The Political Manipulation of Selective Memory

David Stokes

5/30/2010 12:01:00 AM - David Stokes

Barack Obama recently referred to the time since his election as President of the United States as, “the toughest year and a half since any year and a half since the 1930s.”

Ponder that curious, if not revealing observation for a moment.

The Memorial Day Weekend before us is an annual reminder of sacrifice and service—the kind that makes all the rest possible—from the family gatherings to the very freedoms we cherish. Originally called Decoration Day, it is a time to remember those who have died in our nation’s service—many of them, actually, since the 1930s.

Rush Limbaugh

My father, Dr. Gerald Stokes, now retired and living in Florida, served our nation during the Korean War. He recently wrote some thoughts about remembrance for his local newspaper:

“America must continue to remember if it is to continue to be blessed. Memorial Day must be more then picnics, time off from work, and fireworks. Schools must spend time refreshing the memories of all students of our heritage including those who are currently serving on two foreign fronts, and the Media must put ‘Remembrance’ on the top of the list of articles and stories they print and present. We must remember! We owe it to all who have given their all for the freedoms we enjoy.

At The Korean Memorial in Washington D.C., a Memorial the dedication of which I was please to be present in 1995, being a veteran of that war, has these words engraved above the 53,000 American and 650,000 Koreans and others who died in that horrendous conflict, ‘Freedom is not Free.’ Poignant words, and so true.”

To what my Dad has said I would only add that we not only have a problem with remembering in America these days, but also the tendency toward selective remembrance.

We are constantly reminded these days about remembering the 1930s—that’s the decade that inspires a new generation of ideological technocrats. It was a time of crisis and the danger was met and mastered by reputedly heroic people who offered a New Deal and saved everything. Anything that doesn’t fit neatly into that narrative becomes a nuisance and is ridiculed as mere nonsense.

The past 18 months have been the 1930s all over again—this is what we are being told. The problem is that the facts in no way support the story. Ignored is that fact that the 1930s were much tougher than anything any of us have had to experience recently. To suggest that what we have gone through in the past year and half even rises to such a standard of misery is an insult to the memory of those who endured so much hardship against the backdrop of false political hope, potent demagoguery, and broken promises.

The only way the “this is like that” card can be played is if “this” bears at least some resemblance to “that.” Can anyone seriously suggest that what our nation has been experiencing since around November of 2008 at all compares to bread lines, soup kitchens, unemployment rates fixed for years around 20%, and more than 9,000 banks failing? A little more than 200 banks have failed since the beginning of 2009, a rate on pace to better resemble the situation during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s—when 747 institutions went under—than the tsunami of failures during the 1930s.

The First World War, where so many died, now all-too-forgotten nearly a century later, was originally known as The Great War. Then came another global conflict and soon the idea of calling the forerunner “Great” was dropped. Admittedly, there are a few today, who in the spirit of perpetuating a “crisis mindset” want to refer to our current financial struggles as “The Second Great Depression,” but I have heard no one suggest the dropping of “Great” from the disaster of the 1930s. The Great Depression was a much bigger deal than anything ever since.

Now back to Mr. Obama’s comment about how bad it has been. It is hard to figure out what he was specifically referring to, but let’s give it a try.

First, if by “the toughest year and a half since any year and a half since the 1930s” he means the geopolitical situation, I would encourage him to read any good history of World War Two—or watch the classic World At War videos narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier. All that happened before my time, but it looked pretty bad to me—worse than anything we have seen in the last year and a half.

He should also look at the mess Mr. Truman inherited and what he had to deal with, from the decision to drop the atomic bomb, to the birth of the Cold War, to massive labor unrest, and the need to somehow help defeated nations rebuild. Mr. Obama might also note that the Man from Missouri was virtually incapable of self-pity, even in low moments of cultural ridicule and political renouncement.

Maybe the President was talking about our economic struggles. If so, he might want to place a call to Plains, Georgia and talk to a certain former peanut farmer who happened to preside over an economy where people could only buy gasoline every other day and interest rates were upwards of 18 per cent. Possibly, Mr. Carter could give some advice on how ill-advised it is for a president to complain about how bad he has it—and to make sure his speech writers have the word “malaise” blocked on their grammar-checkers.

Oh—Oh—I’ve got it! Maybe Mr. Obama was talking about the political problems he’s having. Possibly that’s what set him off. The problem with that, though, is that he has had a pretty good run for the past year and a half with a largely complicit and complimentary press. Sure, his approval ratings are down—but not like the last “year and a half” of Harry Truman’s presidency, nor those of Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, not to mention the afore alluded to Jimmy Carter.

And some of his predecessors actually had to serve in the Oval Office with the other party in control of some or all of Congress. Mr. Obama’s bummer of a year and a half has played out with his party in control of virtually everything. In fact, the past year and a half has been one long power play. If his team can’t find the goal while the other team is short-handed, is it really history’s fault?

Or is it just possible that the reason comparisons are made between now and how bad it was in America 80 years ago help to lessen expectations? Well, that has been tried before. And when that president attempted to blame systemic political and administrative failure on this, that, or the other thing, instead of taking responsibility, he found himself a one-term chief executive. And in rode a man on a white horse, someone dismissed by the intelligentsia –a man who knew that what the nation needed was not someone to tell them how bad it was, but how good it could be.

In a way, President Obama’s problem is that he wants to be a charismatic leader—and that, as sociologist Max Weber wrote a century ago, requires the “milieu” of a chronic crisis. Such leaders capture the imagination of many when things are going bad. That’s why they have to keep them going bad—or at least appearing to do so.