Constant Information - and Nothing Remembered

Americans are often praised for their resilience in the face of calamity, but there is another quality that seems to be in greater supply these days: willful amnesia. An August Gallup Poll showed that 65 percent of Americans oppose another economic stimulus even though the first one, which was inadequate by most economists' calculations, saved or created roughly 650,000 jobs. A more recent Gallup survey had 45 percent of Americans believing that current government regulation of business and industry was too great - a 10-year high. Never mind that it was the lack of regulation that got us into our current economic predicament. Regulation is so last year. In the ingenious film "Memento,'' the protagonist had lost his capacity to remember anything. It now seems as if we live in a memento nation - a place where we too instantly forget what's happened to us.

It wasn't always this way. When Herbert Hoover and his fellow Republicans dithered while Americans sunk into an economic slough in the early 1930s, they were rewarded with a generation of Democratic hegemony, and Hoover's name was eternally blackened. Similarly, when Lyndon Johnson presided over both domestic racial chaos and a military cataclysm in Vietnam, he was rewarded with the Nixon presidency. Only Watergate spared the Democrats further electoral indignities.

These punishments were not only right; they were essential to the functioning of a democracy because they reinforced accountability. If you screw up, you lose, which is exactly how it should be.

Accountability, however, is predicated on remembering who did the screwing up and what the screwing up was. That's why there's a problem when a society suddenly forgets what failed in the past - say Hoover's unwillingness to stimulate the economy or Bush's unwillingness to police Wall Street. The philosopher George Santayana famously said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We have been living Santayana's dictum.

But if memory loss is the problem, the deeper issue is why we seem to have suddenly lost our memory. In looking for an answer to why we have national amnesia, one might look first to the concept of memory itself. A common memory is the consequence of shared experiences and information. Americans suffered the Great Depression together. They maintained a vivid memory of that pain, a collective memory, from personal experience but also from reading the same newspapers, listening to the same radio programs, watching the same movies. In short, memory was created not only personally but culturally.

Likewise, Americans certainly disagreed about the war in Vietnam, but they watched the same images of the war on television and read the same AP dispatches. We were a nation united by information and memory.

Things have certainly changed, so much so that the United States is something of a misnomer. The institutions that helped forge collective memories have long been in decline. Movies, newspapers, and mass circulation magazines are all gasping. Broadcast television has been usurped by cable television and the Internet, which provide a plethora of images and ideas but which are far more likely to divide us than to unite us, giving us each the images and spin we prefer. Put simply, Americans probably share less now than at any time since the rise of the mass media early in the last century, including shared memories.

What is more, the loss of collective memory has been accelerated by the speed with which we receive information. Both cable news and the Internet place a high premium on "churn'' - on providing a new story or new scoop every few minutes.

Whether this is a function of our own growing impatience or a cause of that impatience is difficult to say, but cable television and the Internet contribute to a national Attention Deficit Disorder. They disrupt continuity, break the chain of cause and effect, detach memory from action, and heighten the moment at the expense of history and the bigger picture that history provides.

In "Memento,'' the hero, unable to remember anything, is compelled to live moment by moment, without the past ever informing the present. The here and now obliterates the there and then.

We operate similarly. We not only live in a society increasingly without memory; we live in a society in which the present is unmoored, making anything that happens right now far more important than anything that has happened before. Hence, if the economy hasn't recovered, it must be President Obama's fault since he is currently president. Or if Congress hasn't enacted health reform yet, it must be the fault of the Democrats since they are the ones in majority, the history of health reform notwithstanding. Or if deficits are growing, it must mean we should stop stimulating the economy since deficits are the issue of the moment. The present moment is everything.

However much this obsession with the here and now destroys accountability, there is an additional danger to a society that lives in the moment. When our actions and opinions are no longer grounded in a larger context, we are also much more susceptible to slogans and cliches that take the place of experience and memory. Government is bad, deficits are bad, military deliberations are bad. If you repeat these mantras endlessly, the memories of government efficacy, productive deficit spending, and the catastrophes of not deliberating over military strategy all disappear. Slogans replace sense.

Santayana probably wouldn't be surprised by a society that hasn't learned from its past. That was, after all, the point of his quotation. But one wonders what he would make of a society that can't even remember its past - a society that thinks every problem suddenly springs up anew and has no memory to tell it how it used to cope. That society is deja vu all over again. And that society is ours.

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