The Great Forgetting

| Educate!

Above Photo: From Art For All Mural by Katie Yamasaki.

America’s refusal to fund and sustain its intellectual and cultural heritage means it has lost touch with its past, obliterated its understanding of the present, crushed its capacity to transform itself through self-reflection and self-criticism, and descended into a deadening provincialism. Ignorance and illiteracy come with a cost. The obsequious worship of technology, hedonism and power comes with a cost. The primacy of emotion and spectacle over wisdom and rational thought comes with a cost. And we are paying the bill.

The decades-long assault on the arts, the humanities, journalism and civic literacy is largely complete. All the disciplines that once helped us interpret who we were as a people and our place in the world—history, theater, the study of foreign languages, music, journalism, philosophy, literature, religion and the arts—have been corrupted or relegated to the margins. We have surrendered judgment for prejudice. We have created a binary universe of good and evil. And our colossal capacity for violence is unleashed around the globe, as well as on city streets in poor communities, with no more discernment than that of the blinded giant Polyphemus. The marriage of ignorance and force always generates unfathomable evil, an evil that is unseen by perpetrators who mistake their own stupidity and blindness for innocence.

“We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion—quite apart from the contents themselves that could be lost—would mean that, humanly speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence,” Hannah Arendt wrote. “For memory and depth are the same, or rather, depth cannot be reached by man except through remembrance.”

Those few who acknowledge the death of our democracy, the needless suffering inflicted on the poor and the working class in the name of austerity, and the crimes of empire—in short those who name our present and past reality—are whitewashed out of the public sphere. If you pay homage to the fiction of the democratic state and the supposed “virtues” of the nation, including its right to wage endless imperial war, you get huge fees, tenure, a television perch, book, film or recording contracts, grants and prizes, investors for your theater project or praise as an pundit, artist or public intellectual. The pseudo-politicians, pseudo-intellectuals and pseudo-artists know what to say and what not to say. They offer the veneer of criticism—comedians such as Stephen Colbert do this—without naming the cause of our malaise. And they are used by the elites as attack dogs to discredit and destroy genuine dissent. This is not, as James Madison warned, the prologue to a farce or a tragedy; we are living both farce and tragedy.

“The withdrawal of intellectuals from political concerns is itself a political act,” sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote. “Which is to say that it is at best a pseudo-withdrawal. To withdraw from politics today can only mean ‘in intent’; it cannot mean ‘in effect.’ For its effect is to serve whatever powers prevail, even if only by distracting public attention from them. Such attempts may be the result of fear or fashion; or of sincere conviction—induced by success. Regardless of the motive, the attempted withdrawal means to become subservient to prevailing authorities and to allow the meaning of one’s own work to be determined, in effect, by other men.”

Amid the swelling disparity between reality and reality as the corporate state seeks to have it portrayed, the idiocy and mendacity of the elites and their courtiers grow more ludicrous. The institutions that educated the public and fostered the common good are even more fiercely attacked, defunded and rendered anemic. The dumbing down of the country—fed by the crippling of the safe spaces where ideas, dissent and creativity could be expressed, where structures and assumptions could be questioned—accelerates.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump may be boorish, narcissistic, stupid, racist and elitist, but he does not have Hillary Clinton’s carefully honed and chilling amoral artifice. It was she, and an ethically bankrupt liberal establishment, that created the fertile ground for Trump by fleecing the citizens on behalf of corporations and imposing the neoliberal project. If she is elected, Trump may disappear, but another Trump-like figure, probably even more frightening, will be vomited up from our cultural and political sewer.

Trump and Clinton, along with fellow candidate Bernie Sanders, refuse to admit what they know: Our most basic civil and political rights have been taken from us, the corporate oligarchy will remain entrenched in power no matter who wins the presidency, and elections are a carnival act. The downward spiral of lost jobs and declining incomes, of shredded civil liberties, of endless war, is unstoppable as long as we use the traditional mechanisms of reform, including elections, to try to cope with the existential threat we face. A vote for Clinton, in essence, is a vote for Trump or someone as bad as Trump. Right-wing populism, here and in Europe, is not the product of an individual but the disenfranchisement, rage and despair stemming from the damage caused by globalization. And until we wrest back control of our destiny by breaking corporate power, demagogues like Trump, and his repugnant doppelgangers in Europe, will proliferate.

