William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and History and Chair, Department of Sociology, College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, University of Virginia
ABSTRACT | Charlottesville and the End of American Exceptionalism
Since at least World War Two, many nations have experienced intense battles over the legacies of their brutal pasts: policies of denazification in occupied Germany, postcolonial grievances in the new nations of Africa and the Caribbean, accountability for deposed dictators in Latin America, responsibility of Communist elites in Eastern Europe, reconciliation projects following Apartheid in South Africa, and reparations for Japanese exploitation of Korean Women are but the most prominent examples of contemporary memory politics around the world. Yet, somehow, despite its enormously difficult past, the U.S. has in this as in so any other regards long been considered—or considered itself—an exception. In this paper, I will explore the evidence for claims of American exceptionalism when it comes to memory politics; while every case is an exception, it is perfectly clear that memory has been, and continues to be, as significant a field of political and cultural contestation in the U.S. as elsewhere; yet somehow memory battles have not received the same attention as they have elsewhere, or are perhaps not as well remembered. What, then, explains the perception of American exceptionalism when it comes to memory politics, and indeed memory scholarship? And whether or not there is a basis for this perception, have recent events—particularly the arc begun in 2015 with a church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina and culminating in riots in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017—led to a significant and enduring change in U.S. memory politics? If so, why now, finally, after so long?