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Reflections On Shifting Cultural Memory

The fact that the gap of cultural memory is growing each year between myself and my students was initially alarming.  Since pop-cultural references are becoming less and less salient, and humour based on such references falls flat, I have been forced to recognize that I am no longer the "young and hip" teacher that I used to see myself as––especially since I still find PowerPoint presentations annoying, prefer the chalkboard, and can't even be bothered to learn Prezi.  They also think I'm antiquated when they notice I don't use a smart phone, though some of them will admit that I dress in a "cooler" manner than some of their older professors.

What I find interesting about this gap, though, is how it affects political memory.  Born in 1978, I spent the first decade of my life inundated with the last gasp of cold-war propaganda.  I remember living in a world where the Soviet Union existed and was considered "the evil empire".  This was a world defined by movies like Red Dawn, of international hockey championships where crude nationalism was manically mobilized when the Canadian team played against the Soviet team, of grade school textbooks dedicated to mocking communism.  When I was eleven the Berlin Wall fell and this was celebrated as a victory for the "free world"––I was too young to even understand concepts such as "New World Order" or "the end of history" but I was old enough to think, as so many others were thinking, that something great had happened.

More than anything else, this cultural milestone hampered my politicization.  Like many others who were growing up at the end of the cold-war, I became convinced that communism was a dead end and that, if I must be critical of the world in which I lived, some form of anarchism was a superior political ideology.  Even when I did drift towards communism I was still under the spell of my early childhood: convinced that communism had a bad reputation, I was uncertain of how to make sense of political practice.  The "end of history" discourse had, in so many ways, become a sublimated fact of my consciousness.

This growing gap between myself and my students, though, is significant because it keeps calling my concerns about communism's "popularity" into question.  The vast majority of my first year students were born many years after the fall of the Eastern Bloc.  Due to this fact, their understanding of anti-communist ideology is so abstract that they could care less about what their high school textbooks say about the late Soviet Union and the cold war, just as they could care less about the allegorical dimension of Orwell's Animal Farm.  If communism is unpopular for this generation, its unpopularity is due to its relegation to the past.  Hence, whenever I make references to the Soviet Union or the days of the cold war, either their eyes glaze over or they are interested to know what I think about this period of history.

None of this is to say that anti-communist ideology has disappeared, only that it is less relevant to a generation whose primary geo-political referent is the initiation of the War on Terror.  Another strange dissonance: while I was just beginning my Masters degree when the World Trade Centre was attacked, most of my students were children; this year, some of my students were only five or six when this event happened.  Hence, they have grown to adulthood during the longest US-led war that shows no sign of ending.  Sometimes this fact seems like something from a Borges short story: a war that everyone knows is happening but has just accepted as a normative fact of existence––after all it is the reality into which they were born.  Often I ask them to consider how they would understand this war, that they have the privilege of ignoring, if they had grown-up in Afghanistan instead of Canada.  What is interesting about this experience is that most of them are already cynical of this war's ideology, just as they are cynical of every aspect of their culture, and having a memory of 9/11 that is intrinsic to a foggy childhood are not even emotionally invested in the justifications of this decades long military adventure.

In any case, despite becoming less and less "in touch" with my students each year, the distance between their experience and the experience of my childhood is not necessarily a bad thing.  While it is true that I often have annoying and self-obsessed students (a fact that hasn't changed since I began teaching and was also a fact when I was a student), I am largely unsympathetic to the complaints about the "me generation".  If these young women and men are apathetic and cynical it is because they have grown to early adulthood in society that is largely apathetic about the suffering of its imperial victims, cynically adopting a discourse of "human rights" that is little more than vicious "humanitarian" intervention.  The "end of history" ideology has been sublimated to such an extent that today's youth are being socialized into thinking that they live in the best of possible worlds––a one-dimensional world, a world in which there is "no point" in demanding beyond what we are told is possible––because, after all, they could be living in those societies that are the victims of ours.  Apathy is not a state of being that is reducible only to itself; it is the result of larger problems, a feeling of powerlessness in the face of social processes it cannot thoroughly grasp.  Hence, when at least one of these students is able to push through this apathy so as to become excited by something that points to a reality beyond the one we're given we should also be excited.