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October 12, 2004

Let Me Get Incredibly Pretentious For A Second

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech author Milan Kundera famously said that "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." Or as George Orwell, patron saint of this website, put it: "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future." The older I get the more I understand what they meant.

Kundera had firsthand experience with the crude ways communist governments tried to control memory -- airbrushing people out of photographs, the brazen rewriting of historical events, and so on, much like in 1984. However, Americans need to recognize how our own history is continually rewritten by our government and media. While they do it more subtly than in communist Czechoslovakia, it's just as pernicious and often more effective.

History was rewritten to make Americans believe Iraq had banned weapons -- whereas if we'd remembered the past accurately, we would have all known how unlikely it was. And the WMD story is just one small example of the effects distorted memory has had on American politics. Almost everything that "everyone knows" in the US is just as false as what everyone "knew" about Iraq.

The internet is an extraordinarily powerful tool for people struggling against power precisely because it enormously strengthens and amplifies human memory. There wouldn't have been nearly as much worldwide opposition to the invasion of Iraq without the internet helping people remember the real history of U.S.-Iraq relations.

Indeed, I think the huge quantity of lies by the Bush administration is a testament to memory, and something that should make everyone feel optimistic rather than the opposite. In the past it was possible for governments to start wars with just one or two lies. But the internet helped create a collective memory that exposed each Bush lie almost as soon as it was uttered. So they continually had to generate new ones.

I hope the relevance of this to this Hersh story is clear. The internet makes it much easier for people to join together to create shared memory, one that will be available at their fingertips forever. And this memory serves as a weapon against those trying to lie to and rule over us.

All right, then. Now we return to the regularly scheduled jokes.

UPDATE: Here's a nice quote on this subject from a speech welcoming students to the Columbia School of Journalism in 1995:

The creation and preservation of collective memory, whether practiced heroically and clandestinely in Kundera's Czechoslovakia, or openly and freely in New York, is the final object and ultimate significance of your education here.

I would go so far as to interpret "here" to mean not "here at the Columbia School of Journalism" but "here on earth."

Posted at October 12, 2004 09:06 PM | TrackBack

Not pretentious at all. In fact, given the news that I've read and seen coupled with the willful denial of Bush supporters that I have met online I'd say you did a really good job expressing what's at stake here.

Posted by: Bionic at October 13, 2004 08:16 AM

I think we have to admit that part of the creation of shared memories is the creation of unmitigated bullshit. For a long time now, media has had a hand in helping the non-truth thrive and live, and the internet has been spectacular at that.

Since most persons believe only what their friends tell them, over the media, and since most people have really dumb friends, the internet has enabled untruths to spread their way from continent to continent.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that persons on the internet are free to give their own personal take on things, and for those things to achieve a universal "truth" which did not exist previously on this level.

Let me give an example. I had a family member once go to Israel. And upon returning, she told all the rest of us about her experiences. Of course, since she had actually been in Israel, this made her an "expert" on the conflict there.

One of the days she was there she had a chance to see the border between Israel and Syria, the so-called Golan Heights. Syria, she told us, was a worthless desert. She knew this was true because she had SEEN Syria.

Before the internet, the only people she could pass her ignorance onto was her family. Today, she could tell everyone, from Australia to England. I think this is the reason that there are more "lies" associated with this presidency than any other. Because some of those lies are being made up by people in on-line journalism groups like TownHall, and then spread around by their peers. Ten years ago, before the internet, those lies would have died on the vine--in fact, many of them would never have been printed, simply because far fewer press editors would have spent money printing them. Bullshit editorials proliferate (and not only in blogs) in a way they never have before, because it is cheap to print them.

So while we are patting ourselves on the back for the grapevine we've created, lets remember that the grapes make vinegar as well as wine.

Posted by: Alexis at October 13, 2004 08:58 AM


Thanks, I appreciate your saying so. It's something I truly believe in, so I thought it might come across a little weird.


You're completely right, and I've certainly thought about the downside as well. For instance, the internet, talk radio, and Fox have allowed many Americans to live inside a completely imaginary reality. It's bizarre and frightening to think of what the world looks like from within their heads. (Of course, the picture many people get from the regular corporate media is almost as distorted.)

