Let us now commemorate anniversary fatigue

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It is time to confess something that has every chance of making me look like an insensitive jerk. I am anniversary overloaded. There, I have said it.

The 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg Address and recently the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech" have come together in a great media tornado of anniversaries.

Each of these deserves to be remembered. Each marks an epoch-changing moment in history. But as one big anniversary vortex, they seem this year like a Perseid meteor shower of oratory, chin stroking, historical meditation, pontificating, punditry and TV specials.

To paraphrase Tennyson's famous poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" -- by the way, it was Oct. 25, 1854; the 160th anniversary is next year, so book early for the Crimea and avoid disappointment! -- "Tributes to the left of them, praises to the right of them, volleyed and thundered, into the valley of hype, rode the 600 hundred op-ed writers."

The darn calendar is to blame. Anniversaries are of the same herd of beasts as birthdays. They are all part of the tyranny of repetitive dates.

Every year anniversaries/birthdays remorselessly arrive on their appointed days. People can mark them with a celebration only to discover that they come back next year. And if that next year happens to be a round number, they come back with a vengeance. Lordy, lordy, look who's 40. Lordy, lordy, it is really nifty, the Gettysburg battle is 150.

Last year, all the famous anniversaries held exactly the same historical significance as they do now except they had not yet reached the artificial milestones set by humans in the fluid tide of time. That guarantees that no matter how reverent and profound the occasion, an air of artificiality is bound to hang over it.

Of course, we in the media have complicity in the establishment of the anniversary industry, which would otherwise be promoted by genteel history professors possibly offering some selected readings and a glass or two of sherry

The Patriot-News in Harrisburg at least took the opportunity to apologize for its Nov. 24, 1863, editorial that dismissed the Gettysburg Address as "silly remarks" and wittily borrowed some of Lincoln's language to do it. That was a nice gesture but established a dangerous precedent. Newspapers can't very well apologize for every ridiculous opinion they have written. That would be a full-time job.

Still, in a time when newsrooms are depleted, anniversaries are ideal for making TV specials and filling the white space in papers because the facts have all been established and it's just a matter of adding seasonings to the journalistic stew.

("Here young fellow, before you do the police calls, knock us out 750 words on the Gettysburg Address, will ya?" So the young fellow, perhaps typical of his generation, Googles to find out who won the battle.)

Anniversaries do popularize history, and that is a good fact. We live in a time when, if surveys are to be believed, some kids go through school without learning anything about Hitler's Germany (Hitler, who he?), and never mind about Kennedy and Lincoln in what seems to them the ancient past.

Anniversaries also do something else that is good: They bind people together in common remembrance and shared values. A lot people have recounted their "where-were-you-when-Kennedy-was-assassinated" stories. Some of these are moving, but some are like mine, very boring and best not mentioned.

The trouble with such stories is that history keeps piling up moments that make us think where we were at the time -- the date that will live in infamy for an older generation, 9/11, another infamous date, for a new generation. Given the triviality of the culture, we will soon have to remember where we were when someone won "Dancing With the Stars."

When I come to think of it, I love history, I certainly revere Abe, JFK and MLK and by rights I should have no problem with anniversaries at all. But now I experience anniversary fatigue.

I think the tipping point was one of the numerous TV shows that had details about the shot to JFK's head and his spilled "brain matter." That would have seemed an offensive detail at the time and its casual mention now leaves me uneasy. Are anniversaries about honoring great figures or are they sometimes about satisfying morbid curiosities?

Rather than hyper-anniversaries, I would rather it be for us, the living, to be dedicated to honoring them every day of every year.

Reg Henry: rhenry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1668.

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