No one has listened and captured the human voice better than Studs Terkel in his twelve books of oral histories, including Division Street: America, The Good War, Race and Working. Someone once said, “When America talks, Studs listens.” On the occasion of his 93rd birthday (May 16), we turn the tables–Terkel talks. The following is an abridged transcript of a 2003 interview with Studs conducted by Jonathan Cott, who started by asking him, “What do you think it is in many Americans that makes them have little curiosity about or interest in knowing what has happened in our past?”
We have a new medium, television, that’s at this moment, and it’s you watching it at this moment–you and your family or you and yourself. How does what is happening in other countries affect me? We don’t ask how did these things come to be, you see? The Korean War is hardly discussed today, how it came about. We don’t want to know about the other things because we have our own troubles here….
Now, memory itself is part of the brain, a brain is a muscle of its own, and unless it’s used it rots away and becomes useless. And we haven’t used our memory to call on the past because it’s always the present, this moment, that is it. So we have the news today about what’s the latest–Iraq’s got the weapons of mass destruction. Wow! The next day you find it’s untrue, and then you go on to other news. In other words, our memory is also determined by what we see and hear, and what we see and hear depends to a great extent on television, and bit by bit we’ve gotten a media that’s in the hands of fewer and fewer people. As I said, it’s always the present that is it, no matter how trivial the matter is…. It’s of this moment taking us away from other matters far more serious.
So we have been deceived so often, the memory of the past is the memory of so much deceit, that we erase it. And the main thing is that we want to be left alone and not to think of a past that might disturb us. Might disturb what? Might disturb our sense of complacency, our sense of satisfaction. I think all human beings want the same thing. They’d like a nice job, friends, family. They’d like to be undisturbed by things and to live in an ideal world….
We are not a community-oriented people, though we speak of a sense of community…. People want to have a good life, something pleasant, nothing unpleasant to disturb your life. And if you could live in a vacuum–that would be perfect! But we don’t. And now less than ever is it a vacuum. More than ever are we a part of the world.
Let’s speak of memory: There was a memory of something in 1945, a very great moment, to me the most hopeful moment in my life and perhaps even in the life of the planet: It was when the United Nations was formed in San Francisco. It was such a great, fantastic moment! That is a memory. And then there was Hiroshima and the cold war began. Remember, it’s the same species that gave us Shakespeare and Mozart’s Don Giovanni that has given us Auschwitz and Hiroshima and Rwanda. There was that high moment. Then it was easy after the war, we had a boom period and then all this talk about another world that could be, a world that was possible, was forgotten. I remember the words of one of the greatest radio writers, named Norman Corwin: “Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend.” And although we are the strongest, the most powerful, the most generous of all the nations, at the same time we’re part of the community. And the memory is so warped now so that the president says, “To hell with the UN”–who would have dreamed of saying that fifty years ago?
And when I say “memory” now, I’m talking about a tribal memory, not an individual memory–in other words, a whole generation and series of generations had that memory. And that’s what I mean when I talk about our national Alzheimer’s disease…. One of my friends told me that the wife of a friend of his had gotten Alzheimer’s. And my friend said, “What does it mean?” “Well, she doesn’t know what happened long ago, she doesn’t know what happened yesterday.” What happened to that individual woman and what happens to all Alzheimer’s sufferers is tragic. But what I’m talking about is a national Alzheimer’s–a whole country has lost its memory. There’s no yesterday, a national memory becomes more and more removed from what it once was and what it once could have been.
Memory: How can you have memory if you don’t have any knowledge? In other words, we have no history, no memory of what happened yesterday, let alone what happened fifty years ago. We have to go back to the beginnings.