The Price of Historical Amnesia


Mr. Briley teaches at Sandia Prepatory school in New Mexico.

As schools begin to reopen all over the country, teachers, especially those in history, will express disappointment over how much their students have forgotten during the summer. But perhaps we are too quick to chide our young people for not maintaining intellectual engagement. It may well be that their forgetfulness simply reflects the historical and cultural amnesia which seems to characterize modern memory in the United States.

As we bemoan low test scores and the short attention span of our youth, perhaps we should stop blaming video games and reflect upon our failure to examine the historical record and hold our leaders accountable The summer's headlines regarding corporate greed, a declining stock market, escalating violence in the Middle East, President Bush's demand that the Palestinians disavow Yasir Arafat, and an impending invasion of Iraq indicate that many American citizens are all too quick, like our school children, to forget and disengage. The school children may be taking their cues from the adults, and it's time we all went back to school in an effort to revitalize American democracy.

The accounting scandals surrounding such corporate giants as Enron and WorldCom have shaken investor confidence in the stock market. Corporate greed is shrinking the retirement accounts of many middle and working class Americans, whose hard work and plans for retirement have been shattered by C.E.O.'s stock options, creative accounting, and financial parachutes. The Bush administration has attempted to disassociate itself from these corporate scandals by taking a get tough approach to white collar crime, yet the President and Vice-President Cheney, while perhaps not guilty of criminal behavior, are products of the corporate culture which brought us to this sad state of affairs.

During the 2000 campaign, Ralph Nader, as presidential candidate of the Green Party, focused his candidacy on the issue of corporate responsibility. Yet, Nader struggled to get his message out to the American people. He was ignored by the mainstream media and was not allowed to participate in the presidential debates. In a classic Catch-22 situation, Nader was nixed from the debates because his candidacy failed to garner enough support in public opinion polls, while being disqualified from the debates guaranteed that the Green Party candidate would not get the media exposure he needed to rise in the polls. Now we know that Nader was right on target with his concerns regarding corporate behavior, but the media still fail to make this connection. The prophet Nader remains neglected, and this summer's national Green Party convention in Philadelphia was overlooked by America's corporate media. It is as if the Nader crusade to restore corporate responsibility never happened, and we are shocked to learn of corporate executive misbehavior.

This state of historical amnesia is also apparent in America's response to the tragic escalating violence in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians. President Bush has called for the creation of an evolving Palestinian state; however, the president insists that the Palestinian people must disassociate themselves from Chairman Arafat. There are, indeed, many problems with Arafat, but by what right does the United States dictate to the Palestinians their leadership choices? It is this tendency toward a selective democracy, usually friendly to American corporate interests, which has so often led the United States into trouble.

Bush's pronouncement to the Palestinians that Arafat must go is reminiscent of President Woodrow Wilson's declaration that he was going to teach the Mexicans to elect good men. This policy led Wilson to invade our neighbor to the south twice, with the last incursion antagonizing the Mexican people while American troops engaged in a futile search for Poncho Villa. In more recent history, the United States has intervened to overthrow or destabilize democratically-elected regimes in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s and Chile in the 1970s.

Before President Bush lectures other nations on the lessons of democracy, it is well worth noting that the president lost a popular election and was elevated to the nation's highest office by a 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision. The election of 2000, which raised serious questions about the nature of American democracy, is all too often part of our historical amnesia. The Bush tax cut is also contributing to a growing federal deficit, as we try to expand the military spending in the war on terrorism while curtailing domestic expenses. The economic promise of the Bush financial tax windfall has quickly been erased from public memory.

The projected invasion of Iraq by the United States should produce a strong sense of déjà vu. We are almost daily reminded that Sadaam Hussein is a threat to his neighbors and the United States. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that during the Reagan presidency, Hussein was our man in Baghdad, checking the expansion of the extremist Iranians. We hear much today about the Iraqi dictator using poison gas on his own people, yet when these events occurred there was little protest from Washington. However, with the invasion of Kuwait, Hussein became a threat to the steady flow of Middle Eastern oil. Bush the elder put together an impressive international coalition; however, he was unsuccessful in toppling the Iraqi strongman. His son is now insistent upon finishing the job.

