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Data Storms and the Tyranny of Manufactured Forgetting

Posted on Jul 3, 2014

Photo by Sarah Jane (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout.

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For in the world in which we live it is no longer merely a question of the decay of collective memory and declining consciousness of the past, but of the aggressive [assault on] whatever memory remains, the deliberate distortion of the historical record, the invention of mythological pasts in the service of the powers of darkness.
- Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

All reification is forgetting.
- Herbert Marcuse

The current mainstream debate regarding the crisis in Iraq and Syria offers a near perfect example of both the death of historical memory and the collapse of critical thinking in the United States. It also signifies the emergence of a profoundly anti-democratic culture of manufactured ignorance and social indifference. Surely, historical memory is under assault when the dominant media give airtime to the incessant war mongering of politicians such as Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham and retro pundits such as Bill Kristol, Douglas Feith, Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz - not one of whom has any credibility given how they have worked to legitimate the unremitting web of lies and deceit that provided cover for the disastrous US invasion of Iraq under the Bush/Cheney administration.

History repeats itself in the recent resurgence of calls for US military interventions in Syria and Iraq. Such repetitions of history undoubtedly shift from tragedy to farce as former Vice President Dick Cheney once again becomes a leading pundit calling for military solutions to the current crises in the Middle East, in spite of his established reputation for hypocrisy, lies, corporate cronyism, defending torture and abysmal policymaking under the Bush administration. The resurrection of Dick Cheney, the Darth Vader of the 21st century, as a legitimate source on the current crisis in Syria and Iraq is a truly monumental display of historical amnesia and moral dissipation. As Thom Hartman observes, Cheney bears a large responsibility for the Iraq War, which “was the single biggest foreign policy disaster in recent - or maybe even all - of American history. It cost the country around $4 trillion, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, left 4,500 Americans dead, and turned what was once one of the more developed countries in the Arab World into a slaughterhouse. What room is there for historical memory in an age “when the twin presiding deities are irony and violence”?


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Missing from the commentaries by the mainstream media regarding the current situation in Iraq is any historical context that would offer a critical account of the disorder plaguing the Middle East. A resurrection of historical memory in this moment could provide important lessons regarding the present crisis. What is clear in this case is that a widespread avoidance of the past has become not only a sign of the appalling lack of historical knowledge in contemporary American culture, but a deliberate political weapon used by the powerful to keep people passive and blind to the truth. Of course, there are many factors currently contributing to this production of ignorance and the lobotomizing of individual and collective agency.

Such factors extend from the idiocy of celebrity and popular culture and the dumbing down of American schools to the transformation of the mainstream media into a deadly mix of propaganda, violence and entertainment. The latter is particularly crucial as the collapse of journalistic standards that could inform the onslaught of information finds its counterpart in an unrelenting rise of political and civic illiteracy. The knowledge and value deficits that produce such detrimental forms of ignorance not only crush the imagination, critical modes of social interaction, and political dissent, but also destroy those public spheres and spaces that promote thoughtfulness, thinking, critical dialogue and serve as “guardians of truths as facts,” as Hannah Arendt once put it.

The blight of rampant consumerism, unregulated finance capital and weakened communal bonds is directly related to the culture’s production of atomized, isolated and utterly privatized individuals who have lost sight of the fact that “humanity is never acquired in solitude.” This retreat into private silos has resulted in the inability of individuals to connect their personal suffering with larger public issues. Thus detached from any concept of the common good or viable vestige of the public realm, they are left to face alone a world of increasing precarity and uncertainty in which it becomes difficult to imagine anything other than how to survive. Under such circumstances, there is little room for thinking critically and acting collectively in ways that are imaginative and courageous.

Surely, the celebration and widespread prevalence of ignorance in American culture does more than merely testify “to human backwardness or stupidity”; it also “indicates human weakness and the fear that it is unbearably difficult to live beset by continuous doubts.” Yet, what is often missed in analysis of political and civic illiteracy as the new normal is the degree to which these new forms of illiteracy not only result in an unconscious flight from politics, but also produce a moral coma that supports modern systems of terror and authoritarianism. Civic illiteracy is about more than the glorification and manufacture of ignorance on an individual scale: it is producing a nationwide crisis of agency, memory and thinking itself.

How else to explain, for instance, a major national newspaper’s willingness to provide a platform for views that express an unchecked hatred of women - as when The Washington Post published George Will’s column in which he states that being a rape victim is now “a coveted status that confers privileges”? Will goes on to say that accusations of rape and sexual violence are not only overblown, but that many women who claim they were raped are “delusional.” There is a particular type of aggressive ignorance here that constitutes a symbolic assault on women, while obscuring the underlying conditions that legitimate sexual violence in the United States. Will expresses more concern over what he calls the “pesky arithmetic” used to determine the percentage of women actually raped on campuses than the ever-increasing incidence of sexual assault on women in colleges, the military, and a wide variety of other private and public spheres.

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