Down the Memory Hole
From The New Criterion.
November 30, 2009.
Friar Barnardine: Thou has committed —
Barabas: Fornication: but that was in another country,
And besides, the wench is dead.
— From Marlowe’s Jew of Malta
The most melancholy saying of the late Irving Kristol though probably as true as anything else he said was that, as of the 1990s anyway, the culture war was over and we — meaning conservatives — had lost it. Though not enough to prove him wrong, it was something of an unction to the soul for that still-rankling loss that so few voices outside Hollywood, New York, and the international film fraternity were raised on behalf of Mr Roman Polanski when he was arrested and held for extradition to the U.S. on his arrival in Switzerland to accept a lifetime achievement award. For at least a moment it seemed as if it could be, after all, that the giants of the entertainment business were as out of touch with the rest of America as we vanquished culture-warriors once used to think they were. Now again, for one brief shining moment, liberals and conservatives could feel as one in their revulsion at Mr Polanski’s behavior — the rape of a 13-year-old girl, in case you didn’t know — even if it was 33 years in the past. Maybe especially if. "Could it be," wrote the very liberal Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, "that the conservative culture warriors who portray Hollywood as a cesspool of moral bankruptcy have been right all along?"
Well, no. "Not really," he went on, to no one’s surprise. Yet he was prepared to admit that, "in the case of Roman Polanski, the puritan scolds definitely have a point" — by which he presumably means that what the "puritan scolds" thought was a cesspool was really just a stray turd on the lawn. I am one of those who believe in the "cesspool of moral bankruptcy" but don’t consider myself a puritan scold because such things have always existed. The point about the cesspool for us conservative culture warriors is not any particular instance of wickedness, not even Mr Polanski’s, nor the collective wickedness of the film industry, which has always been that way but used to be able hush up cases involving earlier creative geniuses. Rather, it lies in the absence in certain influential sectors of society, and increasingly in society as a whole, of any sense of shame about that wickedness, which is the precursor to a denial that it is wicked at all.
That’s what was really exercising Mr Robinson and the many, many others who took the opportunity of his arrest to express their disgust with Mr Polanski and with the movie and other "creative" people who signed that now-notorious petition on his behalf. The news in what was otherwise an almost forgotten crime was this absence of shame, and the spirit of indulgence with which those who signed the petition were therefore disposed to regard quite appalling behavior. Could it be that this widespread disgust heralded a cultural change? Once again, I’m afraid that the answer must be no, probably not. More likely, people were just objecting to the sense of entitlement of those who see themselves as "artists," or those who expect there to be one law for celebrities and another for everybody else. But it would be a mistake to see this as a backlash against the celebrity culture. The abuse of celebrity is the other side of the coin of its worship. You can’t have one without the other. The abuse of Mr Polanski sounded to me like a veiled apology for those other celebrities who wished to affirm that there was a limit beyond which they were not prepared to indulge misbehavior.
As it happened, there occurred another incident only a week after the Polanski arrest which demonstrated that that limit was still pretty liberally drawn. The late-night comedian and talk-show host David Letterman had been blackmailed, as he himself told his studio audience and several millions more out in TV-land. Furthermore, he revealed to audience titters, then laughter, then guffaws and applause, he was guilty of that about which he had been blackmailed, which was sleeping with more than one of his female employees. How many more than one he did not choose to reveal. He was quick to pick up on the sympathy he had excited by the frankness of his confession, even rebuking the audience for laughing when he mentioned that he had had to testify before a grand jury "tell them all the creepy things that I have done." He asked: "Well, now why is that funny?" and they laughed even harder and applauded him. It was even more funny to ask why it was funny. Having begun in sombre and almost chastened tones, he was soon making jokes about the whole business — such as that he had thought to give the blackmailer one of those over-sized check that they give to publicize golf tournaments — which he continued to do on subsequent shows.
