Memory Laws

There is a German word for what we've got to do

Welcome to The Experiment—especially all you new subscribers! This week we’re talking about Hypocritical Race Theory, which is what happens when the people complaining about cancel culture want to get you kicked out of the state history museum. Also, Matt Zeller has a plan to save the lives of Afghan interpreters in “Guam or Bust,” and Jack Hughes has a twisted history lesson about the unintended consequences of court-packing proposals in “The Second Hughes Court.”

As always, we have recommendations on what to do (use storytelling to promote social change), read (Timothy Snyder’s NYT essay, “The War on History is a War on Democracy” is a must), watch (the surprisingly clever Peacock’s Girls5eva), and listen to (blkswn by Smino). Y’all, spend some time on the clips this week. Lots of good stuff to read.

But first, have you ever heard about memory laws?

Terry Snyder’s essay in The New York Times introduced me to the concept of memory laws, which he defined as “government actions designed to guide public interpretation of the past. Such measures work by asserting a mandatory view of historical events, by forbidding the discussion of historical facts or interpretations or by providing vague guidelines that lead to self-censorship.”

This sounds horrible, right? The government telling you the correct way to think? Except I’ve got one word for you:


In Germany, Holocaust denial is a crime. The law states that Nazis were bad full stop. You can’t say Hitler wasn’t all bad, hang a Nazi flag in your rumpus room, or otherwise relitigate the Third Reich. All of which makes sense except the government is still telling you what to think.

Memory Laws were a part of Germany’s Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, which awkwardly translates to “working off the past.” In her Washington Post essay, Michele L. Norris quotes a professor as saying that “there isn’t a native equivalent for this word in any other language,” which doesn’t mean Germany is the only country that’s ever needed to pick up trash along its historical highway.

South Africa’s post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a near equivalent, but this is ongoing. When I was a foreign exchange student in West Germany, my host family took me to visit a concentration camp and a whole troop of conscripts wearing army greens moved in brisk formation into a building.

Puzzled, I looked at my host father.

“Are they exercising?” I asked.

He cringed, thinking, no doubt, that the stupid American who can’t even do math also didn’t know something as basic as Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. Who doesn’t know that military conscripts are educated in the country’s sins so they are never repeated?

Well, Americans, that’s who. “A tourist from a foreign land might well conclude that the Confederacy had actually won the Civil War,” writes Norris. “The real truth of our shared history was a casualty of that war and, like any wound left untended, the results can be catastrophic.”

We are not just living through history but the catastrophic effects of corrupting our memory of events as they happen. Most Republicans think Trump won the election. January 6 was just a bunch of tourists who got confused. Historical fact is objective, but memories are not recordings of them. They are creative acts as our brain retells the story but never the same way.

The collective memory is told the same way, a collection of imperfect human brains, facing things or explaining them away. The latter is how we end up with politicians who at first condemn the insurrection and then refuse to investigate it. Our collective memory is written over on a corrupted hard drive. Is there a German word for this or just comparisons to Nazis?

“This spring,” writes Snyder, “memory laws arrived in America.”

If Germany used the legal construct of memory laws to force reconciliation, Texas and other states are using these laws to prevent it.

“The Texas law forbids teachers from requiring students to understand the 1619 Project,” wrote Snyder. “It is a perverse goal: Teachers succeed if students do not understand something.”

And now this has come to my doorstep. Tonight, Thursday, about an hour from now, my co-authors Bryan Burrough and Chris Tomlinson were scheduled to speak at a virtual event hosted by the Bullock Museum, the state history museum. It seemed like a perfectly natural thing for it to host a chat about a book that covers the state’s creation story, but the Bullock doesn’t call itself the state history museum but the Official Texas History Museum, which, if you read carefully, could be a completely different flavor of ice cream.

