At Harper’s, Corey Robin has a piece on collective amnesia, specifically among liberals. It comes down to the incessant march of lesser evilism that inevitably leads to greater and greater evil, until nothing is left remaining but evil’s total dominance.
Each shock of evil normalizes the evil of the past, such that we frogs are slowly boiled alive. Don’t worry, the liberal suggests relaxing in his warm bath, we will revolt later when it finally gets bad enough. But this attitude never allows for self-awareness of complicity, the denial of which makes inevitable further complicity for it is never the right moment to admit guilt, no matter how often in the past it was stated, Never again!
“Strong stuff, suggesting the kind of experience you don’t easily recover from. If such feelings of betrayal don’t overwhelm you with a corrosive cynicism, inducing you to withdraw from politics, they provoke an incipient realism or an irrepressible radicalism… You get to lose your innocence only once… But… American liberalism is also a party of the born-again.
“The United States of Amnesia: true to form, we don’t remember who coined the phrase. It’s been attributed to Gore Vidal and to Philip Rahv, though it also appears in a syndicated column from 1948. But more than forgetfulness is at work in our ceremonies of innocence repeatedly drowned. And while it’s tempting to chalk up these rituals to a native simplicity or a preternatural naïveté — a parody of a Henry James novel, in which you get soiled by crossing the Potomac rather than the Atlantic — even our most knowing observers perform them. . . .
“Donald Trump is making America great again — not by his own hand but through the labor of his critics, who posit a more perfect union less as an aspiration for the future than as the accomplished fact of a reimagined past.
“There can be an appalling complexity to innocence,” the political scientist Louis Hartz observed in his classic 1955 study The Liberal Tradition in America, “especially if your point of departure is guilt.” That nexus of guilelessness and guilt, depth and innocence, is usually Roth country, but in this instance we’ll have to take the master’s tools and use them ourselves.
“Ever since the 2016 presidential election, we’ve been warned against normalizing Trump. That fear of normalization misstates the problem, though. It’s never the immediate present, no matter how bad, that gets normalized — it’s the not-so-distant past. Because judgments of the American experiment obey a strict economy, in which every critique demands an outlay of creed and every censure of the present is paid for with a rehabilitation of the past, any rejection of the now requires a normalization of the then.
“We all have a golden age in our pockets, ready as a wallet. Some people invent the memory of more tenderhearted days to dramatize and criticize present evil. Others reinvent the past less purposefully. Convinced the present is a monster, a stranger from nowhere, or an alien from abroad, they look to history for parent-protectors, the dragon slayers of generations past. Still others take strange comfort from the notion that theirs is an unprecedented age, with novel enemies and singular challenges. Whether strategic or sincere, revisionism encourages a refusal of the now.
“Or so we believe.
“The truth is that we’re captives, not captains, of this strategy. We think the contrast of a burnished past allows us to see the burning present, but all it does is keep the fire going, and growing… [T]he rehabilitation of the last monster allows the front line to move rightward, the new monster to get closer to the territory being defended. That may not be a problem for Roth, reader of Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.” (Though even Beckett concluded with the injunction to “fail better.”) It is a problem for us, followers of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” “
I noticed this scathing critique earlier and was glad to see it. It came to my attention again because he mentioned it in his blog in connection to an interview with Brooke Gladstone. That interview is part of several others (with Max Fischer, Deb Amos, and Sinan Antoon) in response to the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War.
Maybe no new insight is offered, but at the very least it is an important reminder. Not only is there collective amnesia for, as a society, we keep forgetting how often our collective amnesia has repeated in the past. We don’t know what we don’t know partly because we keep forgetting what we forgot.
Corey Robin also writes at Crooked Timer. And John Holbo at that site wrote about the Harper’s piece. In the comments section, there is debate about whether Trump is exceptional and, if so, for what reason. Should we be surprised or shocked? And about what exactly? Beyond that, what is the right context for understanding?
The comments section is filled with people who, for all their disagreement, know political and economic history. But even with the above average commentary and debate, it felt dissatisfying. There was little discussion of the fundamental causes of human behavior, of what makes the human mind tick, of the social sciences and related fields. The focus was almost entirely on externals, except for a few comments.
