Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sunday Reading

The Tricks of Memory — Charlie Pierce on forgetting our past at the peril of our future.

… The 2016 presidential campaign—and the success of Donald Trump on the Republican side—has been a triumph of how easily memory can lose the struggle against forgetting and, therefore, how easily society can lose the struggle against power. There is so much that we have forgotten in this country. We’ve forgotten, over and over again, how easily we can be stampeded into action that is contrary to the national interest and to our own individual self-interest. We have forgotten McCarthy and Nixon. We have forgotten how easily we can be lied to. We have forgotten the U-2 incident and the Bay of Pigs and the sale of missiles to the mullahs. And along comes someone like Trump, and he tells us that forgetting is our actual power and that memory is the enemy.

The first decade of the twenty-first century gave us a great deal to forget. It began with an extended mess of a presidential election that ended with the unprecedented interference of a politicized Supreme Court. It was marked early on by an unthinkable attack on the American mainland. At this point, we forgot everything we already knew. We knew from our long involvement in the Middle East where the sources of the rage were. We forgot. We knew from Vietnam the perils of involving the country in a land war in Asia. We forgot. We knew from Nuremberg and from Tokyo what were war crimes and what were not. We forgot that we had virtually invented the concept of a war crime. We forgot. In all cases, we forgot because we chose to forget. We chose to believe that forgetting gave us real power and that memory made us weak. We even forgot how well we knew that was a lie.


A country that remembers, a country with an empowered memory that acts as a check on the dangerous excesses of power itself, does not produce a Donald Trump. It was the very first Republican president who said the most memorable thing about memory, and its mystic chords, and how he hoped, one day, those chords once again would be touched by the better angels of our nature. That was Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. By the time he came to deliver his second, in which he appealed to the country to remember how it had torn itself apart, six hundred thousand Americans had slaughtered one another in a war that was only then beginning to come to an end:

Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

Remember, this passage said to the people of a tattered and bleeding nation. Bind up the wounds. Take care of him who has borne the battle, and his widow and orphan, too. Achieve a just and lasting peace between yourselves and all nations. But first, remember how this misery came to pass. Remember what we are capable of doing to one another if we lose faith in every institution of self-government, especially those into which we are supposed to channel our passions to constructive purpose. Remember, Lincoln said in this speech, which was his last warning to the nation he’d preserved. Remember that we can be killers. Remember that, and you can be strong and powerful enough to not allow it to happen again.

The late historian Michael Kammen likened even the newest Americans to Fortinbras in Hamlet, who declares that he has “some rights of memory in this kingdom.” Even the immigrants most lately arrived can, Kammen argued, “have an imaginative and meaningful relationship to the determinative aspects of American history.” In the campaign now ongoing, we see successful candidates running against the very notion of what Kammen was talking about. When Trump chants his mantra—”Make America Great Again”—the rest of the slogan is unsaid but obvious. The implied conclusion is “…Before All of Them Wrecked It.” And that is what has been selling, all year long, because while the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, there is no guarantee that either struggle will end in triumph.

The Remains of Chernobyl — Alex Wellerstein in The New Yorker on the aftermath of the explosion at the nuclear power plant thirty years ago.

… For many people in the West, Chernobyl has served as a kind of referendum on nuclear power. Those who oppose it see the disaster as the ultimate embodiment of industrial folly. They point to evidence, extremely difficult to confirm, of increased rates of cancer and birth defects in the region around the plant. Those who support nuclear power, meanwhile—a slight majority of Americans today—argue for better and safer reactors and more competent operators. But Chernobyl has also had a strong and lingering political legacy. The Soviet state shared no small part of the blame for the accident, yet even in the era of glasnost it was unwilling to admit it. (Outside the U.S.S.R., the first indication that something was amiss at the plant came not from Soviet authorities, who initially kept quiet, but from a nuclear-power station in Sweden, where fallout, carried by the wind and tracked in on an employee’s shoes, set off the alarm during a routine screening for radioactivity.) To condemn the design of the RBMK-1000, much less nuclear technology itself, was to criticize Soviet know-how and jeopardize other economically necessary reactors of the same type. Human error was the only politically viable explanation. In the spring of 1987, Chernobyl’s operators and engineers were subject to what the historian Sonja D. Schmid has called “perhaps the last show trial of the Soviet era.” Not surprisingly, they were convicted.

