The Trap of Historical Amnesia


History is embarrassing, painful. Thinking about it will only make you tense. The crisis was merely a “mistake.” Everything is under control. Just go back to sleep.

If you lose your memory, how do you know who you are? If you do not know where you came from or how you got where you are, how are you to figure out where to go next? If you have forgotten the beauty and fears of childhood, how are you to become an adult? What does it mean to be an “adult,” if one has no understanding of a beauty to be sought or dangers to be avoided? Someone suffering from total amnesia would understandably reach out for guidance, but what if a whole society had amnesia?

What if a whole society forgot its history, its glories, its advantages, its mistakes, the free lunches it had eaten, the harm it had caused others on the way to its own successes? Could such a society make rational plans for the future? How would it learn the lessons necessary to avoid old, harmless-looking but fatal mistakes? How could it define success? How would it know to prepare for the chickens it had long ago sent aloft before they come home to roost? Such is the predicament of a society that substitutes myth for history, denial for responsibility. That is fast becoming the reality in U.S. society.

Memory of the key crises of recent domestic history, history that occurred during the lifetimes of a significant proportion of those living today, is fading so fast in the minds of a population distracted by economic duress and distorsions by the guilty desperate to avoid the possibility that they might be held responsible for their crimes that it has already become almost impossible for us, as a society, to draw accurate lessons from even the most prominent of our failures.

To most Americans, the Vietnam War is already ancient history, 9/11 nearly invisible in the haze of deep denial, and even memory of yesterday’s man-made recession energetically being twisted out of all recognition—while it still continues!—by a strident campaign by the perpetrators to transmogrify their guilt into innocence.

If the Vietnam War conjures up any reaction, it is unlikely to be much more profound than “avoid land wars in Asia.” But why should we avoid some particular type of war in some particular type of geographical setting? Such a simplistic warning is dangerously easy to derail, fairly begging conservative warmongers with visions of empire dancing in their heads to sneer that we “should not be weaklings and should free ourselves from fear.” How neatly the conversation can be hijacked and twisted into a debate over “whether or not we have the courage to defend ourselves!” The vital lost point had nothing to do with “Asia” or “land” but whether or not the U.S. democracy should interfere by force in a foreign civil war, whether or not U.S. leaders have the wisdom to recognize the “good guys” and select the proper strategy for facilitating their victory, and whether or not even a “correct” solution imposed from the outside will still be workable when handed to another culture on a silver platter gripped in a foreign military fist. If we forget our history, then how could we ever possibly see the degree to which Iraq was indeed “Arabic for Vietnam”? And if we can’t see that, then how will we avoid the analogous trap of regime change in Iran or heaven knows what other tempting foreign adventure?

As for 9/11, the layers of taboo covering up that sad day make it almost impossible to figure out where to even begin a rational discussion of causes and thus of ways to avoid reliving the nightmare. An almost impenetrable cloaking device has been deployed by mainstream talking heads and the elite figures of both major parties around public discussion of the impact on Muslim perceptions and behavior of either the official Washington bias in favor of right-wing Israeli preferences or of Washington’s long-standing cosy ties to a long string of repressive Arab dictatorships.

The 2008 Recession is so recent and its causes are so well known and so obvious to millions that the dynamics of mythmaking (about the degree to which it was man-made and the result not of “innocent mistakes” but of the careful planning (gone just slightly wrong) of a small group of willful millionaires) are slightly different, at least to the degree that those brave dissenters trying to expose the extent of the fraud that has been perpetrated are not openly being charged with being traitors or anti-Semites. Yet, A) the campaign to marginalize those who criticize the “masters of the universe;” B) the absolute denial in “polite society” that the hypothesis of a “class war by the rich” is even open to discussion, much less blindingly obvious; and C) the claim in “pro-business”—i.e., “anti-people”–circles that billionaires are the source of jobs rather than pirates trying with great success to impoverish society for their private gain constitute three impressive pieces of evidence that the process of myth-making for the purpose of protecting financial criminals via mass forgetfulness of history is well on the way to success.

Forgetting history ensures repeating it. Quick little foreign adventures will again become decade-long disasters that weaken both U.S. security and U.S. democracy. Placing our trust blindly in the hands of the elite will again tilt the playing field against the 99%, provoke the snowballing of greed, lead the panicking capitalist masters of the universe to beg for welfare, and impoverish the nation. We could, alternatively, face up to our mistakes and learn from the past. But we should hurry, because the guilty are working as hard as they can to make us go back to sleep…back to sleep…back to sleep.

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