Tuesday, May 15, 2012

American Amnesia

Since I just got around to playing this show on my DVR, I'm a bit late to comment on this Moyers & Compamy program featuring Marty Kaplan, who discussed the state of American journalism and the effect that has had on our society and politics:

Particularly interesting was this exchange, in which Kaplan and Bill Moyers discuss how little perspective Americans can gain from what they see in television news:

BILL MOYERS: How did it happen? How did we sell what belonged to everyone?

MARTY KAPLAN: By believing that what is, is what always has been and what should be. The notion that what goes on is actually made by people, changes through time, represents the deployment of political power. That notion has gone away. We think it's always been this way. People now watching these CNN and Fox. They think this is how it works. They don't have a sense of history. The amnesia, which has been cultivated by journalism, by entertainment in this country, helps prevent people from saying, "Wait a minute, that's the wrong path to be on."

BILL MOYERS: Amnesia, forgetfulness? You say that they're cultivating forgetfulness?

MARTY KAPLAN: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: Deliberately?

MARTY KAPLAN: Look at the way in which it-- the march toward war in Iran, if that's what's going to happen, is being--

BILL MOYERS: Or slithering toward war.

MARTY KAPLAN: Well, it-- when we get there we may feel as though the serpent bit us, no matter how we got to that point. But Iran should be covered through the prism of what happened in Iraq. All of the neoconservatives and right-wingers, who called for us to go into Iraq because of W.M.D.'s and because Saddam was bad. There is a history there. That history is within living memory of a lot of grownups in this country.

And unless people are willing to do the hard work of presenting the history and holding people accountable for the past, we will be condemned as it's been said, to repeat it first in tragedy and then in farce.

Marty Kaplan on Big Money's Effect on Big Media

I really started to notice this lack of perspective after the 9/11 attacks. The constant drumbeat about how it was utterly unprecedented that America faced enemies that weren't out in the open, and had to be ferreted out even if that meant giving up our freedoms, was utterly mind-boggling to me. I remember the Cold War, and the paranoia of those times. Anyone who was in his late thirties at that time should have remembered all that, too, I remember thinking. We were afraid during the Cold War, and there were certainly folks who insisted that we had to give up our freedoms to save them, but we also had leaders who were smart and principled enough to avoid doing that. After discussing some of that in an essay entitled "History, Blah, Blah", I tried to explain why things are so different now:

What's changed since then, you ask? I'm not really sure. I think one answer, though, is that back in the 1950s through the 1980s, we were still led by people who remembered fighting despotism in two world wars. By that I mean, they literally remembered it. President Harry S Truman was a WWI veteran. Presidents John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush were both WWII veterans, and both were nearly killed in combat missions. Joseph Kennedy, Jr., JFK's brother, was killed when his bomber was destroyed testing a new munition. Contrast that with Vietnam, where it was rare for the sons of America's leading families to be involved. John Kerry is one of the few exceptions I can think of. Vietnam-era scions President George W. Bush and Vice President Dan "Potatoe Head" Quayle avoided serving in Vietnam. The elder Bush and the two Kennedys volunteered for service, where Little Bush and Quayle voluntarily stayed away. In contrast to the elites of our parents' and grandparents' generations, the elites of the baby boomer and younger generations have learned that they can do whatever they want, and leave all the sacrificing to the rest of us.

History, Blah, Blah

Interestingly, Expat mentioned in a comment to that article the very phenomenon Kaplan is referring to, which Expat felt was a deliberate dumbing-down of the discourse we see on television and elsewhere. I don't know if it's deliberate or not, but it's having that effect, anyway, and I suspect that's not lost on the people who run things.

Why keep going on about history? Anyone who remembers the Cold War ought to realize that our supposed war on terrorism sounds awfully familiar. So would anyone who remembered the Great Depression realize that our recent economic collapse sounds familiar, anyone familiar with Prohibition would recognize the folly of our "war on drugs", and anyone who remembers the arms race that caused World War I would recognize the potential danger of our current level of defense spending. There are subtle differences with each of those analogies, of course, but the basic folly is the same. Not remembering how things were is a dangerous condition, and we suffer from it to an extent that should worry any thoughtful person.

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