Empire Of Amnesia, 2004

by John Steppling


December 13, 2004   


(Swans - December 13, 2004)   When the looting in Baghdad began, and was encouraged by US forces, an Arab professor here in Krakow said, simply, "they want to destroy our history, and our cultural identity." This seems a year in which the erasure of history has found total traction and solidified into the raison d'être of the hegemonic ruling class. Iraq, like Afghanistan before it, is simply being leveled, contaminated and erased from memory. At The Hague too, history is being refashioned to please the Empire. Milosevic must be silenced, and so an imposed counsel is appointed (and if this doesn't quite work, well, let's just "shit can" the whole trial, as John Bolton would have it). Now in the Ukraine a US orchestrated takeover is underway, labeled as a democratic uprising. During the debates Dick Cheney speaks of the US bringing democracy to El Salvador (uh...like Oscar Romero's murder?). Bush still speaks of bringing democracy to Iraq, and of how things are getting better (and Allawi now chokes out how violence is on the wane). Israel speaks as if it is a victim, while executing "terrorists" outside any due process (not to mention over five hundred children). Unreality. Re-writing history. America never murdered those millions of Native Americans. History begins where we say it begins, and it ends where we say it ends. Mission Accomplished. The history of some six hundred tribes is of little consequence, but George Washington, well, that's where things really start. Ronald Reagan, a great American...a nation mourns...unreality.

The year of amnesia was also the year of the Anyone But Bush mantra, a discussion which tended to distract attention from the more obvious crises that dot our terminal planet, now looms as a year where the media-induced narcosis of the American populace reached fail safe. Decades of erosion in public education and a general de-culturing of the populace combined with a post 9-11 focus for the pre-existing hysteria of the powerless have created a society, however split in details, that has reached a level of vindictiveness and blood-lust difficult to imagine. But then that's what happens when you have no memory of your own culture or history. That's what happens when you have only video games and TV to guide the average adolescent through his or her period of individuation. The contradictions of marketing can only be reconciled by forgetting them. The bad theatre of electoral politics brought us Governor Schwarzenegger and President Bush, two men of so little cranial capacity that one would be hard pressed to find a better casting for Dumb and Dumber (though which is which I leave to you). Does the empty parodic masculine posturing of these buffoons suggest something of a crisis in American male identity? When a society selects a groping bullying side show freak as leader of the world's fifth largest economy, something is being forgotten. When a semi-literate smirking brain-damaged frat boy is re-elected (sort of) by the most powerful country in the world, then a willful memory loss is taking place. It is a society of appearances.

The year where photographic evidence of torture didn't have the legs of American Idol; where 100,000 dead civilians was brushed aside with little thought...the better to scream moronically that Kerry MUST be elected, since he would...well, kill the same number of the "other;" where the polar ice cap can be seen from space to be dissolving and where the routine discussion of tactical nuclear weaponry seems normal; where millions world wide suffer contamination from American depleted uranium, is a year of unreality. So much we must forget.

What remains of leftist opposition was largely swallowed up in the near inexplicable support for (yeah, we know he's not perfect) Kerry. Chomsky continues to justify his lame call to vote for Imperialism.....and has dropped the baton of moral authority like the US sprint relay team, (though only to be picked up by the likes of Arundhati Roy, Stan Goff, and Gary Leupp). What Ed Herman called the Cruise Missile Left have congealed into a pathetic chorus of apologists for colonialism...willfully ignoring evidence about the truths of Rwanda, Kosovo, and the Sudan. Kristoff, Garton Ash, Power, Marlise Simons, and Ignatieff...all sit back in comfort, their power books open, sipping free trade cappuccinos and pondering the "responsibility of the West"...and we end the year with the melancholy spectacle of the Ukraine elections. These same liberals find it "encouraging" that people are protesting the gangster government of Kuchma...while not seeming to mind that their new golden boy (Yanukovich...err, Viktor Yushchenko*) is a former member of that same government...the only thing that separates him is a desire to accept Western capital and military bases...oh, and NATO. Both sides are reactionary and corrupt and from the wealthy elite of that long-suffering nation. This is not even to mention the obvious state department covert PR campaign and funding (NED, Freedom House, etc.) -- which means a support for this so-called orange revolution is simply support for more global domination by the U.S. Western capital won't be building new health care centers or libraries in Kiev, but they might be starting up some Starbucks and most certainly will be selling off natural resources. One wonders how the U.S. would react if Russia were building military bases in Monterey, Mexico and the lower Antilles.

The U.S. managed a coup in Haiti...re-installing the remnants of the Duvalier regime. The history of Papa Doc and Baby Doc has to be erased. Don't harken back to the Tonton Macoute...better to just read the current State Department briefing. The U.S. did fail (despite the best of efforts on part of Kerry's team) to unseat Hugo Chavez...one of the few bright lights (along with Fidel Castro) in world affairs. It tinkers with Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and it seems bent on support for the worst dictators and war criminals in the world (Karimov, Mubarak, Sharon, and the House of Saud). Domination as democracy, occupation as liberation, and death as...well, death. Death is everywhere.

The world of NGOs has never been more compromised...and this is best illustrated by the perfectly named Dick Dickers, of Human Rights Watch, who sat monitoring the Milosevic show trial and, with a straight face, declared the glaringly illegal imposition of counsel a good thing.

