Memory and Representation, Part 2

May 1, 2006 | By | 1 Reply More

Another theme that came up during the Memory and Representation session at the recent Popular Culture Association convention in Atlanta was how using different names for things can shape our memory of events. For instance, labeling people as “heroes” may shift attention away from inquiries as to whether their deaths could have been prevented. I’m thinking first of several unsuccessful space missions (thanks to panel member A. Bowdoin Van Riper, whose presentation focused on this) including the Challenger disaster, and secondly of the people who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Of course ceremonies honoring dead heroes play better on tv than investigations of intelligence failures but I like to think that our media is not entirely gone over to a showbiz mentality.

The last thing I need is angry 9/11 survivors bombing my email, but since I just wrote an article on the Victim’s Compensation Fund (VCF) the topic is fresh in my mind. People who went to work in their office on that day and died due to a terrorist act were not heroes, they were victims. They got payoffs averaging 2 million dollars because Congress wanted to forestall lawsuits against the airlines, not because their deaths were more tragic than anyone else’s, and certainly not because of any heroism they displayed. But if you took a poll on the street, I’m guessing not one in ten Americans could tell you why the VCF was set up in the first place or where the money came from (part of an airline bailout package, using your tax dollars and mine). I suspect this is due in large to to the amount of media attention paid to exploiting the emotional aspects of 9/11, versus reporting useful information about it.


Category: Language, Media

About the Author ()

I'm a biostatistician for BJC HealthCare and an adjunct professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO. In my spare time, I'm a musician, work on several kdhx-tv shows and write on various topics.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I too have watched with some surprise and embarrassment as the media creates heroes, sometimes in the absence of supporting evidence or even contrary to the evidence.

    At the time of the Challenger accident, I thought of the shuttle astronauts as adventurists who were killed in an accident, rather than heroes. As a kid I always wanted to be an astronaut and I knew (as the shuttle victims certainly knew) that their job was risky. I suspect that jingoism was involved in the media's intense spin job but the effect was as you suggested: deflecting the inquiry away from the cause of the mechanical failure.

    Remember Scott O'Grady, the fighter pilot down over Bosnia in 1995? He waited to be rescued and then he was actually rescued by a team of forty marines. A quick Google search will demonstrate that he was widely proclaimed a "hero," while the marines that rescued him were simply . . . rescuers. He was handsome by anglo-saxon standards. It always seemed to me that his recuers were more heroes than O'Grady, but the media had its darling and wouldn't hear of it.

    Fast forward to Jessica Lynch. She was first portrayed as a war hero who fought off her Iraqi assailants then later rescued. Then it turned out that she never fired a shot to defend herself and that her wounds were from an earlier automobile accident. But she was beautiful by Anglo-Saxon Standards and the media used her for all she was worth.

    The 9/11 victims were simply proclaimed heroes despite being tragic victims, most of them with no evidence of heroic deeds. No disrespect is meant here. Most of them were working office jobs when they were senselessly murdered. On the other hand, they certainly deserve my respect and their families deserve my condolences.

    Then came the heroic firefighters, but these "heroes" included the ones from here in the midwest. In my book, most firefighters are heroes for what they do day to day, but they didn't become more heroic just because OTHER firefighters (those involved in the 9/11 rescues) were involved in well-publicized dramatic rescues. But the media just couldn't stop itself on this one either. ALL firefighters became heroes, whereever they worked and whatever they did.

    Now, we constantly hear about "heroic" soldiers in Iraq. I have no doubt that many of the people now serving in Iraq have acted with extraordinary courage. I also know of several, however, who signed up to seek adventure and not out of a sense of self-sacrifice. Just because a soldier who signed up to get college benefits gets killed while smoking a cigarette, does that make that soldier automatically a hero? In this political climate, yes. They are heroes, though their coffins are sneaked back home in the middle of the night lest we realize just how many of these heroes there actually are.

    It seems that the media hungers for heroes and settles on those that can be shoved into traditional molds. Teachers, social workers, single parents and medical researchers just aren't violent enough to deserve parades–they don't carry guns or lob grenades.

    I've become cynical about the heroes crowned by the media. Maybe yes, maybe no in particular cases. I look for someone who makes a decision to risk his or her own life on a particular occasion and for a higher good. Being a victim isn't enough for me. Being a dead decent person isn't enough. Being a person who just found herself in a precarious situation isn't enough. Being rescued is not enough. Skillfully doing what one is trained to do is not enough.

    The designation of heroes is like most things proclaimed by the media these days. I usually think "You should just give me the facts and then I'll make the characterizations, thank you."

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