The institutions that make possible wisdom, knowledge, self-criticism and transcendence are in ruins. Public radio and public television, created to give a voice to those not beholden to the elites, are now echo chambers for the privileged and the powerful. The arts, like public broadcasting a victim of massive cuts by government, have descended to the lowest common denominator. Symphony orchestras are closing along with libraries. Music and art have been removed from school curriculums. Theater, along with the film industry, has been taken over by corporations such as Disney. Audiences on Broadway and in movie houses participate in exorbitantly priced forms of escapism that, at their core, celebrate American power and narcissism.

There was a time, a few decades ago, when the work and thought of intellectuals and artists mattered. Writers and social critics such as Mills, Dwight Macdonald, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn and Jane Jacobs wrote for and spoke to a broad audience. Authors William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Gore Vidal, Toni Morrison, Ken Kesey, Russell Banks and Norman Mailer, along with playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, David Mamet, Ntozake Shange, Sam Shepard, Marsha Norman, Edward Albee and Tony Kushner, held up a mirror to the nation. And it was not a reflection many people wanted to see. Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick in film, Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka in poetry, Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith in music shook the social, cultural and political landscape.

These artists and intellectuals, who did not cater to the herd, were nationally known figures. They altered our perceptions. They were taken seriously. They sparked contentious debate, and the elites attempted, sometimes successfully, to censor their work. It is not that new independent, brilliant and creative minds are not out there; it is that nearly all of them—Tupac Shakur and Lupe Fiasco having been two exceptions—are locked out. And this has turned our artistic, cultural and intellectual terrain into a commercialized wasteland. I doubt that a young Bruce Springsteen or a young Patti Smith, or even a young Chomsky, all of whom exhibit the rare quality of never having sold out the marginalized, the working class and the poor, and who are not afraid of speaking truths about our nation that others will not utter, could today break into the corporatized music industry or the corporatized university. Sales, branding and marketing, even in academia, overpower content.

T.S. Eliot, seven decades ago, warned of a condition that now enmeshes us. In his“What Is a Classic?” address to the Virgil Society in 1944 he argued that a civilization that did not engage with its greatest artists and intellectual traditions, that did not protect and nurture its artistic and intellectual patrimony, committed suicide.

“In our age,” Eliot said, “when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information, and to try to solve problems of life, in terms of engineering, there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism, not of space, but of time; one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turn and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares. The menace of this kind of provincialism is, that we can all, all the peoples on the globe, be provincials together: and those who are not content to be provincials, can only become hermits.”


    Excellent Article.

  • DHFabian

    The US never overcame Reagan’s “dumbing down of America.” It appears that, to a large degree, we let our chosen pundits do the thinking for us, telling us what we believe, and what we should do about it. As a nation, we’ve lost the capacity for empathy, focused only on being “good, hard-working Americans” in service to the state (our economic system), with a focus on self, lacking any concept of the broader community. While the election of President Obama was seen by many as a symbol that at least a portion of the country was ready to stand up to pursue a vision of what this country could be, the “masses” quickly settled into agreeing to maintain the status quo.

