In ancient Rome, when the emperor or an especially distasteful elite died, his image on stone and in bronze was removed. And by decree there arose a damnatio memoriae, a holistic effort to erase away his entire prior existence. When Tiberius got through with the dead Sejanus, few knew that he had ever existed, such were the powers of the Roman state to create alternate realities. Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 explored the communist state’s efforts to airbrush away history. Orwell perhaps was most notably influenced by the removal of Leon Trotsky from the collective Russian memory to the point that he never existed. That force was used in these instances does not mean that something like them could not happen through collective volition; indeed, I think we are starting to see dangerous signs that a sort of groupthink is already beginning.
That Was Then, But This Is What . . . ?
In our own time there are certain growing trends, most of them media-induced, that conspire to rework our collective memory, in pursuit of a supposedly noble and just cause. In the fashion of no other recent figure, President Barack Obama has brought those forces of establishing an official truth to the fore. Last week he lectured the media that things are not just equal with two sides to a story. Instead, they have a responsibility not to fall into the trap of equivalence — the subtext being that he is not subject to the same laws of inquiry as are his earthly opponents.
Suddenly, the Supreme Court is a suspicious organization run by unelected politicos that uses capricious judicial fiat to overturn widely popular laws. The president denigrated it in a State of the Union address and now suggests that such “unelected” jurists (as opposed to electing them?) should act responsibly and thus “must” not find a popularly enacted law unconstitutional.
I am confused: I thought we were supposed to welcome such judicial audit. Was not that the charm of the Warren Court? Did not the Obama administration go to federal court to ask justices to set aside the Defense of Marriage Act that it was entrusted to enforce — seeking judicial help not to follow a law that it chose not to seek to overturn in Congress?
I also thought that a younger Barack Obama once had regretted that the Supreme Court had never addressed “redistributive change” and, per the U.S. Constitution, had confined itself only to defining negative liberties rather than demanding positive “rights” that legislatures were supposed to ensure — or else. And did ObamaCare really pass with broad majorities? I thought that it received no Republican votes in the House and only squeaked by. And it would have been filibustered in the Senate without the Ted Stevens pseudo-scandal and various sweetheart deals to swing senators. Or is that now inaccurate?
Good Little Citizens?
Is public campaign financing good or bad? I thought Obama in 2008 was the first presidential nominee since the law’s inception to have ignored it. But did anyone so note that? What happened to this once hallowed liberal reform? Was it not aimed at stopping the BPs and Goldman Sachses of the world from warping the election process with huge infusions of cash — as in the $1 billion range?
Are the one-percenters suspect and avoiding their fair share, or are they the most generous donors to the Obama campaign? Sometimes one feels bewildered in this now alternative universe: in the evil Bush year 2007, I remember that recess appointments were always to be seen as illegitimate, while filibusters were critical checks on abusive Republican legislative majorities. But then by 2011, the former was now a principled mechanism to sidestep reactionary obstructionism and the latter nihilistic ways of halting needed liberal progress. What happened, or have we lost all ability to remember?
The World Made Anew in 2009
I need to go to a re-education, or perhaps a re-memorization, camp. What happened to “unpatriotic” presidents running up $4 trillion in debt in eight years, or is trumping that in three then patriotic? Was the presidentially appointed Simpson-Bowles commission the proper bipartisan way to address deficits, or were its findings coopted by the one-percenters? In December 2010, I thought suddenly raising taxes was supposedly the wrong thing to do in tough times. Was it not by March 2011?
When did the Catholic Church declare war on women, and at what point in history did condoms or birth control pills became oppressive expenses in need of federal subsidies in a way that, say, iPhones were not? Does the crude smear “slut” by media figures threaten the world of our children or help to raise money to donate to presidential campaigns? What words, what images, what references are taboo, and what are tolerable — and why? Did the president deprecate the working classes of Pennsylvania and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and did he make vague promises to the Russians off mic — or were those just products of our imagination?
At what point did borrowing against our children’s futures become needed “stimulus” and “investments”? Is keeping the federal budget far larger than it was during the Bush years “social Darwinism,” a term that is acceptable political invective in a way “socialism” is not? Where did the adverb “unexpectedly” come from, as in almost all economic news now is “unexpectedly” something: “unexpectedly” high unemployment figures or “unexpectedly” sluggish home sales?
Did unemployment ever really go over 8 percent? I thought that it had and is so now. I remember being told that high gas prices analogous to Europe’s, skyrocketing energy costs, and putting federal oil leases off limits (up to the point of risking $10 a gallon gas) were all our common aspirations to cool the planet, to cut fossil fuel use, and to transition energy management from the oil companies to the more caring government. But now I am told all that was never so: the private sector is to be praised for producing more gas and oil on private lands than ever before; high gas prices are bad; and we certainly don’t want energy costs to skyrocket. But will the 2012 truth soon revert to that of 2000-2011?
Try Harder . . .
