Sunday, May 8, 2016

Tell Me More

When the Romans had someone who had acted in a way that brought discredit upon Rome -- almost always a senator or some other high official, since your everyday Josephus was unlikely to draw much attention -- they enacted a specific law or statute against that person to attempt to minimize their impact if not actually remove them from the knowledge of history. It was called damnatio memoriae, the condemnation of memory.

As the story at Today I Found Out notes, we have no way of knowing if it was ever actually successful, since if it was the person has been erased from history. But judging by what folks today sometimes call the "Streisand effect," damnatio memoriae was probably never completely successful. That term refers to an instance where singer Barbra Streisand tried to get something said about her erased and in so doing brought it more attention than it ever had to start with.

A number of folks at colleges recently have tried to revive the practice, insisting that statues, building names or monuments honoring people who had the audacity to not see things the way 21st century folks do should be removed or otherwise changed. In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the practice of damnatio memoriae was an important part of Winston Smith's job. The internet allows people to give it a good shot, but screen captures often defeat the attempt.

I have to say that given the results of the recent presidential campaigns, the idea has a certain appeal. I suspect that a significant number of us will approach 2020 wishing that the last four years could just disappear from memory.

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