  • Aquifer

    Obama was/is a perfect example of the “pseudo-politician” who knows “what to say and what not to say”, if he was, indeed, a symbol to any of anything “better” in this country, it was, IMO, because they weren’t paying attention … I don’t think the “masses” are at all satisfied with the status quo, what they are is too willing to accept that the best they can get is whatever the corrupted D/Rs choose to dish up …

  • Aquifer

    I wrote this as a letter to the editor over a decade ago – outside of reference to some local issues (aquariums and such) I think it says in a much cruder way what Hedges speaks of …
    Dear Editor,
    Fifty years ago people built schools and hospitals for the public good; today we build malls and casinos. Fifty years ago business subsidized educational and healthcare institutions with taxes and contributions; today the public subsidizes business with tax credits and subsidies. Fifty years ago people empathized with those less well off and set up “safety nets” for the poor and elderly knowing that we and our progeny would/could all be there one day; today we empathize with the rich and set up tax shelters and rebates for corporations fantasizing that we will be there one day. Fifty years ago people built and fostered businesses that actually made things and paid “living wages” so that one person with one job could support a family: today we foster businesses that buy and sell things made far away and pay wages such that two people need several jobs to get by.
    To add insult to injury, not only are we abandoning all those institutions built by the public for the public that have served us so well, but we are actively dismantling them as we substitute and subsidize institutions built by private interests for private interest while plaintively (pathetically?) crossing our fingers that our subsidies (“incentives”) will result in a “trickle down” of public crumbs from the private table. Fifty years ago we, the public, were builders, today we are beggars. About the only ideas we have preserved from 50 years ago are an acceptance of pollution and of weapons of mass destruction as the price of “progress” and “freedom”.
    I know “it’s out of our hands, times have changed, so one must get with the program!” The problem, however, is that getting with the program seems to increasingly require chemical intervention or why would fully 1/3 of the locally most prescribed drugs be for treatment of depression or ulcers? I am not saying that there are no instances of strictly organic causes for the conditions these drugs treat, only suggesting that in the the majority of cases we medicate ourselves as a substitute for dealing with the absurdities of “the program”. So that, when we read “mega-mall built”/”hospital bankrupt”,”mega-aquarium coming”/”schools closing”,”stock market sky high”/”employment rock bottom”, its OK because we’ve taken our medication. Fifty years ago people taxed themselves and their businesses to fix problems, today our “fix” is in the drug store.
    Why? Do we need the drugs because, as we were told in one recent letter, “thinking” (a legacy of our old educational system) has left “the vast majority (of us so) totally unprepared for (the) ordinary life” we find ourselves in? How depressing when petitions to save hospitals go unremarked as mall builders are courted. How corrosive when our employers have no place for us as CEOs are rewarded. Perhaps “thinking” and “getting with the program” are mutually exclusive. If we could just stop thinking, maybe we wouldn’t need the drugs.
    Or perhaps we need them to forget that in substituting laissez-faire, private competition and individual/corporate tax forgiveness for the old communitarian ones of cooperation and public/private taxation as paradigms for progress, we have left ourselves no role as social beings in the fashioning of our collective welfare.
    Or perhaps they are necessary to dull the discomfort of admitting that it is we who have made this “ordinary life” we find ourselves in, that it is we who have given it the lie of inevitability and progress, and that it is we who, having built a world that values individual choice above all else, routinely deny ourselves the one choice that might free us, the choice to affirm the value of public institutions and programs built for us by a vibrant public 50 years ago.
    For reasons which escape me, apparently we prefer to take our medication, go to the mall, and insist that our schools stick to the “facts” of our new, improved “ordinary life” and “not be charged…with teaching students to think.” After all, aren’t fish tanks better than think tanks? Or are even the fish, at least the ones in the lake, depressed? I suppose we can always look on the bright side; if we persist in this course long enough, there will be one legacy we can leave our progeny 50 years from now; freed from the burden of “thinking”, they won’t need to take so many drugs, which is just as well, because they won’t have the money to pay for them, either.

  • Aquifer

    Though I think this an excellent piece on the whole, i take exception to his dismissal of the potential of elections to change things – is it the elections, per se, or the folks we elect … As long as we keep returning D/Rs to office, he is correct, but we do have other choices, we just need to make them …

    My mother had a heavy old metal ice cream scoop that was intended to – scoop ice cream, but it also made one hell of a hammer. Our elections are perhaps “made” to entrench the duopoly, but we can use them to smash it as well …