On Memories Long and Short

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Recently, while remembering that unfortunate period known as adolescence, I recalled an interesting phenomenon. As hard as it is to believe, back in high school, I would occasionally be attracted to someone who wasn’t attracted to me. I would end up thinking about that person all day, work up the nerve to ask her out, and then be shot down and humiliated when the affection was not reciprocated. In situations like this, one could observe that the people who are humiliated tend to remember the humiliating incidents much more vividly and for a much longer period of time that those who, whether intentionally or not, do the humiliating. It is a situation that is best avoided.

Unfortunately, this is the position the United States now finds itself in. The US is like that popular girl in high school, who either through cruelty or ignorance, is constantly humiliating people and then promptly forgetting about it. The world is full of America’s beaten down classmates. Few Americans think about Iraq on a regular basis, yet Iraq’s ruined economy and starving population cannot help but think of their American humiliation as the bombs reign down on them. For us the Gulf war is ancient history, but for them, they live with the ill effects every day. In Iraq, most of the same people are still around who endured the Gulf War ten years ago. In other nations, the remembrance of American aggression can span generations.

Take Mexico, for example. Few Americans think of the American-Mexican war as a major turning point in American history. Most American couldn’t even tell you that such a war even occurred or when it occurred. Yet, in Mexico, the war is remembered as the shameful conflict that robbed Mexico of half of its territory and climaxed with the occupation of Mexico City by American troops in 1848. The unprovoked American invasion in 1846 has produced a major body of artistic and literary work in Mexican culture. They remember. Just as Americans have not forgotten the burning of Washington, DC or the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Mexicans have not forgotten their disastrous loss to the Americans.

It is this phenomenon of unequal memory loss that now makes it so difficult for Americans to understand the Chinese view of the United States. After enduring the bombing of their embassy in Serbia, the relentless American snooping off their coasts, numerous nearby American military bases, and machinations in Taiwan, is it any wonder that the Chinese have chosen to fixate on the United States as an aggressor? For the Pentagon, the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Serbia is simply the price the Chinese and everybody else have to pay for the privilege of being dominated by the United States military. Since the Pax Americana is so exceptional and morally superior, the rest of the world just better be willing to get out of the way. With this attitude apparent to the rest of the world, is it so amazing that the Chinese disagree with the American claim? Why should we be any more surprised or incredulous about this than about the fact that Mexicans and Native Americans weren’t too crazy about American claims to Manifest Destiny in the 19th century?

When the Chinese asked that the American government apologize for spying, they were only trying to maintain some dignity in the face of an aloof and arrogant nation which rarely likes to take notice of foreign claims to sovereignty or regional autonomy. Like some obnoxious teenager, we pat China on the head, tell them how flattered we are that they think about us so much, and then continue on our way undeterred. China is paranoid about the United States for a reason. The American government really is out to get them, and they know it. Like a jilted teenager, the Chinese are angry that they have been robbed of their dignity. It is time to realize that the Chinese do not see the United States the same way that Americans see China. The Chinese are the ones being slapped in the face. Americans will soon forget about the embassy bombing and the spy plane incident. After all, such events were not affronts to American sensibilities. The humiliated Chinese, however, will remember such things for a long time to come.

April 27, 2001

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] lives in Denver, Colorado. He edits the Western Mercury.

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