Belmont Club

Room 404

“The right to be forgotten,” according to Wikipedia, “is a concept … discussed and put into practice in the European Union (EU) and Argentina … from the desires of some individuals to ‘determine the development of his life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past’ … to the status of an international human right in respect to access to information.”

It asserts we have a right not to be inconvenienced by the past. Classifying the “right to be forgotten” as “access to information” is somewhat misleading, though. Unlike privacy which is an ‘access denied’ message the right to be truly forgotten is an edit of the past. It’s conceptually a delete operation.

After a video clip showing economist Jonathan Gruber describing the passage of Obamacare as based intentional deceit went viral, the University of Pennsylvania deleted it. The Daily Caller writes,

Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber had said at the University of Pennsylvania’s 24th Annual Health Economics Conference that it was a good thing that Americans never realized what was in the Affordable Care Act, because “the stupidity of the American voter” would have otherwise killed the law.

But for unexplained reasons, the University of Pennsylvania has pulled its video of the event, which took place in October of 2013. ”This video has been removed by the user,” a message now reads. “Sorry about that.” The video is still embedded on the conference page, but playing the video gives a similar error message.

One person who was angry to hear of the apparent cover-up was Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle. “This is pretty shocking behavior by my alma mater,” she tweeted, “Why would @Penn pull down a public video that has political implications?”

Gruber’s message was unflattering. Avik Roy at Forbes writes: “Gruber made an argument that many of Obamacare’s critics have long made, including me. It’s that the law’s complex system of insurance regulation is a way of concealing from voters what Obamacare really is: a huge redistribution of wealth from the young and healthy to the old and unhealthy. In the video, Gruber points out that if Democrats had been honest about these facts, and that the law’s individual mandate is in effect a major tax hike, Obamacare would never have passed Congress.”

But since Obamacare is ‘progressive’ can’t we make the ugly past go away?  Obamacare’s proponents believe it was intended in virtue, however much it was conceived in sin. Or as Gruber put it: “Look, I wish Mark was right that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.”  To argue  we have no right to know what Gruber said in Penn State seminars is to assert privacy. But that is not the same as asserting  Gruber said nothing. When Sheryl Attkisson says that “CBS News bosses purposely hid a clip of President Obama refusing to call the Benghazi attacks an act of terrorism in order to help him get re-elected” that’s not protecting classified information; that’s a delete operation.

How can we be free of the past? One line of thought says that we can’t. For example, at Smith College, prominent alumna “Wendy Kaminer—an author, lawyer, social critic, feminist, First Amendment near-absolutist and former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union” was invited to discourse on free speech.  While discoursing she said something which offended some listeners.

The panel started innocuously enough with Ms. Kaminer criticizing the proliferation of campus speech codes that restrict supposedly offensive language. She urged the audience to defend the free exchange of ideas over parochial notions of “civility.” In response to a question about teaching materials that contain “hate speech,” she raised the example of Mark Twain ’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” arguing that students should take it as a whole. The student member of the panel, Jaime Estrada, resisted that notion, saying, “But it has the n-word, and some people are sensitive to that.”

Ms. Kaminer responded: “Well let’s talk about n-words. Let’s talk about the growing lexicon of words that can only be known by their initials. I mean, when I say, ‘n-word’ or when Jaime says ‘n-word,’ what word do you all hear in your head? You hear the word . . . ”

And then Ms. Kaminer crossed the Rubicon of political correctness and uttered the forbidden word, observing that having uttered it, “nothing horrible happened.”

“Nothing horrible happened,” except that someone taped her saying  the deplorable word, which was then posted with this “trigger warning”.

Trigger/Content Warnings: Racism/racial slurs, abelist slurs, anti-Semitic language, anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language, anti-immigrant language, sexist/misogynistic slurs, references to race-based violence.

So here’s the problem: does Gruber have the “right to be forgotten”? If so, does Kaminer have the same right? Or would we rather remember the truth, however unpleasant it might be?

My own thinking has been influenced by Ray Bradbury’s Sound of Thunder. He argued that it’s dangerous to tamper with the past. In his story travelers go back to hunt a T-rex 65 million years ago. They are strictly enjoined not to touch anything but the target animal, who must be shot at the exact moment when some mischance had ordained its death.