Sometimes we try hard, but cannot quite get straight the party communiqués. Supply and demand are irrelevant to gas pricing, we are told, in this age of energy speculation and rising Middle East tensions that warp the market. But why then do we ask the Saudis to put more oil into the global pot and ponder doing the same from our strategic reserve? Is there something called supply and demand at work, as in increasing global supply to lower prices, or at least to suggest there is more supply coming on line? Is Saudi oil and previously pumped oil of better quality than newly pumped oil?
Wind and solar will create “millions of new green jobs.” But when and how so? Government subsidies to insider green companies like Solyndra are to be deemed good, even if they produce little energy; but normal tax breaks for the oil companies are bad when they fuel the entire country. Are there solar panels on Air Force One? Is there a rule that says Solyndra cannot make what Exxon rakes in?
We are supposed to believe that Republicans in the House have done terrible things in stopping the president’s agenda. But I thought that after 2008 there were Democratic majorities in Congress that could do whatever the Democratic president wished? What was not done in 2009 is understandable, but not understandable in 2011?
The masses are told that they will like the new federal takeover of health care. But those who like it the most are to be rewarded for their fealty by being granted exemptions from it? If we write favorably on its behalf, can we too then become exempt from it?
I still don’t know what Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, preventative detention, and the Patriot Act are. One day I heard that they were all both unnecessary and unconstitutional, and then I woke up a bit later and discovered that all were both critical and lawful. When did that happen? At the time when Iraq went from the “worst” (fill in the blanks) to the administration’s “greatest” achievement? When did assassinating Predators go from airborne terror to jokes about some day shooing away suitors from the presidential daughters?
I am still trying to figure out what the one-percenters are. I think they are wealthy people — but not the very wealthy people. Or are they the very wealthy people who accept that higher taxes can either be avoided or won’t substantively affect their sizable portfolios, or feel that they provide necessary psychological inoculation for their mostly segregated and elite lifestyles?
Those who run Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, or those who manage Goldman Sachs, or those who make $20 million a year in Hollywood, or those who administer Harvard and Yale or the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations have always paid their fair share, and thus are not to be fairly dubbed corporate jet owners? Or is it that these very rich, but not to be demonized one-percenters, accept that the 50%-plus of their income given in state and federal taxes was not previously enough, and so they now feel that they must up that amount and thus must pay 50% of the nation’s aggregate federal income tax revenue rather than just the paltry present 37%? Is that the truth? In other words, the good one-percenters de facto agree that they have previously in the Bush years cheated the Treasury under the present income tax code, and really did feel guilty that they had not voluntarily contributed more, but now they agree with Obama that they should be forced to pay more taxes?
I am further confused: did Bill Gates’ extravagant mansion rob the rest of us (how many of us paid too much for Microsoft Word to pay for his indulgent investment?). Does Warren Buffett’s jet mean that the rest of us have less jet fuel as we sit cramped back in the tail section? Why does James Cameron get his own submarine to explore the ocean; could he not instead have cut the ticket price to his movies? Can we all go to Costa del Sol or Martha’s Vineyard; how many cruise missiles paid for that? What are the criteria that suggest some of the above is corporate jet-setting and some is not, when do pigs walk on four and when on two legs?
But this alternate reality is not just political, but also social. This week I read in local papers of a supposed flight from the San Joaquin Valley by the more affluent, either out of state or to the other California that is the coastal corridor from San Francisco to San Diego. The interior we are told is emptying out, keeping unemployment high and housing prices low. But the wire services also assured us that our net population did not dip, given the role of “international arrivals.” So was there an influx from Switzerland or Kenya into California that I was not aware of? Are we back to “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters”?’ Did Major Hasan lose it in a workplace rage?
In the tragic Trayvon Martin case almost everything that I saw or read for nearly two weeks seemed to me not quite true. As the days wore on, why did the narrative keep changing? Trayvon was not any longer the slight, preteen in a football uniform as his most widely disseminated photo suggested; that information matters as much or as little as information that George Zimmerman had a prior run-in or two with the authorities. Martin was not outweighed by his shooter by 100 pounds. He was not a model student; and George Zimmerman probably did not run him down in efforts to execute him. Zimmerman probably did not utter a racial epithet. To the extent that he sounded insensitive, it was largely due to a doctored NBC tape (NBC said that it was an inadvertent error but why did it err to bolster rather than weaken the media narrative? [fake but accurate?]). Zimmerman really did suffer a head injury. The latter was half-Hispanic; but the original white-on-black crime narrative was nevertheless somewhat salvaged with the new rubric “white Hispanic.” I used to think that the idea of re-arresting someone when probable cause is still in doubt was not a compromise solution to finding out the facts.
Putting a bounty on someone’s head is not a crime? Posting a private address to followers for the intent to foment violence against the residents is not either? Nor is doctoring a tape to inflame racial tensions in a period of unrest a terrible thing to do. For congressional representatives to label someone not charged with a crime an assassin or executioner is not considered bad taste and draws little rebuke.
These are the narratives that for purposes of social justice now become reality, but tomorrow, next week, next month, next year?
Who knows? “Truth,” after all, is not the Socratic absolute, but a socially constructed commodity, defined by power and predicated on race, class, and gender, concerns that can be made to serve the greater good, if adjudicated by — well, again, fill in the blanks.