To some extent, that is even my complaint of Corey Robin. It is common on the political left, that is to say almost as common as on the political right. It’s easier to focus on externals and, with politics, the distraction of externals is endless. But for this reason, we rarely touch upon root causes. Robin’s theory of the reactionary mind goes a long way to explain conservatism and the modern mind in general, including amnesia among liberals (not that Robin talks about the reactionary in quite so expansive terms). Yet this analysis can only go so far because it never extends beyond the history of politics and economics.
A few comments by the same person, Lee A. Arnold, comes the closest to stepping outside of this intellectual blindspot:
“Polanyi, The Great Transformation chapter 20 characterizes fascism as a spontaneous emotional “move” arising from within individuals, and uses the political conditions only to discard them. It is not a movement that requires a vanguard or imperial aspirations. The ONLY thing characterizing the rise of fascism, in the dozen or more countries in which it arose, was the sudden failure of the market system…”
“Fascism is a socio-emotional disease that is ever-latent but suddenly arises within individuals and overcomes enough of them to make political control possible. Elites do not stop it, because it the disease overcomes them too. It is a paradoxical move: it offers an “escape from an institutional deadlock… yet… it would everywhere produce sickness unto death.” (Polanyi). Whether there is an external threat or an internal threat or both, it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same.”
“The very recent spate of commentators (here, and elsewhere) writing that fascism has been avoided in the US (or even go so far as to write that it cannot happen) rely upon a misunderstanding of what fascism was, or take too large a comfort in a narrow diversion from it. That may not be good enough, next time. Far from being silly, I see this as Corey Robin’s basic point, too.”
“I imagine that the intellectual confusion and dismissal was similar in the 1920’s-30’s. It’s interesting that today so many intellectuals think that fascism originated from outside the individual, as some sort of organized imposition of structure by a vanguard. So today, we will see it coming: “It can’t happen here.” (Or else they think that our current democratic institutions and media culture are strong enough and varietal enough to withstand it.)
“But the evidence is that fascism arose spontaneously within individuals. It’s almost a pure emotion in the anger & hatred quadrant. It suddenly swept up a lot of people into supporting “doing something”, to cut through the confusion and deadlock. Yet it emotionally disregards facts, logic, science, humane values. It’s not a political-economic form in the same category with liberalism, conservatism, capitalism, socialism.”
That is related to what Robin gets at. Fascism is simply one extreme variety of the reactionary mind. The reactionary is never constrained to the mainstream conventions of ideological rhetoric and political forms. That is because the reactionary, by definition, is the result of the failure (or perceived failure) of the mainstream project of social order.
Still, even this doesn’t dig deep enough. I end up getting more insight about what motivates politics and economics from those studying philology, linguistic relativism, social psychology, anthropology, cultural history, and consciousness studies. The failure of our society is better explained by the likes of Julian Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind), Iain McGilchrist (The Master and His Emissary), Lewis Hyde (Trickster Makes This World), James Gilligan (Preventing Violence), Keith Payne (The Broken Ladder), Johann Hari (Lost Connections), Sebastian Junger (Tribe), etc.
These other viewpoints are more likely to offer insight about collective amnesia. The typical political and economic analysis might, in some cases, be part of the problem. Karl Marx who, in emphasizing material conditions, gets portrayed as a reductionist by his critics and yet he went beyond most on the political left by presenting what is called ‘species-being’ — as I described it:
“The basic idea is that what we produce creates a particular kind of society and shapes human nature. We produce the kind of person that is needed for the world we bring into existence. And so the kind of person that is produced is incapable of seeing beyond the social and material world that produced him. We build our own prisons, even as there is hope for us to build new worlds to inhabit and new ways of being.”
So what produces a social identity that is prone to such extremes of collective amnesia? I’m specifically referring to what manifests in our society at the seeming peak or breaking point of this post-Enlightenment liberal age (or, if you prefer, this late stage of capitalism). If we could make sense of that, then much else would become easier to disentangle.
“Historical consciousness can be a conservative force, lessening the sting of urgency, deflating the demands of the now, leaving us adrift in a sea of relativism. But it need not be,” concludes Corey Robin in Harper’s.
“Telling a story of how present trespass derives from past crime or even original sin can inspire a more strenuous refusal, a more profound assault on the now. It can fuel a desire to be rid of not just the moment but the moments that made this moment, to ensure that we never have to face this moment again. But only if we acknowledge what we’re seldom prepared to admit: that the monster has been with us all along.”
