retort:

… he said that his motive was benign, namely, to protect the innocent and contain a political problem. The president is wrong, that’s not a defence.

Yes, there can be differences of opinion about what happened. But Nixon’s version has not stood up. Why not? Because, as Schudson says, while the past is not given but reconstructed, it “cannot be reconstructed at will”. Facts get in the way.

Read entire article at The Conversation