“And that,” he said, “is the Path, laid by Time Safari for your use,

It floats six inches above the earth. Doesn’t touch so much as one grass blade, flower, or tree. It’s an anti-gravity metal. Its purpose is to keep you from touching this world of the past in any way. Stay on the Path. Don’t go off it. I repeat. Don’t go off. For any reason! If you fall off, there’s a penalty. And don’t shoot any animal we don’t okay.”

“Why?” asked Eckels.

They sat in the ancient wilderness. Far birds’ cries blew on a wind, and the smell of tar and an old salt sea, moist grasses, and flowers the color of blood.

“We don’t want to change the Future. We don’t belong here in the Past. The government doesn’t like us here. We have to pay big graft to keep our franchise. A Time Machine is finicky business. Not knowing it, we might kill an important animal, a small bird, a roach, a flower even, thus destroying an important link in a growing species.”

“That’s not clear,” said Eckels.

“All right,” Travis continued, “say we accidentally kill one mouse here. That means all the future families of this one particular mouse are destroyed, right?”


“And all the families of the families of the families of that one mouse! With a stamp of your foot, you annihilate first one, then a dozen, then a thousand, a million, a billion possible mice!”

“So they’re dead,” said Eckels. “So what?”

“So what?” Travis snorted quietly. “Well, what about the foxes that’ll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the caveman starves. And the caveman, please note, is not just any expendable man, no! He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life. It is comparable to slaying some of Adam’s grandchildren. The stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our earth and destinies down through Time, to their very foundations. With the death of that one caveman, a billion others yet unborn are throttled in the womb. Perhaps Rome never rises on its seven hills. Perhaps Europe is forever a dark forest, and only Asia waxes healthy and teeming. Step on a mouse and you crush the Pyramids. Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity. Queen Elizabeth might never be born, Washington might not cross the Delaware, there might never be a United States at all. So be careful. Stay on the Path. Never step off!”

The alternative to Bradbury’s view is that the past is infinitely malleable, that we can alter it to our advantage; and the proper task of the media and historians is actually to make the past consistent with the current narrative. “The concept was first popularized by George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the Party’s Ministry of Truth systematically re-created all potential historical documents, in effect, re-writing all of history to match the often-changing state propaganda. These changes were complete and undetectable.”

In the novel, the memory hole is a slot into which government officials deposit politically inconvenient documents and records to be destroyed. Nineteen Eighty-Four ’​s protagonist Winston Smith, who works in the Ministry of Truth, is routinely assigned the task of revising old newspaper articles in order to serve the propaganda interests of the government. For example, Smith may be called to retroactively change a statement about food rationing to reflect new policies.

The memory hole is referenced while O’Brien tortures Smith; O’Brien produces evidence of a coverup by the Party, exciting Smith that such documentation exists. However, O’Brien then destroys the evidence in the memory hole and denies not only the existence of the evidence but also any memory of his actions. Smith realizes that this is doublethink in action, as O’Brien has actively suppressed his memory of both a politically inconvenient fact and his action taken to destroy the evidence of it.

But Orwell might have been wrong to think that changes to the past could be complete and undetectable.  Think about why altering the past is potentially dangerous. In a database  the ‘delete’ operation is logged. The fact of an erase is recorded, as was its creation. By playing the log backward we can recover the former value of the record before it was erased. But to completely erase all traces of the erasure, we have to trash the log itself. We must erase the record of the erasure.

This creates an interesting situation. “Memoryless systems do not depend on any past input. In common usage memoryless systems are also independent of future inputs.”  A truly memoryless system is not only incapable of remembering, it is also incapable of anticipating.

Anticipation requires memory because it requires recognizing an opportunity or danger based on experience.  But in a perfect 1984, history and therefore experience,  cannot exist because the past is entirely synthetic,  dependent on the current narrative. But absolute forgetfulness  is impossible because continuous operation depends at least on the recollection of the process of revision. The Memory Hole and the knowledge of the Memory Hole can never be deleted.  It must remain in memory for the editing to keep going. Something remains, even in the most perfect of Orwellian dictatorships.

The biggest danger the Narrative and its Memory Holes pose is to the intellectual elite itself. A system with no knowledge of the past, or a corrupted one, has no power of anticipation.  It is capable of ‘explaining’, but it is not capable of learning. We can change Orwell’s famous dictum to this. “He who controls the past cannot anticipate the future. He who believes he controls the present is just kidding himself.”

The Memory Hole is fatal to its users in the long run.  They’ve just forgotten that it’s so.

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