Let’s level set on the book, which has been getting quite a bit of attention. An adapted excerpt ran on the cover of Texas Monthly, it got a good review from the New York Times, which even put it on a list of 15 upcoming books in JuneKirkus called it “brilliant," and Publisher's Weekly called it “essential.” Excerpts ran in the San Antonio Express-News, the Houston Chronicle, Vanity Fair (which included it on the list of books you should read in July) and LitHub (which included it on a list of the 13 best book covers in June). Bryan and I co-wrote essays in Time and the Washington PostThe Diane Rehm Show and Fresh Air featured the book. Which, neat.

The only reviews that mattered (other than yours, of course) came from the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, who hired actual Texas history professors to give it a read. SMU’s Andrew R. Graybill wrote for the Journal, and UT’s H.W. Brands for the Post, neither of whom quibbled at all on our historical interpretation. We were right on the facts.

“At numerous points in their account of the siege and battle, the authors challenge the traditional view. In doing so they follow historians who abandoned the traditional view decades ago,” sniffed Brands. “They sometimes appear to be beating a horse that, if not dead, was put to pasture awhile back, at least outside the political classes.”

It’s in the political classes that we fail. This week a higher-up at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a rightwing think tank based in Austin, called our Bullock Museum event “a travesty” and our book a “trashy non-history book” (actually makes it sound kinda good). “Our glorious history deserve [sic.] better,” he tweeted, tagging the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker, a senator, and a state representative, who together comprise the Texas State Preservation Board, which has oversight over, you guessed it, the Bullock Museum.  

Our sin, of course, was that Forget the Alamo lays bare slavery’s role in the creation story of Texas. It might be Texas history, but it’s definitely not Official Texas History. As one conservative writer (who, coincidentally, was quoted favorably in the book) noted, “The event gives them a platform, a place to stand on the Bullock’s own credibility, to declare that the Texas Revolution was really about slavery, not freedom.”

“Does the Bullock Texas History Museum Want Texans to Forget the Alamo, Too?” was his headline.

Apparently, that answer was no.

Three and a half hours before the event, we got an email from the publisher saying the Bullock had pulled out.

“The Bullock was receiving increased pressure on social media about hosting the event, as well as to the museum’s board of directors (Gov Abbott being one of them) and decided to pull out as a co-host all together,” went the email.

If conservatives are upset that the state history museum might host an online chat for Forget the Alamo, they’re going to be outright shocked when they see what’s in the museum. One of the current exhibitions is “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow,” which covers 1865 to 1919, when apparently Woodrow Wilson won Black people the right to vote or something. Also, on display is the Declaration of Independence printed in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6, 1776. That’s got some pretty radical stuff in it, including my favorite line, “Let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

The real lie is that there is a platonic ideal of perfect collective memory. Memories are not recordings but creations, and government has always played a role in shaping that even in this country, if not especially so. Through monuments, public school curricula, and yes, attacks on attempts to right the historical record, the political classes have always fought for a favorable collective memory.

That they would try to do so is inevitable. That they would succeed is not. Norris recounts the 1985 speech by West German President Richard von Weizsäcker on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. His father was the top Nazi diplomat. He was a Wehrmacht captain. “And yet,” writes Norris, “there he was, gray-haired and solemn before the Bundestag, shifting the conventional narrative by asking his country to reconsider and remember the true nature of the nation’s past.’

“We need to look truth straight in the eye,” said Weizsäcker.

I might get a little criticism that I’m drawing a line from our cancelled book event to Nazis. Godwin be damned. I’m drawing a longer line than that. This should not be surprising for Americans since, as Snyder points out, “Hitler admired Jim Crow and the myth of the Wild West.” It is not ridiculous to connect racism back to the Holocaust since we’re merely retracing Hitler’s own steps.

America needs therapy.

In lieu of us getting to talk tonight, I’ll give the last word to someone who has looked truth straight in the eye and on more than one occasion winked. On the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, President Joe Biden said we’re capable of much more than closing our ears to facts that contradict “our glorious history.”

