Historical Amnesia And Stasis In Political Action

Over on his blog, and on his Facebook page, in response to a series of repeated claims stressing the uniquely dysfunctional and authoritarian nature of the present administration¹, Corey Robin has often made remarks which echo the sentiments expressed in the following:

We have a culture in this country that is relentlessly, furiously, ferociously, anti-historical. Whatever we’re going through, it’s always unprecedented. [on Facebook status]

The flip side of the ‘anti-historical’ regarding of one’s particular moment in time as being ‘unprecedented’ of course is a corresponding desire to believe that we are living through a historical moment–one that will be regarded as ‘historical’ by those who follow. The ‘anti-historical’ impulse is only directed at the past; for the present the impulse is  most definitely one that would like to write it, and crucially, oneself, into history. After all, what better way to make meaningful our lives, to grant them more significance, than to believe that the present moment is truly ab initio, bringing something to life ex nihilio? Put this way, political amnesia about the past becomes understandable as a kind of grasping for significance in the present, a refusal to believe that there can be meaningful novelty in the familiar–the study of whose particulars is likely to be far more revealing and edificatory than the hasty scramble to award it medals for novelty.

(A related, possibly converse, instance of this yearning was visible in the media reactions to La Affaire Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton–as it broke in early 1998. Those hyperbolic reactions made clear that Watergate had indeed cast a long shadow–especially as its associated mythology had anointed some ‘select’ members of the press as those who had ‘brought the administration down.’ Now, another possibly historical moment was upon the Republic and its ‘media corps’; which member of the media would ‘go down in history’ as the one who had broken the story, reported it to the nation, and finally, supervised the abdication of the old king and the coronation of the new one? Please dear God, let this happen on my watch; let me be written into the history books. Let me elevate the world-historical significance of this moment; in that act lies the existential redemption of my life.)

Thus a curious paradox of political action and resistance in the current moment: because we are so willing to grant novelty to the present, we confess ourselves puzzled and nonplussed and bewildered, cast astray and adrift. The stasis, in both thought and action, that results should be unsurprising.

Note: In a post on the rehabilitation of George W. Bush, I had noted:

Our nation’s memory is short; we are all too eager to believe that everything that happens is…extraordinary, novel, utterly lacking in historical provenance. Donald Trump is a singularity, appearing suddenly, dramatically, out of nowhere, posing a radical disjuncture with all that preceded him. We appear unwilling to consider that he is the product of a particular political party with an established track record, one whose leaders waged an illegal war and tortured, who were not prosecuted by the Obama Administration, which then went on to wage more war, and further expand the powers and reach of the executive branch, which now provides a veritable arsenal of loaded weapons to Donald Trump.

The ‘Historic’ Statue Toppling That Wasn’t

In his essay ‘The Toppling: How the media inflated a minor moment in a long war‘ (The New Yorker, January 20, 2011), Peter Maass provides, by way of context and background, a useful deflationary account of the famous toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9, 2003. The statue’s downfall had always had a stage-managed feel to it, even at the time; Maass’ account makes clear it was a journalist’s event through and through, with few Iraqis in the square, and even those outnumbered by war correspondents, cameramen and the like, and cheering only when the cameras  panned to them.

The over-the-top, prematurely celebratory response–of the Bush administration–to the statue’s toppling, part of the delusional description of the war, one made especially poignant by our knowledge now, of the mayhem that lay ahead for Iraq, was egged on by the media:

The powerful pictures from Firdos were combined with powerful words. On CNN, the anchor Bill Hemmer said, “You think about seminal moments in a nation’s history . . . indelible moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that’s what we’re seeing right now.” Wolf Blitzer described the toppling as “the image that sums up the day and, in many ways, the war itself.” On Fox, the anchor Brit Hume said, “This transcends anything I’ve ever seen. . . . This speaks volumes, and with power that no words can really match.” One of his colleagues said, “The important story of the day is this historic shot you are looking at, a noose around the neck of Saddam, put there by the people of Baghdad.”

The invocations of ‘seminal,’ ‘indelible,’ Berlin Wall,’ ‘power,’ ‘historic,’ in these breathless descriptions of ‘ a minor moment in a long war’ are galling. They serve as good evidence for a thesis I have privately entertained for a long time: rare is the journalist who does not self-servingly succumb to the temptation to describe a reported event in precisely these terms because doing so increases their sense of self-importance as well. After all, if it’s a historic, momentous, seminal moment, then aren’t the journalists reporting on it carrying out equally momentous work, equally deserving of their place in history? Perhaps they should be written about next, made the subjects of detailed reportage, praised for their presence at The Event?

Descriptions like those cited above are thinly veiled exercises in self-glorification.  This was never more clear to me than during the Monica Lewinsky affair.  Then, confronted by one breathless television reporter and talking head after another, it rapidly became clear to me that what they all seemed to be desperately hoping for was an impeachment of a US president on their watch. Imagine: the memoirs you could write, detailing your role in the coverage of this ‘crisis’, the blow-by-blow accounts you could detail  of every manufactured twist and turn, every ‘intervention’, every skillful and perceptive and brilliant report you provided, as you expertly shepherded The Event and its actors towards its final, earth-shattering conclusion. I was there; this is what I saw.

It’s hard, apparently, to not want to be part of the story.