“We are in the midst of forming a COVID-19 generation,” says anthropologist Jim Wertsch, who studies collective memory. “I’m in the Vietnam generation, and that provided the lens through which I saw the world. My parents were in the Depression generation, when people lost their trust in banks and became more conservative.” Wertsch, who holds the David R. Francis distinguished professorship at Washington University, has researched the way collective memories shape generational narratives. This is not something I have thought much about, having grown up in that lackluster ideological wasteland that followed the Vietnam generation. I listen hard as he explains how we live our lives against a national backdrop, a complex of collective memories that are not necessarily firsthand or even accurate, yet still have the power to create habits of thought for an entire generation.
The reason these patterns divide by generation, Wertsch adds, is that shocking national events have such a powerful influence over people ages eighteen to thirty. They are just beginning their adult lives, and large-scale, dramatic events change the future they are envisioning, influence their values and decisions, color their world view.
I think back to the biggest shock I remember: 9/11. I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard the news, just as my elders know exactly where they were when JFK was assassinated. These are “flashbulb” memories, shocks that create indelible images. Intensely personal, those images are less about the larger event and more about us reacting to it. (I was walking the dog past a car-repair place, and the mechanic came out and shouted that somebody had blown up the World Trade Center—hardly a compelling scenario. Yet I can still remember his uniform, his tone of voice, how I ran all the way home with my heart pounding—irrelevant details, branded on my memory.)
No one will have a flashbulb memory of coronavirus, unless the shock is the moment they tested positive, or the moment they found out someone they loved was gravely ill. This is a more insidious threat, building inexorably, day by day. Yet it will be the collective memory that shapes our future.
COVID-19 has a rising death toll, just as there was a nightly body count during the Vietnam War and a growing list as the dead were identified after 9/11. COVID-19 is decimating the economy, unsettling a generation that, as children, watched their parents lose their savings in 2008. “We did not think entire sectors of the economy would just shut down,” Wertsch remarks. Nor did most of us imagine anything quite this contagious and relentless, and now we are forced to factor its unforeseen ramifications into our personal futures.
“We make and remake our autobiographical narrative every day,” Wertsch says, “and it plays out against the big one, the national narrative. There’s no scientific way to prove this, but my interpretation of flashbulb memories is that the ground on which your autobiographical narrative is built, that narrative in the background, is shaken, and everything you thought was stable, well, maybe it’s not.”
This, he says, is just as destabilizing. Rather than flashbulb, I think of a burst of camera images, finger held down on the shutter, revealing a progression that will leave us questioning every assumption we have made about our world. That is the “reset” people are hoping for, an “apocalypse” in the ancient Greek sense of the word, ending the world only to rebuild it.
But it is too soon to know how we will do that.
Until recently, the strongest national narrative was American exceptionalism: the city on a hill, glowing with American ingenuity and can-do spirit, stocked with an abundance of resources, goods, and optimism. We felt capable of transcending any problem—Toss it here, we’ve got this—even as other nations reacted with fatalism, assuming the worst-case scenario because the past had taught them to do so.
“If you ask Russians, ‘Why do you see threats everywhere?’ they will say, ‘Just look at our history,’” notes Wertsch, who has spent a great deal of time in the country of Georgia. “Americans are known as naïve optimists,” he continues, adding that this sunny, confident positivity is “not simply a false picture. It’s one that partly becomes true because you believe it.”
Still, we lost a chunk of that naive optimism in Vietnam, which splintered the country. Then 9/11 showed us how hated we were, and how vulnerable. Panicked, we made a hasty peace with surveillance and the loss of privacy and launched a war on terror that was even less possible to “win” than Vietnam.
Now COVID-19 is clinching the end of exceptionalism. We have more confirmed cases than any other nation; we failed to distribute enough test kits early on, braking the spread; and though we are promising checks all round for economic stimulus, we cannot even distribute enough masks to keep medical workers safe. Surely this is bound to change the narrative?
Maybe not. Wertsch has a party trick: He asks people to think of the most important events in World War II. Then he recites their list for them: Pearl Harbor, D Day, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, and the Holocaust. Nearly always, he has nailed their top four. When he and his colleagues asked residents of eleven countries about their collective memories of World War II, people scored their own country’s contribution to the war effort far higher than people from other countries scored it, and the totals sailed way past 100 percent, thanks to the “collective narcissism” that overvalues one’s own side.
We “know” what has been repeated to us—in documentaries, by teachers, by a grandfather who was in the war… Those collective memories shape the larger narrative. Along the way, history can become highly subjective, telling a story that simplifies and glorifies, evidence be damned. This is exactly the kind of historical narrative fueling the new nationalism that has cropped up all over the world. Romila Thapar, a historian in India who fights to expose the distortions in Hindu fundamentalism, has said, “History is to the nationalist what the poppy is to the opium addict”—raw material that can be processed to sate a craving.
Why history? “Because we are storytellers by nature,” Wertsch says, “and narratives are extremely powerful cognitive events. You can have all the statistics in the world, and if someone comes up with a good story, the facts will go right out the window.
“There were U.S. Army people in Wuhan last fall,” he adds, “and all over the Chinese internet was: These guys brought this! It’s the U.S.! And then you have a U.S. senator saying it was biological warfare.” Our collective narcissism allows us to readily dismiss others’ accounts as “just their story,” even though we would never say the same of our own information.
Memory, as William James pointed out, is not of “the” past but of “my” past. We stitch a collective narrative from a whole mess of personal stories. And these days, that patchwork is fraying. Liberals think the president of the United States would rather boost the economy than save lives; conservatives think the pandemic is hype with a liberal agenda. What collective memories will form a consensus for the COVID-19 generation?
This time, the enemy is invisible, inhuman, morally neutral and impossible to blame; I am not sure what we will do with that knowledge. We have seen that the future can collapse in a heartbeat. We are learning that the best way to stay healthy is simple old-fashioned hand washing, and if you get sick, the fancy healthcare system can only do so much. We have heard again and again that you are safer at home.
Vietnam made us suspicious of institutions; 9/11 made us suspicious of all that was “unAmerican.” Will COVID-19 make us leery of one another? That depends on which memories young people extract from the crisis. Will they remember how much they missed their friends and coworkers or how easy it was to keep them virtual? Will they see government as their protector or a mud-wrestle of self-interested officials? Will nationalism fade around the world, as people realize the need for government to keep them informed and safe, or will it surge even stronger, balm in a time of helpless uncertainty?
Add those questions to the list of all we do not know. Then glue uncertainty to the first page of the COVID-19 generation’s scrapbook.