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Media

Political Amnesia Is the Enemy

No wonder some studies find that news viewers rapidly forget what they have just seen -- that's the intention.
We all know, all of us in America anyway, that Memorial Day weekend marks the start of summer. It's about the downtime ahead, the vacation that's coming, the shutting down of the serious in anticipation of fun in the sun.

Officially, it is also about honoring the dead, and there will be parades by veterans and flags flying on TV newscasts. Most of it is set in the present with little referencing of the past or memory itself.

Memories work on us on every level, especially when they slip out of mind. A memory exhibit at San Francisco's Exploratorium museum touches on the usual: "You get to school and realize you forgot your lunch at home. You take a test, and you can't remember half the answers. You see the new kid who just joined your class, and you can't remember his name. Some days, it seems like your brain is taking a holiday -- you can't remember anything!"

But memories are not just individual properties. Societies have memories, or should. And our news world and information technologies could or should have the capacity to keep us in touch with our collective memory, our recent history, the only context in which new facts find meaning.

I like to joke about my own "senior moments," but cultures have them too -- and often, not always by accident. In our culture, it is often by design. The frequent references we hear to "political amnesia" is not just commentary but an allusion to a social pathology, a deliberate process of actually disconnecting us from our past and history.

The blogger Billmon writes: "I don't know if it's a byproduct of decades of excessive exposure to television, the state of America's educational system, or something in the water, but the ability of the average journalist -- not to mention the average voter -- to remember things that happened just a few short months ago appears to be slipping into the abyss. "If this keeps up, we're going to end up like the villagers in "One Hundred Years of Solitude," who all contracted a rare form of jungle amnesia, so virulent they were reduced to posting signs on various objects -- 'I AM A COW. MILK ME' or 'I AM A GATE. OPEN ME' -- just so they could get on with their daily lives."

A 1991 science fiction film called Total Recall pictured political amnesia, in the words of Michael Rogin as "an essential aspect of the 'postmodern American empire.'"

A book by Andreas Huyssen takes another tack, arguing, "Rather than blaming amnesia on television or the school, "Twilight Memories" argues that the danger of amnesia is inherent in the information revolution. Our obsessions with cultural memory can be read as re-representing a powerful reaction against the electronic archive, and they mark a shift in the way we live structures of temporality."

But whatever the causes, the consequences are truly frightening. When 63 percent of young people can't find Iraq on a map after three years of war and coverage, you know that the institutions that claim to be informing us are doing everything but.

Our amnesia about recent developments seems to be induced and reinforced by the very fast-paced entertainment-oriented formats that we have become addicted to as sources of news and knowledge. They keep us in the present, in the now, disconnected from any larger ideas or analytical framework. No wonder some studies find that news viewers rapidly forget what they have just seen. That is what is intended to happen. No wonder, as Jay Leno shows when he contrasts a photo of a cultural icon with an elected official, that the public recognizes the former, not the latter. We recognize Mr. Peanut, not Jimmy Carter. More people vote for the best performer on American Idol than for our presidents.

The architects of TV news know this from their market surveys and studies. It is this very media effect that they hype to lure advertisers to their real business: selling our eyeballs to sponsors, not deepening our awareness. Depoliticizing our culture is a media necessity in a society driven by consumerism. Every programmer knows the drill. It's a market logic called KISS: Keep It Simple and Stupid.

A national curriculum, "Lessons From History," on the teaching of the past realizes that this phenomenon threatens democracy, warning, "Citizens without a common memory, based on common historical studies, may lapse into political amnesia, and be unable to protect freedom, justice, and self-government during times of national crisis. Citizens must understand that democracy is a process -- not a finished product -- and that controversy and conflict are essential to its success."

So even as this dialectic is deplored, it is, sadly, quite functional.

"We're forgetting the past," says historian Howard Zinn, "because neither our educational system nor our media inform us about the past. For instance, the history of the Vietnam War has been very much forgotten. I believe this amnesia is useful to those conducting our present foreign policy. It would be embarrassing if the story of the Vietnam War were told at a time when we are engaged in a war which has some of the same characteristics: government deception, the killing of civilians through bombing, scaring the American people (world communism in that case, terrorism in this one)."

So on Memorial Day and in the season ahead, think of how to encourage remembering, not just about the dead but for the living. Our future depends on how we understand the past. Political amnesia is the enemy in our ADD culture.

Please don't forget. Oh, too bad, you already have …
Danny Schechter writes a blog for MediaChannel.org. He is the author of "Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception: How the Media Failed to Cover the War on Iraq" (Prometheus).
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