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Bill Moyers: Memory Loss

by on February 15, 2011

What are the essentials of democracy?  Is it the right to bear arms?  Some think so.  Is it an implied division between church and state?  Some think so.  Is it the right of freedom of the press?  Some think so…  But  what good does that do us with reports such as Joe Keohane’s in the Boston Globe that “research at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in new stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs.”  The research found that actually “we often base our opinions on our beliefs … and rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept”.  Freedom of the press?  What happens when the press is partisan?

Bill Moyers, commenting on this study to History Makers, a journalistic organization dedicated to factual broadcasting, said,

‘”No wonder many people still believe Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, as his birth certificate shows; or that he is a Muslim, when in fact he is a Christian; or that he is a socialist when day by day he shows an eager solicitude for corporate capitalism.  In a Harris survey last spring, 67 percent of Republicans said Obama is a socialist; 57 percent believed him to be a Muslim; 45 percent refused to believe he was born in America; and 24 percent said he ‘may be the antichrist.'”

Ah well, we believe what we want to believe.  As Dumbledore said so well, “we see what we want to see.”  However, if the ‘right’ sees only what it wants to see, so does the ‘left’; and so do I.

From Moyers again:

Disinformation is not unique to the right, of course….[What about the] airtight case proving that the Bush administration conspired to bring about the attacks on the World Trade Center?  …’the [9/11] truthers’ threw out all the evidence of al-Qaeda’s involvement, from contemporaneous calls from hijack victims on the planes to confessions from al-Qaeda leaders both in and out of captivity that they had indeed done it.

Much as I would like to believe these 9/11 ‘truthers,’ at the same time I discredit the ‘birthers’ and ‘truthers’ claiming all sorts of obviously false things about Obama.  I, of course, like others, see the partisan world I want to see, while disregarding views that do not help me, and also approach political means with my own biases.  What’s my point?  Moyers continues not with further rumors and might-or-might-not-be’s, but with reminding his colleagues of Orwell’s 1984.  “Control of the present rests on obliteration of the past,” is the inference Moyers makes.

The bureaucrats in the Ministry of Truth destroy the records of the past and publish new versions. These in turn are superseded by yet more revisions. Why? Because people without memory are at the mercy of the powers that be; there is nothing against which to measure what they are told today. History is obliterated.

First of all, that sounds oddly like an authoritarian (perhaps fascist or Communist – Communist as the USSR was, and not was Communism was meant to be) state.  Second of all, that sounds oddly like America, especially some news organizations.  There are not three, as Cleanth Brooks argued, but four enemies of democracy (says Moyers):

The poet Czeslaw Milosz identified another enemy of democracy when, upon accepting the Noble Prize for Literature, he said ‘Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember.’ Memory is crucial to democracy; historical amnesia, its nemesis.

As a brief aside, I have a degree in political science.  I have no trouble memorizing facts and figures, no trouble developing hypotheses and seeing the world as it is (or, rather, of course, as I wish to see it).  However, I devour an immense amount of information every day, and I too frequently forget somewhat important events, and do not see others coming (for example, the revolutions and lengths of revolutions currently hitting the Middle East).  It is too easy to forget.

Here’s an example of  what we forget, of what history hides from us.  Bill Moyers

spent more than a year working on another PBS documentary called “Trade Secrets,” a two-hour investigative special based on revelations – found in the industry’s own archives – that big chemical companies had deliberately withheld from workers and consumers damaging information about toxic chemicals in their products. These internal industry documents are a fact. They exist. They are not a matter of opinion or point of view. They state what the companies knew, when they knew it and what they did with what they knew (namely to deep-six it) at peril to those who worked with and consumed the potentially lethal products.

The revelations portrayed deep and pervasive corruption in a major American industry and raised critical policy implications about the safety of living under a regulatory system manipulated by the industry itself. If the public and government regulators had known what the industry knew about the health risks of its products when the industry knew it, America’s laws and regulations governing chemical manufacturing would have been far more protective of human health. But the industry didn’t want us to know. That’s what the documents revealed and that was the story the industry fought to keep us from telling.

But the task that Moyers pursues, that one that in his words, have “never required him to grow up and get a day job,” is an essential task.  He is preventing collective memory loss. After all,

that’s what keeps us going, isn’t it? The knowledge that all the bias and ignorance notwithstanding, facts still matter to critical thinking, that if we respect and honor, even revere them, they just might help us right the ship of state before it rams the iceberg.”

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From → Politics, US Politics

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