Friday, November 28, 2008


The title of my last post was a rhetorical question, of course, that I assumed would be taken in two ways. But reading Glenn Greenwald's piece (reprinted at, I find myself revisiting the question. Adressed literally, the answer would probably have to be: six years ago, almost everybody in the US; today, many people, perhaps most people, though I'd hope not. Greenwald's focus is on the short institutional memory the New York Times displays anent its own positions and its past participation in the collective insanity that swept US society not very long ago.

There are vital lessons from the last eight years that get obscured when influential outlets such as the Times Editorial Page try to erase their own responsibility for events and heap all blame on "the Bush administration" -- which was able to do what it did only because it enjoyed the acquiescence, complicity and often blind support from so many of our leading political and media institutions.

In the US, very few people are willing to consider "temporary insanity" a defense for any behavior they consider morally wrong. And although the US has a morally terrible collective history itself, very few of its citizens, surveying the collective crimes of other societies, are likely to consider temporary insanity a defense for collective behavior they consider morally wrong. That being the case, the New York Times' "revisionism," as Greenwald characterizes it, is necessarily the default national solution to dealing with bad behavior--- a revisionism that entails amnesia, disavowal, and scapegoating. The Bush Administration, of course, makes a fine rhetorical scapegoat. The policies were all theirs. But could they have enacted those policies without willing, even enthusiastic submission from the political class as a whole? Of course not. They probably couldn't have done it without massive support from ordinary citizens, out waving their flags to show their enthusiasm for detaining and torturing anyone with a name sounding foreign to "heartland" ears.

If the collective insanity is past-- and I'm still reserving judgment on that since, after all, the various versions of the US Patriot Act remain firmly in place; and torture and detention without due process still continue at various US-run hellholes around the world; and airports continue to be the scene of mass zombiefication; and secret intelligence services continue to conduct unlimited invasions of citizen privacy-- the past-ness of the insanity doesn't mean we'll be free from the longterm effects that frenzies of collective insanity leave always in their wake. This is a deeply uncomfortable subject that is very close to being taboo. In a more honest country, the Bush Administration would be held accountable for their misdeeds and the media and other institutions would be examining its own behavior. Here, where history is nothing more than an amusing source of nostalgia, there can be only amnesia and disavowal of anything shameful.

I'll give the last word to Greenwald:

What happened in the U.S. over the last eight years is about much, much more than what "the Bush administration" did. It begins there, but responsibility in the post 9/11-era is much more diffuse and collective than that. Shoveling it all off on the administration that is leaving, while exonerating our culpable media and political institutions that remain, isn't merely historically inaccurate and unfair, though it is that. Allowing that revisionism also ensures that the critical lessons that ought to be learned will instead be easily and quickly forgotten when similar episodes occur here in the future.

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