No one either in the audience or in the commentariat seemed to think this inappropriate, let alone in noisomely bad taste. To have said anything to that effect would have been tantamount to a call for Mr Letterman’s dismissal from his quasi-official post and subsequent ruin. Nobody seemed to want that to happen. What Bill Clinton described as "the politics of personal destruction" should only apply to politicians, it seems, and not to those who routinely lampoon their foibles, sexual and otherwise. Many commentators cited approvingly the remark of Craig Ferguson, another Letterman employee whose talk show follows his on CBS: "If we are now holding late- night talk-show hosts to the same moral accountability as we hold politicians or clergymen, I’m out." Needless to say, nobody wanted him out any more than they did Mr Letterman. Yet this was really just a re-statement of the implicit media standard that there is one rule for celebrities and another for everybody else, or at least everybody else who has a media presence, however obscure. Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post even complained that the media had paid too much attention to David Letterman’s sex scandal and not enough to that of Senator John Ensign of Nevada. There is obviously something about a life of public service, particularly if it is in the Republican interest, that makes a man fair game where highly paid entertainers are a protected species.
Yet conservative complaints about Kevin Jennings, head of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in the Obama administration for advising a 15-year-old boy being victimized by an adult male to practise safe sex remained limited to the right-wing media ghetto. Mr Jennings, who founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, benefitted from the Barney Frank rule that the only homosexual behavior considered scandalous is that of Republicans, like Mark Foley or Larry Craig, or those who advocate "family values." As a heterosexual, however, Roman Polanski may have taken things too far, and it was worth saying so for many in the mainstream media, just to show that their celebrity-worship was not quite uncritical or as out-of-touch with reality as the signers of the pro-Polanski petition.
Not that the latter quite intended an apology for child-rape. Rather, I imagine, these cultural worthies must have been thinking: "Come on! It was the ‘70s!" Here, for instance, was David Gritten in the London Daily Telegraph:
The thought occurs that while Polanski's crime against Samantha Gailey was utterly wrong, the 1970s were a different time, and his behaviour was not aberrant by prevailing entertainment-industry standards. If every member of British rock bands touring America who seduced an underage girl had been arrested, our music industry would have been decimated.
Perish the thought! Not only was it the 1970s, but it was the entertainment industry. Talk about community standards! You’ve got to cut the guy some slack on account of the different world he lived in. Presumably, it’s like blaming the Founding Fathers for owning slaves. Or, as Ricky Gervais, in character as David Brent in the British version of "The Office," once said about British war hero Guy Gibson, who named his black dog after a derogatory term for black people: "It’s not racist. That was before racism was bad."
Of course, I could be wrong. Over the years, I have done lots of things that I have good reason to be sorry for, but oddly few of them in the 1970s, which were the years of my young manhood. Then, when the whole world seemed to be cutting loose, I was living a decent, sober and fairly responsible life. I do sometimes feel a pang of regret for not having sampled more of the devil’s delights when — so I’m told— they were so freely available. Doubtless, this touch of envy colors my sense of what the more adventurous got up to then, and how they must feel about it now. Maybe my sense that they are rather too eager to grant themselves a plenary indulgence for the sex and the drugs and perhaps other things is only the inverse of my wish to have more to forgive myself for. Even if so, however, it seems to me undeniable that our culture’s default setting is one of indulgence for those past sins on which we are all encouraged not to dwell, moving forward.
Cut off from history in almost every other way, we would find it strange indeed if it were only in respect of our past misdeeds that we were unable to put the past behind us. The past misdeeds of others, of course, are another matter. That’s why President Obama’s tendency to apologize for the historical wrongs of which he deems the country he leads to be guilty must be supposed to come not from any real sense of history but from something like its opposite: an urge, not unlike that of Mr Polanski and his defenders, to put the past behind him and forget that it ever happened. By stipulating that some other Americans in the past — and not always in the distant past, if you know what he means — have done things that he, the new president, the change president, is sorry for, he hopes to dissociate himself and the bright hopes he brought with him into office from that now-irrelevant record of shame. He means to wipe the slate clean and start all over, reminding us of the past only in order that it should be forgotten henceforth.