That is no doubt true. But stories are a tricky business. The challenge is, in order to understand the present, we need to understand the origins of modern civilization and the modern mind. Most commentary, even on the alternative left, isn’t up to the task. The same old debate continues, as does the collective amnesia. We are stuck in a loop, until something forces us out.
This is not only a lack of understanding but a lack of motivation toward understanding. A revolution of the mind must come first before a revolution of society can follow. That isn’t something we collectively are capable of consciously choosing. What will happen at some point is that our old mindset will entirely fail us and every answer and response we used in the past will prove futile and impotent. Then and only then will we, out of desperation, turn toward the unknown in seeking the radically new. That is how change has always happened, as one would know from studying the deep past.
Until that point of total breakdown, we will go on forgetting and we will go on forgetting what we’ve forgotten. Our entire social order is dependent on it. And at the edge of breakdown, the reactionary mind takes hold and comes into power. The liberal too comes under its sway. It is a sign of the times. But is it the Kali Yuga of the liberal world or the dawning of the next Enlightenment leading to a new revolutionary era? Is there a difference?
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4/1/18 – Let me take a different approach. We are all born into this collective amnesia. And for most of us, our upbringing fails us and our education is inadequate. That was true for me.
As I became more serious in dealing with my own state of ignorance, I became ever more acutely sensitive to the pervasive ignorance that is the foundation of America in particular. Even if that is true of all societies to some degree, I suspect there is something unique about what has been referred to as America’s Fantasyland. The US, in being an extreme expression, potentially can help us understand what plagues most of humanity at this late hour in the liberal age.
It is my love of liberalism that makes me so harsh in my criticisms. I long for a liberalism worthy of the name. But first that requires us to look at what the reactionary mind reflects back to us. It does no good to simply dismiss those others as ‘deplorables’. What gets repressed and projected doesn’t really go away, related to how externalized costs eventually come due.
Corey Robin’s take on liberal amnesia, despite my concerns of certain limitations, resonates with something going on right now. Few seem to be paying attention, specifically not those who have their hands on the wheel or are in a position to take hold of the wheel. Some are asleep, others are texting, and still others are imbibing intoxicants… but I’m suggesting that someone needs to be at the wheel with their eyes on the road. I’m one of those crazy radicals who would rather prevent an accident than deal with the aftermath.
So, first we should all look up and look forward. Where are we heading? And is that where we want to go? If not, why don’t we change direction?
We see a monster in the rearview mirror and, not realizing we are seeing our own reflection, we keep our foot on the gas pedal. Off we speed toward disaster, driven by fear and forgetting that we are the driver. As a society, we never stop going — expressed in the quote used by Robin: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.”
On we go. No one can doubt that we are going somewhere and getting there fast. The wind in our hair and adrenaline in our veins can feel almost like progress, as if we really will outrun our monsters this time. Meanwhile, Trump the egotistic man-child is sitting in the backseat tweeting and asking, Are we there yet?
Writing a post like this is less about in-depth analysis than it is about capturing a mood. I’ve written plenty of in-depth analyses and they have their value. But studying a medical textbook on cardiology is not the same as feeling the beating pulse under your fingertips. In reading Robin’s piece and the responses to it, I could sense the flow of blood at the heart of the issue.
Right there, something can be felt. It’s like the tug of the undertow when you’re standing a few feet out in the ocean water. Viscerally, in that moment, you know the power of the ocean and how easy it is to be swept away. The whole dynamic of the debate is caught in that push and pull. So maybe the debate itself (as framed) can’t avoid that sphere of influence, that narrative attractor. Much of the commentary on the problem is caught up in the problem itself, related to how the reactionary is the other side of the liberal.
This is why the amnesiac can’t escape the condition of amnesia. It’s not something external, like a pair of clothes that can be taken off or a wall that can be knocked down. It is a loss of some part of the self but not really lost, just hidden and forgotten. But anamnesis, remembering of what was forgotten, remains possible… if we could only remember that there was something we forgot and why it mattered so much that maybe we shouldn’t have forgotten it in the first place.
Thinking too much about that, though, makes us feel uncomfortable and we’re not quite sure why. We convince ourselves, once again, that maybe things unknown are best left that way. In a moment of crisis, the memory of something touches the edge of our awareness and yet quickly slips away again. We busy ourselves with other things, the preoccupation of the present eclipsing what came before. That is what responsible adults do, deal with the issues at hand, right?