Before endorsing the president's invasion plans it might be useful to again shed our historical amnesia. Getting into a war is easy, but devising an exit strategy is complex, as politicians found with the Vietnam War. While the Gulf War of Bush the elder enjoyed initial popular support, it is well worth recalling the disillusionment of veterans regarding the government's failure to acknowledge Gulf War Syndrome. Also, current invasion plans for Iraq lack international support and may further destabilize the volatile Middle Eastern political climate, making the world less secure for Americans.

Indeed, it seems this summer that we are paying a heavy price for our selective memory and failure to stay engaged. Just as we would like our school children to remember their lessons and become more involved in the classroom, as American citizens we must offer a better role model and be ever vigilant in fostering our democracy, demanding more from ourselves, the media, and our leaders. We must reclaim our historical memory, for the price of historical/cultural amnesia is too great a price to pay. As the events of September 11 and this summer well document, we ignore the past at our own peril and that of our children.

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More Comments:

D Sharer - 10/6/2002

Thank you for the article - you've synthesized key examples from the past that should make the U.S. public "wake up" with the latest war cry. I hope members of Congress read the article - most of them seem to be in a fog.

As a social studies teacher, I hope I provide the connections for students presented in your article.

Pierre S. Troublion - 10/4/2002

Ye Olde Taxpayers
October 4, 2002

Dear Mr. Lloyd:

This could be interesting, provided you have an ironclad certification that we're really talking prime heartland property here, and with a wide view to the horizon. Don't want to find out that some boneheaded clerical error has given us title to swampland in Hanging Chad, Florida instead.

Not quite clear on the disarmament part of the deal. To make
that work you're going to need to talk to my friends down at Anti-Hypocrisy Land Brokers. We need to get cracking on a building permit for a two-family duplex in Palestine, and I don't mean Palestine, Texas. And while you're in town, please arrange for an energy insurance policy and make sure it's long term and renewable.

Of course, as I'm sure you'll understand, this entire transaction is contingent on financing. Dick and Trent down at Rubber Stamp
Notary Public, Inc. say they have a blank check for me, but if that sucker bounces, the whole deal will collapse like a Presidential Palace hit by a deviant scud missile. Then we'd have to send in the workout team from Blowback Partners Unlimited, and they are one weird bunch. Last time we used those turkeys we lost a new office wing and two towers.

With best e-gads,

Pierre S. Troublion

Cassandra - 10/4/2002

Never mind. I get it now. You weren't stating your own position; you were making fun of the Green party.

Sorry if I seem dense for not realizing that sooner, but I've encountered too many people who - in all seriousness - talk about how brutal the US is to Muslims in the Middle East and bring up the Crusades in the same sentence as though the Crusades can be taken as an example of US cruelty. Besides I've heard all I ever want to hear about how guilty Europeans and their descendents should feel about the Crusades. Especially as none of the people who bring up the Crusades ever mention how the Muslims tried to systematically exterminate everyone else in the world a few centuries earlier.

It has become a very sore point for me.

Cassandra - 10/4/2002

Excuse me, but did you say that the US government first attempted to impose its will on the Middle East 900 years ago during the crusades, calling it a war all about oil? I'm no historian, but even a grade school child ought to know that the US has only been around about 200 years. The Crusades took place almost seven centuries before the US was in existence, and at that time, the world had not yet been industrialized, and oil was not the valuable commodity that it is today.

And if you meant to say something else, then you're incredibly sloppy writer.

You use an awful lot of big words (and some French too!) in a vain attempt to hide the fact that you're babbling absolute nonsense.

Alec Lloyd - 10/4/2002

Sure, I've got the deed right here. Send me your bank account info and I'll throw in complete Iraqi disarmament as a free extra. I just need one more UN resolution (and your money) to seal the deal.

Frank Lee - 10/3/2002

This is a reasonable idea, IF applied consistently. That is a big IF, because consistency and the Near East are rarely found on the same page.