This is the year of the term "values." I take this buzz word to be the latest and most extreme example of the sexual hysteria of our culture, this time masquerading under its new branding. Sex-negative rhetoric on the far right is almost comical, except that millions believe it. They also believe the Rapture is coming...oh...like next week. On the left, the rigid hysteria and foaming paranoia of conspiracy theorists and bullying militants of various sects is only the flip side of this phenomenon. Compassion is reserved for those who agree with you, for those victims deemed worthy, by "you." From Western "concern" for black kids in refugee camps (created by US foreign policy) to the paternalistic approval of US-led opposition in Ukraine, the attitude is the same. The overweight, underpaid check-out girl at Wal*Mart barely registers on the compassion radar. The Christian right prefers thousands of dead foreigners to one gay marriage. All is marketed, all is spin and PR. Alienated work is a slow death. The U.S. wants quicker death, either from anonymous DU-tipped bombs, or from lethal injection in the many US prison death houses, but will accept any death it can get. Kill, kill, kill, just don't fuck. If you're the president, a blow job can get you impeached...if a movie star, you have to publicly apologize...if an athlete, you get a trial in some cracker court house and a media circus...and yeah, you have to apologize. Nothing worse than sex...except that it sells. Can't wait for the next Victoria's Secret fashion show. The society of necrophilia and repression and Puritanism...again, on all sides. The masturbatory culture must forget how to fornicate. The Pope doesn't even want you to masturbate...but then he lives in the tenth century along with Mullah Omar, John Ashcroft, and the Israeli settlers.

Life expectancy continues to drop in the former Soviet Union, proving again the destructive effects of anxiety, poverty, and loss of community. I recall the first chapter of Crime and Punishment, the feeling of Raskolnikov, that sense of dread that went far beyond rational material conditions. That is the general state of the average American, clinging more and more rabidly to the fantasy that all things American are good and superior (forget, forget, forget). This year of forgetting has been driven in no small measure by corporate media. From the rabid right wing Fox pundits, to the servile reasonableness of the NPR liberals, the real questions go un-asked. Does anyone ask Rumsfeld about his visit to Saddam AFTER the gassing of the Kurds (flying US-made helicopters)? Does anyone question Cheney about compulsively shooting small birds with nut case Antonin Scalia (or Tony's connection to Opus Dei?), while the latter's court is reviewing a case involving the VP? The people remember nothing; they don't remember El Mozote, they don't remember My Lai, and they already have forgotten Abu Ghraib. Ask them who Sitting Bull was and you are likely to get a blank stare. Who was George Jackson? Who were the Wobblies? What did Martin Luther King do again? Non-violence isn't sexy...war is. Network hacks are embedded with combat troops, the better to create a fiction with the frisson of authenticity. Flaccid TV news jerks, tricked out in fatigues and all manner of combat drag, report rapturously from the seat of a tank, never bothering about the dead, about the crippled and blinded at the other end of the "firefight." It's all entertainment. A video game.

History could teach the repercussions of colonialism; look up France/Algeria, or google King Leopold. History could teach us the reality of war; check Goya or Hemingway or Thucydides. History is difficult, the effects of the enlightenment, of the Reformation and the social evolution of authority -- complex questions, boring, better to watch Monday Night Football. History could point to the civilizations of the Nile valley, of China and the early Vedic thinkers...but really, it's all just gooks and towel heads and sand niggers....why bother. Fascism relies on destroying historical awareness. It must destroy historical identity and culture the better to recreate it as a Disney theme park ride. Why bother with real cultures when you can go to Vegas and tour them all, and get a free buffet lunch to boot? Club Med thinking, the illusions of Empire are built on loss of memory. It's been the year of the total acceptance of total amnesia. Give me my Prozac (or its third generation dupe) and tell me what to think, what to believe, and explain again why abstinence is good? Lap dancing is big business, so is prostitution in most of the world (where affluent Westerners visit anyway), but never mind that, we are moral people, people with values.

George Monbiot had a column recently on the loss of old historical apple varieties. The old English nurseries are dying out, and new ones won't carry them, they aren't profitable. Hundreds upon hundreds of 17th century and 18th century apple varieties are being forgotten. Perhaps this seems less important in light of the mass carnage around us, but I suspect it has its own kind of significance. Those varieties can't be replaced; they were grown to taste good, to taste special, not for huge yields and profit. The basic poetics of nature and community are being lost every day. If a culture allows such loss, it is indeed amnesiac.

The amnesia is there to allow a re-write of history. It is there to re-write even the most recent events...almost real time in the case of Iraq. Contradictions are no longer experienced as contradictions, they are simply more data to process and forget. We all forget, all the time. Who remembers Haiti or Bolivia when Falluja and Ukraine take over the headlines? Distraction is a strategy now, the marketing and branding of politics eclipses all real discourse. The iconic image of this year is the hooded man with electrodes on his testicles, in the Abu Ghraib prison. That image is already fading into the collective non-history of shiny corporate reality. The endless debates about building democracy and "staying the course" reflect the absence of real historical awareness. American history is simply re-determined to suit the latest lies. When a Bush policy hack told Ron Suskind, in the now much quoted conversation, that, "when we act, we make our own reality," he was expressing the truth of this society in ways he couldn't possibly understand. The world is what we say it is. Just keep repeating the lie and eventually it becomes the truth...especially if you're addicted to the comforts of mainlining aphasic bliss. The degrading of the very concept of truth (and late 20th century philosophy reflects this) is to turn western culture into the emotionally paralyzed and morally crippled nightmare one sees before us. All forgetting all the time, on all channels.

[* ed. Thanks to two readers who pointed to our editing mistake, we corrected the intial text that erroneously referred to Viktor Yanukovich instead of Yuschenko. (12/14/04)]

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America the 'beautiful' on Swans


John Steppling is a LA playwright (Rockefeller fellow, NEA recipient, and PEN-West winner) and screenwriter (most recent was Animal Factory directed by Steve Buscemi). He is currently living in Poland where he teaches at the National Film School in Lodz.

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Published December 13, 2004
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