The funniest, truest thing I’ve read about what’s going on in the United States these days was written by David Brooks in a recent New York Times column: “Those who ignore history are condemned to retweet it.”
He was referring, of course, to President Donald Trump, whose knowledge of history, even of American history, would be an embarrassment in a junior high classroom, and who can say everything he knows on most subjects in no more than 140 characters.
But in this, Trump is just being Trump. Everything he does is on an outrageous scale, so it only makes sense that his ignorance, like his ego and his self-delusion, would be monumental.
He is the exemplar of the amnesiac American, the embodiment of the dismissive idea that everything that happened before last week is “history,” meaning irrelevant, meaningless, out of sight and out of mind.
I thought of that last week when I came across an account of America’s napalming and carpet-bombing of North Korea in the early 1950s. Blaine Harden, writing in the Washington Post in 2015, was attempting to explain why North Korea’s leaders, for all their manifest crimes and gangsterism, are not simply “nuts.”
Yes, they teach North Koreans to hate and fear the United States, drumming it into their heads on a daily basis. But there is a hard kernel of truth at the bottom of the message. As Harden writes:
“The bombing was long, leisurely and merciless, even by the assessment of America’s own leaders. ‘Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—20 percent of the population,’ Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, told the Office of Air Force History in 1984. Dean Rusk, a supporter of the war and later secretary of state, said the United States bombed ‘everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.’ After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops.”
Those civilian deaths were hardly reported on at the time and rarely have been mentioned since, Harden says, calling the carpet-bombing “perhaps the most forgotten part of a forgotten war.”
I thought of our selective amnesia again as I was reading some essays by Eduardo Galeano, the late Uruguayan writer whose best-known book in these parts is probably “Soccer in Sun and Shadow.”
The essay that got me thinking was “The Civilization of Black Gold,” written in 1971 about Venezuela, which Galeano called “one of the richest countries on the planet” and also “one of the poorest and the most violent.” Why? Because as in so many parts of the world, nearly all the money that flowed in from Venezuela’s bottomless reserves of oil went to a privileged minority in the capital, Caracas, and to their foreign overlords.
“No city in Venezuela has generated so much wealth as Cabimas,” Galeano wrote. “But Cabimas doesn’t even have sewers, only a couple of paved streets. Cabimas is a vast swamp filled with big-bellied barefoot kids. After squeezing Cabimas for half a century, Rockefeller abandoned it and even had the company buildings razed. … The story of Cabimas is that of many other oil towns, and it presages the future of all the others, miserable, dark, shining with oil, bound to die.”
And yet when did the American government, and the American media, suddenly develop an all-consuming interest in the affairs of Venezuela? When its people elected Huge Chavez as president in 1998.
Chavez was a socialist and a populist who lavished oil revenues on social programs and subsidized goods for the poor. It was misguided, at least in its extravagance, and it was unsustainable, but the piracy of generations of Venezuelan leaders before Chavez was also misguided, unsustainable and immoral as well.
It just wasn’t newsworthy, as long as the dictators kept the Rockefellers—and by extension the American government and the American media—happy.
Trump’s ignorance of history seems as genuine as it is blithe. He doesn’t know because he doesn’t care. What excuse do the rest of us have?
As Harden also said in his piece about North Korea, the United States, which likes to claim “the democratic high ground,” can “sometimes be shockingly incurious and self-absorbed. In the case of the bombing of North Korea, its people never really became conscious of a major war crime committed in their name.”
“Paying attention in a democracy is a moral obligation,” he said. “It is also a way to avoid repeating immoral mistakes.”