The mental model is a therapeutic one. To heal ourselves of those historical wounds, we have to get away from history and move on with our lives. Roman Polanski and David Letterman must surely know just how he feels. So, of course, do those whose decision to award him the Nobel Peace Prize came as such a shock last month. Mr Obama, said the committee, "has as president created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play." As many others have pointed out, the subtext there was one of congratulations to America for the implied rejection of President George W. Bush and all his works. Derrick Z. Jackson of The Boston Globe added that it was really an award to the American people for putting their racist past behind them by electing Mr Obama in the first place. Either way the achievement being rewarded was not a positive one but the negative one of having disowned, even obliterated, our national past. Like certain evangelical penitents and merry Muslims who can afford hymenoplasties, we are now enjoying our second virginity.
The Nobel committee also showed that this anti-historicism is not unique to the United States, even though we may have pioneered it. The other great international example during the month of October was China, which celebrated the 60th anniversary of its Communist revolution. But what would once have been an affirmation of the nation’s history the Chinese leadership contrived to turn into a denial of same. In Beijing those ordinary citizens that they used to call the "workers" who lived along the line of the parade route were instructed to stay inside, put shutters or shades over their windows and watch it, like everybody else, on television. There was to be no opportunity for the notional celebrators of 60 years of Communism to express any dissent or dissatisfaction with the powers that be. It was just one token of the way in which what was being celebrated had been sanitized and purged of any inconvenient historical memory that the leadership preferred to forget. Even The New York Times headlined that "China Is Wordless on Traumas of Communists’ Rise" — as, for example, on the starvation of the inhabitants of Changchun when it was under siege by Mao’s troops:
The People’s Republic of China basked in its 60th anniversary on Thursday with jaw-dropping pageantry, but there were no solemn pauses for the lives lost during the Communist Party’s rise to power — not for the estimated tens of millions who died during the civil war, nor the millions of landlords, Nationalist sympathizers and other perceived enemies who were eradicated during Mao’s drive to consolidate power. "Changchun was like Hiroshima," wrote Zhang Zhenglu, a lieutenant colonel in the People’s Liberation Army who documented the siege in White Snow, Red Blood, a book that was immediately banned after publication in 1989. "The casualties were about the same. Hiroshima took nine seconds; Changchun took five months." . . .There are no monuments or markers recalling the events that decimated Changchun’s populace. Most young people have no knowledge of the darker aspects of the siege, and the survivors, now in their 70s and 80s, are reluctant to give voice to long-buried trauma. "I’ve always heard that Changchun was captured without bloodshed," Li Jiaqi, a 17-year-old high school student, said as she sat on the steps in front of the city’s Liberation Memorial.
Younger people in China, wrote the British diplomat George Walden in The Sunday Telegraph have no interest in the atrocities of the revolution or the sufferings of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation, and he asks: "Why is the younger generation so disinclined to look back in anger? One reason is that Mao's brutality left China a morally eviscerated nation, which cares for little beyond material wellbeing and success. Young China has never had it so good and is determined to have it better." I guess that, of the ways to be come a morally eviscerated nation, ours is not the worst.
Mr Walden notes that "to say that the Chinese revolution of 1949 has proved a success, or that it was necessary for 70 million people to die to lay the groundwork for later advances, is moral and historical nonsense," but of course no one celebrating the revolution (apart from some of its more credulous Western believers, perhaps) is saying that. The 70 millions have slipped down the memory hole, victimized for a second time by China’s post-modern totalitarianism that can celebrate the past without remembering it. Or rather, remembering only the parts of it that advance the will of the progressives in power who are looking ahead and eager to be getting on with their glorious future. It would be unfair to pursue the comparisons between our political culture and the Chinese too far, but the same impulse towards selective remembrance in President Obama is what the Nobel Committee were celebrating. His powers of forgetting seem at the time of writing to extend to forgetting his own words of a few months past about the conflict in Afghanistan’s being "a necessary war." Something tells me that the Norwegians would be quite happy for him to forget about that too.