COLUMNS Stephen Berk

The United States of Amnesia

Gore Vidal, one of our few remaining public intellectuals, dubbed us the United States of Amnesia because it is as if we have lost our collective memory. Our leaders keep telling us, for example, that we fight our endless foreign wars, presently in oil related regions, to bring democracy to some benighted country, and we keep on believing them. The fact that we prop up some of the most antidemocratic regimes, e.g. Saudi Arabia, makes no difference. We are always for democracy, as we were when we fought Hitler.

The late communications theorist, Neil Postman, pointed out in his landmark Amusing Ourselves to Death, that generations raised since the advent of television in the late 1940s do not receive a coherent view of events or the world as a whole. Generations who grew up staring at the idiot box became used to an absurd juxtaposition of images in a world of: “Now this.” Television news, which became the template for most other formats, consists of unrelated events ripped out of context: a bombing here, a hurricane there, a coup somewhere else, and a celebrity wedding in Hollywood. As is not true in history, nothing, or at least nothing complex, actually causes anything else. Events are all decontextualized. For example, if residents of Gaza are lobbing rockets into Israel, it is simply because they are “terrorists.” The history of Gaza and the Palestinian people’s displacement since 1948 and conditions that make Gaza the world’s largest open air prison camp are thoroughly ignored. In television land, Gaza is simply run by Hamas, and Hamas equals terrorists. This is the kind of oversimplification that constitutes television’s world view.

In television land the picture typically changes every three seconds, “stories” last a minute or two, and a big story may last five to seven, while all the time unrelated juxtaposed stories are continuously interrupted by the overheated chatter of corporate advertizing. This format distorts the way we see the world by destroying all continuity. It makes a jumble of events, bombards us with a welter of images usually attached to “sound bites,” or short catch phrases or epithets. Most people “learn what is happening in the world” from television, that is to say they don’t learn at all. They receive propaganda, an image, a word, a phrase calculated to elicit an emotional response, not a painstaking analysis which would endeavor to dig beneath the surface and look into the causes of a given event. Think of the continuous bombardment of the public’s senses on September 11th and its aftermath with the images of planes hitting the Twin Towers and the sound bites about Osama Bin Laden and “Islamic worldwide terrorism.” They were designed to emblazon a simplistic association on a collective public mind and elicit an emotional response, and with most people, lacking any framework for careful analysis, that is exactly what they achieved.

This brings us to similar media propaganda calculated to confuse the public during a presidential election year. In television induced amnesia, we forget that just four years ago, in the previous presidential election year, gas prices suddenly shot up on their way to five dollars a gallon, just as they are doing now, and that was the last time they did so. But those of us who remember and look deeper see that the fossil fuels industry, which benefits from deregulation and non-competition with alternative clean energies, is trying to lay the blame for a new round of soaring fuel costs on a Democratic president, whose patrons do not smell quite as oily as do those of the Republicans. The narrative they want you to believe is that Obama’s sensitivity to environmental criticism of, for example, the XL Pipeline, is making us more dependent on an unstable Middle East. Never mind that large commodities traders can spark increased speculation in oil, which drives the price up at the pump. But John Q. Public thinks, “Damned Obama and his environmentalist Democrats. If they’d stop holding up the pipeline and let them drill, drill, drill, we’d be fine.” Television never tells him that fossil fuels cause Chicago to be eighty degrees in March and kill the oceans by loading them with carbonic acid.

By Stephen Berk

Steve is a retired history professor from California State University at Long Beach. He's currently on the board of directors of Clatsop Community College, and teaches classes in the ENCORE program. He's written extensively on social, political and religious issues, and has been writing a column in HIPFiSHmonthly for over 5 years.