When folk singer Peter Seeger died in late January of this year, people were quick to mourn the loss of an American folk legend and activist. People now fondly remember and honor his legacy, but, in the 1950s, Seeger’s reputation was far from respected. “Seeger’s institutional enshrinement is striking when contrasted with his vilification as a political subversive during the McCarthy era” (p. 92). Though Seeger’s historical associations with the party and his testimony at the House Un-American Activities Committee had not changed, public memory of them has. What accounts for these drastic changes in how society remembers individuals? What do consistency and change in reputations tells us about collective memories and societal values?
|Retrieved from ABC News|
In Sticky Reputations: The Politics of Collective Memory in Midcentury America, Gary Alan Fine explores these issues of individual reputations, group dynamics, collective memory, and political commemoration. Fine approaches issues of memory from a sociological and historical approach, focusing on descriptions of events and the social and dynamic responses to them. Midcentury America encompasses the years between 1935 and 1955, a time of unease and fears about home-grown terrorism. Often referred to as the “McCarthy era”, this narrow time frame still allows for detailed insight into how memory functions politically. Fine’s main contribution to the study of memory is the reliance on and explicating of reputations as imperative to understanding groups, political maneuverings, and a time period. Representatives of and experts in these categories shape collective memories of history. In some cases, memories live on and affect current policy, such as the pervasive metaphor of the Red Scare. Other memories may be forgotten, such as Seeger’s past or the Brown Scare. How society remembers individuals is a collective process that reflects the memories of groups, institutions, history, and our roles within society. These reputations outlive the individual attached to them, creating varying levels of “stickiness” that continue to resonate and have influence over time.
Sticky Reputations begins by outlining the major themes of reputation, collective memory, and American politics. Fine argues for the lasting importance of individuals and, more importantly, the memory of them that transcends their material being. He begins by describing the quality of memories as interconnected through time. Memories are chained together and influence one another with varying consequences. How society chooses to remember, or is influenced into remembering by institutions, is often due to previous memory “work” that guides how society can and should remember the past.
The book could roughly be divided by its treatment of shifting and sticky reputations. Shifting reputations are ones that change or are modified over time, while sticky ones are immutable and immune to modification. To represent shifting reputations, Fine explores how the Jewish community was once stereotyped as members of the Communist Party. Despite their original association with communism in the 1930s, by the 1950s, “the perceptual linkage . . . had largely vanished” (p. 23). The Jewish community’s reputation also changed as individuals broke patterns of association and revealed discrepancies in perceptions of the group. Although the reputations of individuals shifted Jews away from a negative association, some reputations shift group identifications towards one. Fine explores how the demonization of a prominent American First Committee member, Charles Lindberg, and his actions tainted the entire organization. The explanation for Seeger’s memory transformation did not go from individual to group, but instead was a transformation of the same memory over time. In Seeger’s case, “memory agents” actively worked to adjust his reputation and “purified” his reputation (p. 92). Others, such as Elia Kazan, reveal that reputations are “historically unpredictable” (p. 108).
Fine also notes the dichotomy between presence and absence of memory as oversimplified. Using the Brown Scare and Red Scare, Fine explores how these events are equated through metaphor, but the Brown Scare is often lost in history. Oftentimes, the “presence of absence” still carries meaning in politics and, in this case, perceptions of home-grown terrorism. The borrowing of the term “scare” is meant to draw parallels, in part to equate the situation, severity, and needed reaction to extreme right affiliations as with extreme left ones. The fact that the Brown Scare has been lost in public memory indicates a potential misalignment in naming, or perhaps mirrors the more salient threat that people felt from communism than fascism. Though the Brown Scare was important and legitimate at the time, collective memory has forgotten it and only the Red Scare “has entered into American historical consciousness” (p. 80).
|Retrieved from this blog|
The final chapter returns to the book’s title and discusses Adolf Hitler as the quintessential sticky reputation. Sticky reputations resist change, argument, and transcend individual actions to encompass entire value systems. These types of reputations can be positive or negative. Fine argues that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. represents a positive sticky reputation, where criticisms of him are seen as attacks on his work and civil rights, in general. King is now a stand-in for the larger movement, so one is unable to criticize him without criticizing the legacy of civil rights in America. Similarly, negative reputations mean that one cannot reclaim anything positive from Hitler (such as the Nazi health care system) without risking the glorification of the Holocaust. Sticky reputations mean that the individual cannot be separated from values, groups, and the unfolding of history.
Outside of the shifting and sticky aspects of reputation, Fine also explores the nature of expertise and the role of celebrity in political activism. In analyzing the “Who Lost China?” debate, Fine provides a useful framework for qualifying reputation as a combination of qualifications, influence, and innocence. Innocence is perhaps the most complicated term, as it implies that in order for reputations to be considered “experts,” they must be free of any guilty associations with the parties involved. Instead of using the term “unbiased,” Fine connects the potential influence of institutions and politics on experts as guilty, unclean, and impure practices. Only individuals that can maintain a pure, professional relationship with mitigating factors are experts capable of testifying, such as on the economic and political factors in China. Fine also address the politicization of celebrity through a discussion of Hollywood blacklisting. He questions the validity of considering celebrities as political agents who should be held accountable for opinions to the government, the public, and their industry. Using Lilian Gish as an example, Fine traces her film career with her political activism, noting her shifts in political affiliation as leading to her being blacklisted.
Overall, the thread of reputations could be more strongly connected throughout the chapters. All of the chapters touch upon these themes, but they can be disjointed in their continuation of previous chapters and transition to subsequent ones. The common theme of a time period does not entirely succeed in linking these separate, discrete investigations of collective memory and reputations. The book might better be called Reputations without a qualifier, for the lack of a consistent theme of stickiness. The common themes more closely run between memory, how it is socialized, and how people and groups are remembered. The brevity of chapters also leave less than adequate room for the full discussion of these historical events, which is exacerbated by the occasional enumeration of potential standards and norms for evaluating collective memories. The scholar interested in collective memory and how exemplars can change the course of history will be quite pleased with Sticky Reputations. This book will also appeal to scholars interested in the political aspects of this era of American history. Though unified by common themes of memory and reputation, this book would also serve well as chapter case studies of how memory, and particular characteristics of it, functioned politically in American history. Fine puts forth many illuminating points about the role of the individual and how their reputation has unforeseen influences on their group memberships, political affiliations, American policy, social movements, and modern memory of history. The narrow time frame does not restrict as much as allows Fine to contextualize an important part of American history and allow the audience to find similarities in today’s heightened terror levels and the unease of political threats.
|Retrieved from Photoreading|
Although the flowers, young girls, and young men may be gone, their reputations will live on, sticking in varying degrees to public memory of history and American identity. Seeger’s reputation changed, allowing for his songs and activism to become synonymous with American values of protest and freedom. Others cannot be appropriated no matter the amount of memory work performed. These sticky reputations reverberate through time and affect group identification, advocacy of certain policies, and collective memory of American history. America remembers itself and finds a place in society by commemorating its exemplary individuals, their actions, and how they transcended history. Fine argues that these aspects of memory combine and chain together to do more than just influence memory; they affect how society remakes itself in the present through comparison with history. How America remembers itself and how contemporary society functions are directly and irrevocably linked to identity formation in the present. Which reputations stick and which are subject to change is an opportunity for inquiry that Fine prompts all scholars of memory and history to consider. For now, only time will tell what reputations stick in the minds of the American public and which are absent from collective memory, with yet unforeseen consequences.