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September 10, 2009

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Kleinfeld's Got the Past Futures Beat

I’m sure you saw this, because the NYT’s been promoting it: Remembering a Future That Many Feared by N. R. Kleinfeld. The idea is to look back to September 12, 2001, and recall the widely-shared fears and assumptions of the moment:

New York would become a fortress city, choked by apprehension and resignation, forever patrolled by soldiers and submarines. Another attack was coming. And soon.


If a crippled downtown Manhattan were to have any chance of regeneration, ground zero had to be rebuilt quickly, a bricks and mortar nose-thumbing to terror.

First: What did we think would happen? Then: What actually happened? The reporter’s job is straightforward. Interview the past. Report the present.

This setup is so good it made me gasp—really—as I started in on the first few grafs and realized what Kleinfeld was up to. Talk about context. We can’t improve our decision-making, our foresight, if we never go back to look at the decisions we made—the futures we feared—and compare them to reality.

This kind of story—maybe it’s more “history light” than journalism, I don’t know—ought to be standard practice. Let’s look at the wailing and teeth-gnashing of just nine months ago, re: the economy. First: What did we think would happen? Then: What actually happened?

Our memories are so short. Our imaginations are so… adaptable. We don’t notice them changing. This story totally represents a kind of Long Now thinking, if you ask me—in the sense that it says our vision of the future is something we can inspect, analyze, criticize, report. I mean, that headline says it all, and some copy editor should get a prize for it: “Remembering a Future.” Exactly.

Anyway, this is all to say, big ups to N.R. Kleinfeld and the NYT. This was a great idea.

Posted September 10, 2009 at 11:30 | Comments (2) | Permasnark
File under: Journalism, Recommended


I love the story about the dentist and the nurse escorting trembling patients up the elevator, both before and after. I have often regretted the fact that due to various life circumstances, I've lost much my pre-Gmail Email, but in particular the period after 9/11. It's exactly b/c of this--memory is so hard to pin down. I have a pretty good one, but I would really like to read, again, what I wrote to my friends and family after 9/11, and what they wrote to me.

I imagined a lot of things, but I certainly did not imagine the invasion of Iraq for weeks, at least. I think my father grimly suggested it would be proposed when I went home that Thanksgiving. Now there's a before and after, an interview with the past I'd love and hate to read.

I *absolutely* wish I still had access to my MSU and UChicago email accounts. I remember on September 10th, 2001, right after I'd moved to Chicago, I sent a mass email titled "Life During Wartime" - taken after the Talking Heads song, a commentary on moving around from place to place. One by one, my friends responded in the next few weeks, many of them commenting on the title.

I have such visceral, powerful memories of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 - I was in the hospital, going through what was probably the hardest time of my life. I'll write a book about it someday.

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