Remembering and #NeverForget-ing


A dozen years after a terrible day, we're present for the ongoing passage of September 11 into history. It's a difficult thing, and #NeverForget tweets from NBA teams won't help with it as much as those teams themselves will.

At some point, September 11 may become a national holiday. We'll get the day off from work, and maybe will spend it splayed and happy in last-gasp inertia at the beach, or bagging bargains at various September 11 sales. There might be a parade. It will, as parades tend to, probably look a lot like every other parade.

This is not progress, exactly, but it's not quite a travesty, either. It's the clock spinning forward, and it's both what we do, and how we do it. But if there's a certain fundamental bummer in the way that most holidays come to be celebrated in the exact same way, there's something different about watching this flattening-out happen in real time. We still remember where and who and how we were on September 11, 2001, because of course we do. It's strange to watch that memory be subsumed by something so much simpler.

We remember it, if only because there's no forgetting it

Those of us who were in New York City for that day -- and many others elsewhere -- carry the memory of it around with us like a tumor, some alien thing crowding the inside of our chest. For those of us who were lucky, it's not a malignancy so much as it's just some palpable new thing that pressures the heart and pinches the lungs. There are less lucky ones for whom this scar tissue is different: rampant and heavier, still growing and causing pain even all these years on. I don't know what your personal experience of September 11 is, but I'm sure you have one.

It helps, though that's surely not the word, with our remembrance that the day itself is still present in many ways. In our lives and our politics, the shocked, shrunken feeling of that day -- the wariness edging into paranoia, the terrified confusion that manifests as violent purpose -- never quite stopped, and has only barely diminished.

So we remember it, if only because there's no forgetting it. But we're aware of it, too, because we're still dealing with it. We wake up on this day as every other: with the same ache, diminished more for some than others. It's what comes with carrying this strange new tangle around in our guts, with our blood flowing through it. You can't forget a thing that never stops.

But there's a difference between remembering and #NeverForget-ing, and the jarring thing that we saw online on September 11 -- Your Favorite Brands paying tin-eared tribute for reasons unknown; pro sports teams burping up meme-y hashtagged macros, unbidden, and then shamefacedly deleting them -- is the process of passing from actual painful memory into sanitized, generalized Never Forgetting. If it looks objectionable, it's because it is.

Most of the #NeverForget tweets sent by NBA teams were fairly quickly deleted, after much SMH-ing on Twitter. This wasn't undeserved, as the tweets were in many cases egregious -- the Lakers tweeted an image of a magnificently afro'ed ca. 2001 Kobe Bryant with an American flag patch on his jersey; the Suns tweeted an image of a soldier clad in desert camo waving a flag at half court while a pair of flash pots burst on either side.

But of course they were egregious, in the same way that AT&T's strange Twit-gambit -- an image that said, as reverently as an Instagram can, Our Phones And Dependable Nationwide Wireless Service Help You #NeverForget This Particular National Tragedy -- was inevitably going to scan wrong. Brands are not things with hearts or souls or sensibilities. They've got enough money to be heard and a constitutionally protected right to speech, but that doesn't mean they're going to say anything worth hearing. There is not a right way for a wireless provider or NBA team to remember something like this. It's too difficult for them to do.

Sports, if we're using them right, can give us an opportunity to be together

What we'll see, as September 11 becomes what it's becoming, is a decline into a simpler thing that brands can in fact do. It's already happening: a retreat from memory -- which is individuated and textured and difficult -- and towards commemoration, which is something flatter and more readily repurposed and sold. This is a thing that happens, because memories don't necessarily outlive those who remember them; D-Day celebrations are more muted in 2013 than they were in, say, 1949.

Right now, though, we humans remember September 11 ourselves, and painfully well at that. As the response to these tacky tweets suggests, we are not quite willing to yield even these hard memories to the sort of amorphous meme-y collective sentiment that's as hospitable for brands as it is for people.

It's not just pain that we're hanging on to. There are, amid all the horror and shame and sadness of this day, little bright things to save -- human kindnesses and generosities, a vast empathy that came and went entirely too quickly. It's good and human and necessary to hold onto these light things along with the dark, to remember the ways in which people came together in hopes of helping each other even in that madness. This is the part to get sentimental about: the way, for a brief while, that we reached the implicit understanding that this unbearable burden could still maybe be carried some distance if we all put our shoulders to it.

We've retreated from that, in many ways, into the paranoia and partisanship and smallness that have defined the decade-and-more since (and quite a few decades before, come to think). But the push and pull of our instinct to love and help and our recognition of hurt, the struggle to do right despite all the things we know and fear of what we don't -- that's the whole thing. That's the whole of our challenge here on earth. It's not something easily talked about, on Twitter or anywhere. It's a thing that humans know and struggle with. It makes sense that AT&T and the Lakers would so clearly not get it. They can't remember, and so they #NeverForget.

But the central irony of those deleted NBA tweets is that they're not necessary. Sports, if we're using them right, can give us an opportunity to be together and feel the safety and strength that comes with that sort of community. There is no reason for teams to act like they remember or forget or feel anything. They need only give us the opportunity to escape into the happy commonality that we find in a crowd, at a game. This, as it happens, is something they already give us, or more precisely that we create ourselves, around those teams. Sports -- and shows and dinner parties and any collective endeavor, really -- can, when we use them right, give us a chance to feel more human, more ourselves and more a part of something bigger and better than ourselves. There's not a hashtag for that. There doesn't need to be.

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