But this has been the problem as long as people have been inventing better and cheaper ways to communicate. My feeling is that anything that helps people communicate in the end is a huge net positive.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 13, 2004 11:03 AM

"The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them."

what's to be done with the willfully ignorant? I just hope there are less of them than I fear there are.

Thank God for the internet. I don't even want to think about how much worse the current situation would be without it.

If I was still a media student I'd be writing about the Sinclair affair as a great example of the speed and efficacy of cyber-activism and the new grass-roots media. It gives me hope.

Posted by: Gail at October 14, 2004 07:16 AM

Gail, I could argue that, without the internet, it might just be necessary for those people who oppose the war to get out of their chairs, get out on the street, protest bitterly in a place where they cannot be ignored, get arrested, get SEEN and interviewed, and ultimately make an incontravertible point about the need to END this war.

But then, this isn't the internet-free 1970s, is it?

Thank god we can all protest with coffee in our hands and the TV running in the background.

Posted by: Alexis at October 14, 2004 08:44 AM


I'm with Gail. Things would be far, far worse in Iraq without the internet. Consider that the US killed several million people in Vietnam. Nixon considered using nuclear weapons. 55,000 Americans died. But there's no way things will ever get that far in Iraq, as awful as it is. And one of the reasons is definitely how the internet makes communication easier.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 14, 2004 07:43 PM

I take your point Alexis, but I'm not sure they would be out on the street. Maybe they just wouldn't be doing anything. I went to the big anti-war rally here before the war. Every single person I know was against the war but to my disappointment, not a single person I knew went. Luckily 500,000 other Sydneysiders were sufficiently motivated. It wasn't that the rest didn't have an opinion, they were just too apathetic. I do share your frustration. Too many people feel like they can't have an impact so they don't do anything. They see themselves as an insignificant individual in the face of something monolithic. That attitude is so wrong. I think it is like a pointilist painting: Every dot may not seem like much on its own, but each dot is really a significant part of the whole picture.

I think the Internet has a role to play in organising and co-ordinating efforts. People can have a political impact without stepping outside their front door - eg: companies are pulling their ads from Sinclair because of internet co-ordinated efforts. It played a hugely significant role during the RNC in coordinating protestors and providing almost instantaneous feedback the mainstream media couldn't even hope to achieve.The internet enhanced the effectiveness not to mention the coverage of the protestors. If it wasn't for the internet I suspect the mainstream media might have surpressed all mention of it.

Demonstrating on the street might be very frightening to some people in the US in the current climate. The risks are very real. If I was, for instance a single parent I might be circumspect about risking getting arrested and leaving my kid stranded at school with no explanation, or if I was in an insecure job where I might get sacked if I suddenly didn't show etc.

Like Jonathan I'm really grateful that if I want to cut through the mediated interpretations of events(eg)in Iraq I can go to Baghdad Burning, Raed in the Middle, Operation Truth or Fight to Survive. Whilst there is no such thing as a neutral point of view I think you have more chance of getting a human perspective from such sites than from a mass media that is still pretending to be neutral. As long as there is discourse on the internet the truth is much harder to surpress.

Posted by: Gail at October 15, 2004 12:25 AM

Hi Jon -
(this is a personal message)
The entry about the Hersh speech blew my mind, over-full as it is. What a joy to see it comes courtesy of the crazy guy who lived across the hall from me sophomore year. Like to hear from you; I'm married, living in Pittsburgh, and I'll be enjoying your blog from now on.


Posted by: Aaron Datesman at October 15, 2004 01:55 PM

a personal comment -

i've mused on this a bit - a few times i've relied on google's cache of a page to show me what USED to be available, but had been deleted - e.g. the email home from a guy working at abu ghraib prison, which was posted - and then removed - by the radio station he'd worked at before

i wonder if the google guys realize how heavy a responsibility they have - and if they've considered what would be necessary to preserve the accuracy of their records in the face of a determined attempt to alter or destroy them by the "ministry of truth" division of the department of homeland security

maybe i'll write the guys at google a letter about it

with hopes that the creative forces of the universe will stand beside us, and guide us, through the night with the light from above [speaking metaphorically]

Posted by: mistah charley at October 16, 2004 10:09 PM