“We should know the good, the bad, everything,” he said. “That’s what great nations do: They come to terms with their dark sides. And we’re a great nation.”

Texas was once its own country. Whether it was a great nation is a matter for others to discuss. Perhaps they can have a chat about it at the state history museum.


Guam or Bust

by Matt Zeller

An Afghan interpreter named Janis Shinwari saved Capt. Matt Zeller’s life in combat with the Taliban. After his return, Zeller fought to save the lives of his interpreter, his interpreter’s family, and hundreds more just like him has drawn the attention of CNNThe Atlantic, and PBS. Now he’s trying to save the rest of them before the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan later this year, and he’s hit upon an unusual idea about where the interpreters should be relocated.

Read it here.

The Second Hughes Court

by Jack Hughes

What to do when there’s no Dan Quayle news for Jack Hughes to riff on? Knowing him, he could either draw a surprising pop culture parallel or burrow deep into a historical rabbit hole. Hughes clearly chose the latter in this deep dive into how the Supreme Court helmed by Charles Evan Hughes (no relation) responded to FDR’s court-expansion threat — and how that could play out today.

Read it here.

How we’re getting through this

Making at least one best-of list

Telling stories to promote social change (h/t M.S.)

Accepting that UFOs not only exist but are common

Deciding whether I’m an Order Muppet or a Chaos Muppet (h/t J.P.)

Getting book recommendations from Lena Waithe and Riley Keough

What I’m reading

Karen Attiah: “The challenge for educators amid the critical race theory backlash: How do you fight hot air?” - How do you obey an unspecific law?

Indeed, it is darkly ironic that laws designed to suppress the teaching of America’s history are producing scenes around America that look like something out of the 1950s and ’60s, as mostly White parents disrupt school board meetings. Groups in some states are beginning to call for McCarthy-esque surveillance measures. In Nevada, some groups want teachers to wear body cameras to monitor whether they are teaching about racial justice.

Chris Mooney: The Psychology of How We Learn Prejudice: Are We Natural-Born Racists?” - No, but our brains are vulnerable to racism.

But here’s the good news: Research suggests that once we understand the psychological pathways that lead to prejudice, we just might be able to train our brains to go in the opposite direction.

Michele L. Norris: “Germany faced its horrible past.Can we do the same?” - This one is a doozy.

The United States does not yet have the stomach to look over its shoulder and stare directly at the evil on which this great country stands. That is why slavery is not well taught in our schools. That is why the battle flag of the army that tried to divide and conquer our country is still manufactured, sold and displayed with defiant pride. That is why any mention of slavery is rendered as the shameful act of a smattering of Southern plantation owners and not a sprawling economic and social framework with tentacles that stamped almost every aspect of American life.

Ross Ramsey: “A majority of Texas voters isn’t enough to sway a Republican state government” - Democracy is not foolproof. Not even close.

Texans want to legalize marijuana and don’t think everybody should be able to carry a gun without training or a license.

So the state Legislature passed a “constitutional carry” bill earlier this year — and the governor signed it. And the marijuana bills that were filed in the recent regular session never came to a vote.

Timothy Snyder: “The War on History Is a War on Democracy” - We’re living though history again, only this time it’s a pandemic of state-sponsored forgetting.

History is not therapy, and discomfort is part of growing up. 

Dan Zak: “‘Nothing ever ends’: Sorting through Rumsfeld’s knowns and unknowns” - How does a touch this light leave a mark so dark?

What something is, and what it isn’t. What is known, and what is unknown. It sounds sort of Buddhist, until you see how the dogma is applied.

What I’m watching

I should not have been surprised that we loved Girls5eva on Peacock. Meredith Scardino, who wrote The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, is the brains behind this, and Tina Fey has upped the joke density as executive producer. If you like jokes and pop music stories and underdogs and people growing TF up, you’ll dig this.

What I’m listening to

My youngest says he and his friends are into Smino now; it’s good stuff.

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Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of the American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and myself is out from Penguin Random House.