October 20, 2018

OPINION: Don’t know much about history

The reason that our financial system isn’t going to crash and burn again, the reason that taxpayers won’t have to fork over another trillion dollars of no-strings-attached bailout money, is – well, I forget.

I haven’t forgotten the reason, because there isn’t any.  What I’ve forgotten is that there is no reason it can’t happen again.  I’ve forgotten the bipartisan sliminess that enabled this catastrophe, like the demolition of the Glass-Steagall wall between banking and stock speculation.  I’ve forgotten the battalions of Wall Street lobbyists armed with limitless campaign cash that decimated Dodd-Frank’s attempt to regulate derivatives. I’ve forgotten the obscene bonuses, underwritten by our rescue money, that plutocrats have kept on awarding themselves to celebrate escaping accountability. 

I know: I haven’t really forgotten them.  In fact, I’m enthralled and repulsed by accounts of what went wrong, from the terrific three-part ” target=”_hplink”>Michael Lewis, ” target=”_hplink”>William D. Cohan and other chroniclers of greed, criminality and a political system addicted to legalized graft.

But if more people were paying even a modicum of attention to the past, the economic debate in the 2012 presidential campaign wouldn’t be between one political party beholden to big money that dreamily depicts investment bankers and oligarchs as jobs creators, and another political party, also beholden to big money, that wants applause for fixing the problem.  If more people remembered which policies worked and which failed during the Depression – as Paul Krugman documents in his new book ” target=”_hplink”>quotes the Cato Institute’s Christopher Preble, “I can’t name a single Romney foreign policy adviser who believes the Iraq war was a mistake.”  This doesn’t mean that Iran isn’t a serious threat, but it does mean that the Republican presidential nominee’s brain trust has suffered a catastrophic foreign policy brain fart.

But of course amnesia is the existential basis of Mitt Romney’s campaign.  He takes it for granted that we’ve forgotten everything he said 20 minutes ago about immigration, contraception, student loans, climate change, letting GM go bankrupt, letting the foreclosure process “run its course and hit bottom” and the rest of his Tea Party-friendly positions.  He assumes that when he calls for eliminating regulations, we’ll have no recollection of the BP Gulf oil spill and the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine disaster.  He believes that when he embraces Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, we won’t remember that it dismantles Medicare. 

What makes us so amnesiac?  Schools struggling to do more with less aren’t turning out the informed citizens that Jefferson said democracy requires.  Paranoia, anti-intellectualism, the war on science and the postmodern deconstruction of reality into “narratives” have devalued the currency of truth. The mainstream news media, fearing that unsexy disputes about accuracy will drive audiences away, are wary of fact checks, let alone of running the same fact checks each time the same myths and falsehoods are repeated.  The ideological media – Rupert & Friends—use memory as a subversive weapon; revisionism is a tine on their pitchfork.  The paid media – campaign ads – drive out good information with bad.  By outsourcing our historical memory to the Internet, we dull our native instincts for critical thinking.  By confining our common culture to the contents of next week’s People, we forfeit the presence of the past.  And by basking in the pleasures that the bedazzlement industry amply provides us, we can reliably medicate our rage.  Forgetting what you were angry about in the first place turns out to be one of the abiding joys of civic amnesia.

Marty Kaplan is the ” target=”_hplink”>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.