The Nobel Prize-winning Czech author Milan Kundera began his 1979 novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by describing two photographs. In the first, two men are standing side by side, a Czech nationalist later executed for his views and the country’s Communist ruler. In the second, the dissenter is gone, airbrushed out. Just the dictator remains. Today, if Kundera hadn’t written that opening to his book, only someone with a long memory or a penchant for research would know that the two men had ever shared a podium or that, on that long-gone day, the dissident had placed his fur hat on the dictator’s cold head. Today, in the world of Donald Trump and Robert Mueller, we might say that the dissident was redacted from the photo. For Kundera, embarking on a novel about memory and forgetting, that erasure in the historical record was tantamount to a crime against both the country and time itself.
In the Soviet Union, such photographic airbrushing became a political art form. Today, however, when it comes to repeated acts meant to erase reality’s record and memory, it wouldn’t be Eastern Europe or Russia that came to mind but the United States. With the release of the Mueller report, the word “redaction” is once again in the news, though for those of us who follow such things, it seems but an echo of so many other redactions, airbrushings, and disappearances from history that have become a way of life in Washington since the onset of the Global War on Terror.
In the 448 pages of the Mueller report, there are nearly 1,000 redactions. They appear on 40% of its pages, some adding up to only a few words (or possibly names), others blacking out whole pages. Attorney General William Barr warned House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler about the need to classify parts of the report and when Barr released it, the Wall Street Journal suggested that the thousand unreadable passages included “few major redactions.” On the other hand, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey was typical of congressional Democrats in suggesting that the speed -- less than 48 hours -- of Barr’s initial review of the document was “more suspicious than impressive.” Still, on the whole, while there was some fierce criticism of the redacted nature of the report, it proved less than might have been anticipated, perhaps because in this century Americans have grown used to living in an age of redactions.
Such complacency should be cause for concern. For while redactions can be necessary and classification is undoubtedly a part of modern government life, the aura of secrecy that invariably accompanies such acts inevitably redacts democracy as well.