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You Can Look It Up

Memory must not die or we will. Even the artists in the Lascaux Caves knew that.


Frederik L. Rusch

“My problem is not whom to play, but to remember the names of all my guys so I can tell the right ones to go In there.”

"You can look it up."

Casey Stengel

Recently I visited an elderly former colleague. Because of her dementia, she wandered in and out of memory. At first she recognized me, but quickly confused me with another colleague. She would slip in and out of lucidity, often repeating verbatim what she had said just moments earlier. Without coherent memory, or without any memory at all, it was impossible to have a logical conversation with her. We could not move forward in our discussion in any linear way. Without her personal memories of me and our mutual experiences we were at a conversational dead end.

The development of personal dementia is largely out of our control, but as a people, as citizens of our country and our world, how we use our history, how we remember it, and what we do with it is in our control. It is memory—individual and collective—that defines and characterizes civilizations. Nothing springs full blown. J.S. Bach could not have written the B Minor Mass without knowledge of the music composed before him; likewise, his music has influenced countless composers after him. Without our understanding of natural selection and evolution, we would not have modern antibiotics and vaccines. The structure of our present American government would not exist without knowledge of ancient Greek civilization, the Magna Carta, and the Enlightenment. This is self-evident.

Why then, do we have a president who refuses to acknowledge and account for our recent past? Why do we have a president who in a February 9, 2009, press conference, answering a question about possible prosecution of the misdeeds of the Bush administration, President Obama said:

My view is . . . that nobody's above the law and, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen. But that, generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards. I want to pull everybody together, including, by the way, the -- all the members of the intelligence community who have done things the right way and have been working hard to protect America and I think sometimes are painted with a broad brush without adequate information.

And so it continues to be. No investigation or prosecution of officials connected to war crimes post 9/11 and the Iraq war, torture and lying; no prosecutions of crimes committed by the heads of the large banks that plunged us into the Great Recession. In Obama’s logic there are no crimes since all crimes occur in the past, and we should not look at the past, only look forward. Throw out the prosecutors, destroy the courts: they are no longer needed. Destroy the past, destroy memory; both are useless. Move only forward. There is no history. We are a tabula rasa.

Without memory it is easy to manipulate the population. It is easy to scold anybody who wants an equitable distribution of wealth in the United States for advocating forbidden class warfare, when, in fact, our government was established on the class system with the wealthy and landed the favored class and the slaves the least favored. Was not our Constitution class warfare writ large?

It is easy to warn against reestablishing a “economy destroying” progressive income tax system when nobody knows that in the 1950s the wealthiest Americans were taxed as high as ninety percent on their incomes, and they lived very well and the economy did not collapse.

It is easy to bash, denounce, and destroy unions when nobody knows it was unions who won a decent living for the majority of middleclass citizens, be they union members or not.

It is easy to belittle welfare payments and food stamps as unaffordable government handouts when nobody knows that the big energy and big farm industry receive large government subsidies.

It is easy to proclaim that Big Government is broke because the federal block grant for childcare in 2012 was ten billion dollars when you do not know that the budget for the Defense Department in 2012 was 553 billion dollars.

Like Oedipus, President Obama is reluctant to look into the past. Why dwell on the unpleasant? But Oedipus did examine the past. He felt compelled to lift the curse upon his land. Nations are doomed like the great Greek families of mythology until they discover and purge themselves of their historical crimes. It will only get worse. Memory must not die or we will. Even the artists in the Lascaux Caves knew that.

“You can look it up.”

Frederik L. Rusch attributes a memory that rivals Funes the Memorius to his off-line living habits

Copyright © Frederik L. Rusch. All rights reserved.