Erasing the brown scare: Referential afterlife and the power of memory templates

Gary Alan Fine*, Terence McDonnell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Perhaps paradoxically, events can have effects despite having been "forgotten." Events have, in Erving Goffman's (1981:46) phrase, a referential afterlife, the period in which events can be referred to with the expectation that audiences will understand their relevance and symbolic meaning. When an event has passed this period of shared recollection it still may leave traces, especially if responses to the event have been institutionalized. We examine the dynamics by which events serve as memory templates for subsequent events. We distinguish templates into two subtypes: interpretative templates and action templates, those that contribute to how the public recalls the past and those that provide strategies for action. To examine the power of templates, we analyze the forgetting of the brown scare of the early 1940s, and specifically the largest sedition case in American history, United States v. McWilliams. Attacks on the right contributed to the development of the national security state and courtroom tactics in political trials, but the public rarely remembers them.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)170-187
Number of pages18
JournalSocial Problems
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2007


  • Collective memory
  • Memory
  • Political sociology
  • Reputation
  • Sedition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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