“We are the United States of Amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing.”
Gore Vidal was one of the most prominent American dissidents of the 20th century, and one of the most influential voices speaking out against imperialism and injustice.
Although his most prolific writing came in the realm of historical fiction, his essays and published conversations on the subject of politics and foreign affairs are always a fascinating and infuriating read.
To those unfamiliar with his views, Vidal may appear overly cynical; he certainly did to me when I first began reading his work and watching his interviews and lectures.
But as time went on, I began to realize that his cynicism, and his disdain for the direction in which our government is taking us, is completely justified.
Corruption is a factor that every country must contend with, but it appears that, in the United States, corruption has become normalized. As war is waged endlessly, civil liberties are quietly stripped away under the guise of national security, politicians are bought, and the people, who are supposedly living in a democratic society, are dismissed.
Vidal’s thesis in many contexts is the one laid out in the quote at the top: “We are the United States of Amnesia.” We have made many of these mistakes before, but we fail to correct them because we fail to remember that we made them in the first place.
In the words of President Barack Obama himself, we are a nation that “looks forward, not backward.”
This quote is referring to the fact that we have “tortured some folks” during our “war on terror,” and President Obama is refusing to investigate the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity under the guise of progressive thinking.
But this is not progressive thinking. It is a guarantee of amnesia, a way to make the public look forward and forget the crimes and corruptions of the past.
We need more voices like Gore Vidal, who will stand up and ridicule what deserves to be ridiculed, remember what must be remembered, and who will call a spade a spade, minus the cute political jargon and slimy apologetics.
Vidal’s caustic wit was uncomfortable and unsettling, but it is necessary if we wish to understand the less desirable facts about the United States, and indeed the world at large.
Fundraising is the name of the game in today’s race for political office.
Instead of being pressured to express coherent views on current issues, and to propose possible solutions to the slew of problems we face, potential representatives spend a significant portion of their time raising money for their campaign, both from the people and from major corporations.
And, here comes a shocker, the corporations which donate lofty sums to the candidate of their choosing aren’t merely doing so out of the kindness of their hearts; they want something in return.
Thus, it follows that whoever donates the most money is going to have the most influence. The constituency’s views are important only if they align with corporate interests, at this point.
“Every four years the naive half who vote are encouraged to believe that if we can elect a really nice man or woman President everything will be all right.
But it won’t be.
Any individual who is able to raise $25 million to be considered presidential is not going to be much use to the people at large.
He will represent oil, or aerospace, or banking, or whatever moneyed entities are paying for him.
Certainly he will never represent the people of the country, and they know it. Hence, the sense of despair throughout the land as incomes fall, businesses fail and there is no redress.”
When writing about the corruptions of politicians, Vidal also alludes to the political language discussed at length by George Orwell:
“As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests.”
Language certainly can be used to deceive and corrupt; and today, in the age of mass media and abundant information, politicians are using language to deceive in a way that is far more subtle than the propaganda of the past, but they still must depend upon deception to advance their agendas.
This sounds like conspiro-babble to your average Fox News devotee, but anyone who takes the time to compare the words of politicians to their actions, the result never quite seems to add up.
Needless to say, Vidal wasn’t Ronald Reagan’s biggest fan. He called him “the best cue card reader they could find” and he felt that he would serve as the model for presidents to come.
The issues no longer matter; the president must be presentable with a powerful and entertaining voice. That is a grim look into the future of America’s hollow government.
“The American press exists for one purpose only, and that is to convince Americans that they are living in the greatest and most envied country in the history of the world.
The Press tells the American people how awful every other country is and how wonderful the United States is and how evil communism is and how happy they should be to have freedom to buy seven different sorts of detergent.”
American exceptionalism is a form of “self-congratulation,” said late historian and activist, Howard Zinn.
The mainstream media eagerly points out the flaws in the actions and policies of other countries, but very rarely does it turn this critical examination upon itself. If it did, it would certainly find a lot to examine. As a result, the American people know very little about America’s involvement in brutal atrocities throughout history, its cute little habit of overthrowing governments that dare to disobey daddy’s orders, and its strange love of dictators and authoritarian regimes which commit horrifying human rights violations on a daily basis.
And the media calls this “fighting for freedom and democracy.” Power always attributes to itself noble intent.
Barack Obama said something interesting at a news conference in 2009, when a reporter asked him about American exceptionalism:
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Strangely candid, but, of course, he went on to proclaim that he was proud of America’s role in the history of the world.
I find it difficult, as an American, to be “proud” of the country that I was born into by complete accident, and more importantly, I find it reprehensible that some use this pride to justify heinous acts of force and violence around the world, as today’s neoconservatives do.
American exceptionalism, particularly the brand pushed by the media, seems almost like a religious faith, a belief that America is divinely ordained, thus making all of its actions just and noble by definition. This, in turn, leads us to dismiss all valid criticism of America, from within and from without, as anti-Americanism.
Yes, there are a lot of great aspects of America. The Constitution is outstanding; if only our leaders would adhere to its mandates. Our military is incredibly powerful; and we spend more on “defense” than the next eight highest-spending countries combined.
I’m being a bit facetious. As a whole, though, I think American exceptionalism as an ideal can be a good thing, it can give people hope and meaning, but it can also be a horribly destructive idea that justifies atrocities, torture, drone strikes, and unfettered military force.
“The War on Terror”
“Little Bush says we are at war, but we are not at war because to be at war Congress has to vote for it. He says we are at war on terror, but that is a metaphor, though I doubt if he knows what that means. It’s like having a war on dandruff, it’s endless and pointless.”
Noam Chomsky has said on multiple occasions that the U.S. government “has done exactly what Osama bin Laden wanted it to do: Dig into a series of expensive and bloody wars in Muslim countries, draining the American economy and causing many civilian casualties.”
As this war on terror, which Vidal dismissed as a metaphor, rages on, the United States’ economy becomes more and more depleted, citizens become more and more discontented, and America is increasingly seen as a force for evil, rather than peace, around the world, due in large part to ramped up drone programs which are being used to target “key targets,” but which more often than not kill innocent civilians as well.
The tragedies of 9/11 will always linger in the minds of every American alive to witness them, and no one wants to experience another devastating attack.
But, as Vidal and many others have argued, the events of 9/11 fit the agenda of Bush Jr. and his neoconservative war-hawk allies perfectly. Out of every disaster comes opportunity, right?:
“It was ready-made for them to call an emergency and pretend it was war-time, you know, the war on terrorism is a metaphor, and terrorism is an abstract noun…It isn’t war, it’s just a slogan.
But using the slogan they got through the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which removes many of our liberties.”
And, finally, Vidal took a resentful jab at those who remain quiet while these acts of corruption, violence, and greed are taking place. Even worse, then, are those who work tirelessly defend and justify these actions.
“Nobody made a sound when we lost Habeus Corpus—due process of law—and suddenly Bush managed to get rid of it. Where was a voice on television, aside from mine, that spoke out against this?
Where were all those noble jurists, those great lawyers, those lovers of liberty, where the hell were they? They were nowhere!”