Historical and Cultural Amnesia: The Role of History in Modern Memory





Mr. Briley is a teacher at the Sandia Preparatory School.

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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