I like the ocean metaphor. The beach, where land meets water, is our society. The progressive and reactionary is the tide going in and out. This liberal age is the storm wall we built to protect our home. But that storm wall has the unintended consequence of slowly eroding away the sand that forms the beach.
I saw a real world example of this form of erosion. And it was stark.
There is this wealthy estate my grandfather grew up on, as the son of the head gardener. When he was a child, there was a beautiful beach that was part of the estate. And next to the estate is a public beach. The estate owners had a storm wall built which caused their beach to entirely disappear, while the public beach is still there. Only a few feet separate the private property from the public space, but the erosion stops right at the boundary line.
This form of privatization is very much of this liberal age. Before this era, feudalism had its commons. Some speak of the tragedy of the commons, but that is a lie. There was no tragedy of the commons as they were heavily regulated. Those regulations of the commons only disappeared when the commons disappeared. And what followed was the tragedy of privatization, as seen with private developers building storm walls.
It is as pointless to blame the tide coming in, the progressive, as it is to blame the tide going out, the reactionary. It is the storm wall, the liberal paradigm, that frames the action of the tide and determines the consequences. Building the wall higher and stronger to protect us from the worsening effects of storms won’t really save us or our home. Maybe it is time to consider the possibility that the storm wall is the problem and not the natural flow of the tides that get defined by that modern construction.
The erosion of the beach is our collective amnesia. But to make the metaphor more apt, most people would never have a public beach next to them. There would be nothing to be compared against to remind people about what has been lost. And the loss would be gradual, the beach slowly shrinking as the storm wall grew larger. There simply is the loss of the beach along with loss even of the memory of the beach.
The very concept of a beach might disappear from public memory and public debate. Or people might assume that ‘beach’ was always a word referring to that threatening space just beyond the storm wall. Instead of discussing how to save or bring back beaches, political conflict would obsess over blaming the other side and arguing over the increasingly advanced techniques of building storm walls.
Eventually those storm walls would entirely block the view of the ocean, that is to say the view of the world outside of the system we’ve collectively built over the generations. The walls that protect us then would imprison us and enclose our minds, shut down our imaginations. But what fine and impressive walls they are, among the greatest advancements of modern civilization.
Here is the point, the moral of the metaphor.
It’s not that we should stop building great things, as expressions of what we value and envision. And it’s not even that we should specifically stop building walls for they too have their place when built with wisdom and understanding. But that requires us to realize the effect we have on the world around us in what we build and how that affects us in turn. The liberal project needs to be reinterpreted, reimagined, and reinvented. Or failing that, we need a new societal project that would inspire us as once did the liberal dream.
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4/2/18 – On a related thought, Richard Eskow asks, “Is the ‘liberal world order’ worth saving?“ That is a question I’ve often asked myelf and I’ve done so from the perspective of someone who has spent much of his life identified with the liberal world order. To be plainly honest, I like the liberal dream. It’s a beautiful dream.
So, a ‘liberal’ such as myself is implicated in this line of questioning, and the deepest implication is about what this change would mean on a personal level. Is my liberal identity worth saving? And in the long term, can it be saved? Or must we liberals become something new in seeking something new?
Eskow states that, “The “liberal world order” must own up to its mistakes. They were errors of commission, as well as omission. Today’s chaos – from Brexit to Trump – is fallout from a global system that works for the benefit of a privileged few and has failed to offer democratic alternatives to inequality and oligarchy.” That is to say liberals must own up to their mistakes. And in this liberal age, we are all liberals.
So, “Is the “liberal world order” worth saving?” That is a tough question. “Not in its present form,” suggests Eskow. “Yes, it has provided some semblance of order. But order without justice is both unfair and unstable. The unfairness has been apparent for many decades. Now we’re seeing the instability.”
Up to this point, we as a society have been unable to ask this question, much less take it seriously enough to attempt an answer. That is where ignorance and amnesia have left us. But maybe the coming storm, when it blows in our windows and knocks down our walls, will wake us up to the reality that was always there. What was hidden in plain sight will become impossible to ignore, as the costs finally come due.
From Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, there is some oft quoted dialogue. One character asks another, “How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways,” was the response. “Gradually and then suddenly.” That is how we will emerge from our state of unconsciousness and obliviousness. The experience of anamnesis will be a hammer to our skull. The gradual process has been building up for a long time. And soon the sudden result will finally arrive, appearing as if out of nowhere.
Will the liberal order survive? I guess we’ll find out. Let the awakening begin!
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