The Claims of Memory

October 27, 2021 | Wilfred McClay
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For Jews, few preoccupations are so great as that with memory: the Torah commands the Israelites again and again to remember, prayers implore God to remember, and there is hardly a holiday, major or minor, that doesn’t entail commemoration of something. But what does memory mean for Americans, a people whose history is short, and is greatly consumed with the pursuit of new frontiers? And what does memory mean in particular in the 21st century, when Alzheimer’s is recognized as one of the most terrible diseases, when new things are constantly cropping up to distract us, and when many are eager to make war on the past, tearing down statues and revoking public holidays? The historian Wilfred McClay ponders these questions with both wisdom and erudition in his First Things Erasmus Lecture, touching also on the “anemic and aimless commemoration of September 11,” a subject he addressed in a recent essay for Mosaic. (Video, 80 minutes.)

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