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Strangers in a Stranger Land


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?