There was the battle against the fire, and then there was the battle over its political meaning. Today, there is the battle of memory. The Internet is replete with videos of disaster tourists visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, sometimes with Geiger counters. Poke around in the bushes or buildings and you can sometimes find something “hot”—a rubber boot or glove, a piece of misshapen graphite. Stories abound of wild animals retaking the zone, and haunting photographs of the abandoned town of Pripyat—especially of the ruins of its carnival grounds—are now a staple of social media. (A friend of mine who visited Chernobyl not long ago noted that there was a suspicious overabundance of gas masks and creepy dolls in the town’s most cinematic locations.) But it is a mistake to assume, amid the Cold War nostalgia and post-apocalyptic romance, that Chernobyl was ever really relinquished. The undamaged portions of the plant were in operation until 2000, run by workers who were paid triple their normal wages. There are even some people—mostly elderly—who have, illegally and unadvisedly, returned to their homes nearby, sometimes eating crops grown in the contaminated soil. The acute radioactivity, the sort that can induce radiation sickness and kill people quickly, has largely decayed. The lingering fallout poses a long-term threat to anyone who inhabits the area, but if these people are old to begin with, and small in number, they are likelier to die of other causes.

The late sociologist Ulrich Beck wrote that risk can help human societies rediscover the importance of collective action and responsibility. But risk is a tricky thing to wrap one’s head around, especially once the fires have gone out. Does Chernobyl indict an entire industry, or does it show that, even at its worst, it isn’t that bad? The truth seems to be somewhere in the middle. Chernobyl was a disaster, but it was not the apocalypse. It was a highly specific event—specific to the reactor and to the Soviet state that it was conceived in. But it should give us pause to reflect generally on the high costs of technological mismanagement and deferred maintenance. It is easy to dismiss a few thousand extra cancers, out of the hundreds of thousands of cancers caused by other sources, when they are not in the bodies of our loved ones; it is easy to say that the Exclusion Zone is relatively small when it is on the other side of the world. These battles of Chernobyl are still being waged, but there may be no winners in the war.

Walt Whitman, Wellness Guru — Jennifer Schuessler notes that the poet was a health nut.

In 1858, when Walt Whitman sat down to write a manifesto on healthy living, he came up with advice that might not seem out of place in an infomercial today.

“Let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclusion of all else,” Whitman wrote, sounding more than a little paleo.

As for the feet, he recommended that the comfortable shoes “now specially worn by base-ball players” — sneakers, if you will — be “introduced for general use,” and he offered warnings about the dangers of inactivity that could have been issued from a 19th-century standing desk.

“To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice,” he declared. “Up!”

Whitman’s words, part of a nearly 47,000-word journalistic series called “Manly Health and Training,” were lost for more than 150 years, buried in an obscure newspaper that survived only in a handful of libraries. The series was uncovered last summer by a graduate student, who came across a fleeting reference to it in a digitized newspaper database and then tracked down the full text on microfilm.

Now, Whitman’s self-help-guide-meets-democratic-manifesto is being published online in its entirety by a scholarly journal, in what some experts are calling the biggest new Whitman discovery in decades.

“This is really a complete new work by Whitman,” said David S. Reynolds, the author of “Walt Whitman’s America” and a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who was not involved with the find.

“These are the most interesting and mysterious years in Whitman’s biography, and now we have this major journalistic series right in the middle of it,” said Ed Folsom, the editor of The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, the online journal that is publishing the series in its spring issue.

“One of Whitman’s core beliefs was that the body was the basis of democracy,” Mr. Folsom, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, continued. “The series is a hymn to the male body, as well as a guide to taking care of what he saw as the most vital unit of democratic living.”

Doonesbury — Updating.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. Charlie Pierce should have a Pulitzer Prize, nay, several of them in various categories. The shame is that he has to file his wisdom and rock solid prose in a girlie mag.

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