Friday, July 6, 2018

Gonna Wash That Past Right Out of My Brain

Recently I wrote about my bafflement that many people feel that in order to criticize some present-day problem, they must claim that it is completely new and unprecedented.  This includes well-informed people as well as the people of the land, the common clay of the New West.

Then, today I followed a link to an article by Corey Robin about the same phenomenon, which offered an explanation for it:
When Trump became a contender for the White House, I saw him as an extension or fulfillment of the conservative movement rather than a break with it. Almost everything people found outrageous and objectionable about his candidacy — the racism, the contempt for institutions, the ambient violence, the hostility to the rule of law — I’d been seeing in the right for years. Little in Trump surprised me, except for the fact that he won.

Whenever I said this, people got angry with me. They still do. For months, now years, I puzzled over that anger. My wife explained it to me recently: in making the case for continuity between past and present, I sound complacent about the now. I sound like I’m saying that nothing is wrong with Trump, that everything will work out. I thought I was giving people a steadying anchor, a sense that they — we — had faced this threat before, a sense that this is the right-wing monster we’ve been fighting all along, since Nixon and Reagan and George W. Bush. Turns out I was removing their ballast, setting them afloat in the intermittent and inconstant air.
That sounds about right. It goes beyond Trump, of course. I'd noticed that when people complain about what's happening now, they often talk as though nothing like it has ever happened before -- even when they are old enough to remember when it has happened before.  I first noticed it when I read articles that cited some disturbing current statistic as evidence that Things Are Getting Worse, but without providing evidence that things had been different before.  (And symptomatically perhaps, the web page that linked me to Robin's article described it as "one of the better articles I've read about the current climate".  Am I misreading that, or does it contain the assumption that "the current climate" is a change from the past?  Maybe not.  But the article refers to the current climate only to situate it historically.)  I understand that history is hard (let's go shopping), but I'm talking about memory. Convenient forgetting seems to be a powerful defense mechanism. Contrary to Orwell's 1984, forgetting yesterday comes easily, naturally, to most people -- it doesn't need to be imposed by force. But I don't consider that an excuse.

It reminds me of the way nice liberal people I know reacted in the 90s when I showed them parts of Manufacturing Consent, the documentary about Noam Chomsky.  It wasn't surprising that it made them uneasy, since they had mostly never heard of most of what it described, the interpretation of American history it presented. What interested me was that they often complained that it sounded like Chomsky blamed America for everything wrong in the world, and that he thought we should be invaded and conquered and punished.  They were, I believe, projecting, because that's how they are used to thinking about other countries, especially officially designated enemies.  The same kind of projection went full-bore after September 11, 2001: any attempt to contextualize the attacks was condemned as a justification of them, and anyone who objected to the American retaliation (against countries and people who had not in fact attacked us, mind you) was accused of thinking Osama bin Laden a noble freedom-fighter.

I've probably called this sort of reaction "ahistorical" myself, but that may not be the right word.  It's not necessarily a rejection of history, it's an embrace of false history.  But it is the expression of a wish to simplify moral problems by framing them in black and white, in caricature.  It's not easy to learn to think historically, not least because there's so much opposition to teaching students how to do so, but it's a skill that can be learned.  Not everyone can be a historian, but most if not all people can learn something of the processes involved, and they should.