IF we have given Arafat "hundreds of millions" and IF he has put the funds into personal accounts in Switzerland [evidence thereof pending] and this therefore gives us the right to demand his ouster, what earthly reason could there be for AMERICANS not to also demand the ouster from power of war criminal Ariel Sharon, who is using BILLIONS of American taxdollars in military aid
(see to blast the occupied Palestinian territories into oblivion and willfully destroy three decades of American peace-making efforts under many U.S. presidents ?

And if we can't dictate to the peoples of the Near East who their leaders should be, why not stop the gravy train feeding the fanatics over there ? And why not start at the TOP of the list ?

F. Lee

Pierre S. Troublion - 10/3/2002

Would that be Calcium Estates, a choice set of properties running like a backbone around the Bush Ranch ?


Alec Lloyd - 10/3/2002

Yes, one more resolution. This time I know it will work.

Oh, and I've got some real estate you might be interested in...

Pierre S. Troublion - 10/3/2002

This is a clever satire, except that Nader didn't "use the word" crusade, that was Briley's term. Mr. Zweibel's otherwise neat exposure of the hypocrisy within the knee-jerk "peace" movement is thus, unfortunately, based on a crass error, even sloppier, if less egregious, than the error of who argue that the best way to teach the American President to speak English and observe basic norms of international diplomacy is to refuse to back up renewed U.N. inspection of Iraq by means of a new resolution with teeth.

P S Troublion

J. Phineas Zweibel - 10/2/2002

I am shocked, shocked! that President-in-your-dreams Nader would use a word such as "crusade" -- surely such language implies a Manichaean division of the world into good and evil, a certain "cowboy unilateralism," or as the French would say, "simplisme". While I do not attempt to excuse the malfeasance of ethically challenged CEO's, rather than simplistically condemning them we must understand the despair and hopelessness that form the root causes of their behavior -- otherwise we will merely perpetuate the cycle of, um, business. Our grief is not a call for prosecution. Not in our name!

Certainly as you apply the pedagogical equivalent of gingko biloba to the American body politic, you would not want us to forget the Crusades, in which, a mere 900 years ago, the US government first attempted to impose its will upon the Middle East in another war that was, naturally, all about oil.

Need I mention the religious-sensitivity implications of calling Nader a "prophet"? "There is no God but Dissent, and Ralph is his Prophet..."

Bill Heuisler - 10/1/2002

"...U.S. has intervened to overthrow or destabilize Democratically elected regimes..."
Some teacher. Mr. Briley's history evidently implants Left-wing bias into young minds by twisting or ignoring historical fact.
Three examples of deliberate anti-American ommissions:
1) Briley omits the fact that Poncho (sic) Villa was a bandit who raided into New Mexico and killed American soldiers.
2) Briley omits the fact that Mohammed Mossadegh was pronounced dictator by the Iranian Majlis on 8/11/1952 right before he "Nationalized" Western developed and owned oilfields.
3) Briley omits the fact that Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was put into power by Guatamalan Communists three months before he "expropriated" a quarter of a million acres of property owned by American businesses (ruining the Guatamalan ecomomy).
Wouldn't these facts give a balanced world-view to his students? Briley's saccherine concern for children seems to be overwhelmed by his anti-American bias. Schools shouldn't be hate-America reeducation camps. Teachers should tell the truth.
Bill Heuisler

don kates - 10/1/2002

Where did we get the right to say Arafat must go? Perhaps, Mr. Briley, the same place we got the right to say that tiny Israel should be subdivided with much of its land given away to another brutal Islamic dictatorship like those that already rule 98+% of the area of the Middle East? Why should a nation which allows full freedom of religion to all those w/in its borders be replaced with one where Jews cannot live, in a land that was traditionally theirs? Israel is currently populated in large part by refugees whom the Arab nations expelled (after confiscating all their property). Why does any Arab who does not want to live in a free democratic nation not just go to any of the horrendous Islamic dictatyorships and happily live there?
And, finally, as to Arafat, since we have given him hundreds of millions of dollars which he and his cronies have deposited in Swiss bank accounts instead of spending on the Palestinians, why shouldn't we be entitled to get rid of him? In that connection, let me pose you another question: Where do you think his wife got the money to live in a multi-million dollar Paris residence?