"History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today." –Henry Ford, 1916
Aldous Huxley mocked the quote above in Brave New World, and it has come in for a fair amount of ridicule in many quarters. But, in the century since Ford made his pronouncement, our culture has largely agreed with him. We think our situation is unprecedented and that the future will be even more unprecedented. According to the myth of Progress, Technology has freed us from the earthly concerns that complicated and, usually, immiserated our ancestors’ lives. We have, in effect, slipped the surly bonds of History and are on our way to touch the face of God.
This may be why history is possibly the most neglected subject in our schools, which is saying something, given their overall piss-poor state. But this historical blindness also serves the interests of Empire. We don’t want our children to know how we really came by all this wealth and power. In most cases, we don’t even want to know ourselves. Such inconsequential matters are best left in the Dustbin of History. We’d rather believe that our good fortune is the result of our predecessors’ heroism.
But, as the Empire declines, the level of self-delusion and ignorance required to preserve this fiction grows. For instance, during the Cold War, the U.S. was able to control the Middle East’s oil through client regimes: the Shah in Iran, Egypt’s military dictatorship and the Saudi royal family. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’ve needed direct military intervention to keep a firm grip on the region, with rapidly diminishing returns and growing blowback. It’s more difficult to maintain the facade of imperial benevolence at home when Americans are killing and dying abroad in conflicts that have an increasingly tenuous connection to national security.
Another factor is the continuing impoverishment of the American middle and working classes. Our loyalty to the imperial project has essentially been bought with its proceeds, but now more of that wealth is being diverted to the rich. As our share in the imperial bonanza shrinks, we’re less willing to go along with the program and more willing to see the evil in it. We, the “internal proletariat,” see our own circumstances reflected in the plight of the “external proletariat,” those who have been exploited for our enrichment. Throughout history, these groups have made common cause to topple empires and will likely do so again to bring down the U.S. version.
But good luck finding anyone in power aware of this probability. The Memory Hole is now so big in elite American circles that it threatens to swallow our past whole. Each day’s newspaper is printed on a blank canvas, nearly free of context, as if the world were born yesterday. The media strip our world of its historical baggage, erasing imperial crimes and restoring the Empire to a state of Edenic grace. There is some history, but it has been refreshed, revised and edited to fit the current imperial agenda. The fall of the Soviet Union may have saved us from the overt social control of Orwell’s 1984, but it didn’t kill the propaganda machine that still shapes our reality and, thus, our behavior.
The interests of Empire and Progress thereby dovetail. They both need us to ignore the past. “Don’t look over your shoulder,” they warn. “Something may be gaining on you.” For Progress, the shadows stalking our steps are Death, Decay and Decline. Progress tries to ease our fear of mortality by promising that our legacies will be carried on forever through the immortality of our society. History is the enemy of this faith, littered as it is with the ruins of civilizations that asserted their own invincibility with similarly unshakable certainty.
For Empire, the chimera nipping at our heels is the ghost of our victims: the Native Americans we steamrolled in fulfilling our Manifest Destiny, the Southeast Asians we carpet-bombed to defeat the Domino Theory, the Middle Easterners we assassinate via drone in the oxymoronic (and officially abandoned) Global War on Terror. Our imperial guilt must be continually repressed by assurances of our good intentions. This requires a thorough whitewashing of history, a process that is renewed each day in the mainstream media and chased with a flood of mind-numbing entertainment to drown any lingering doubts.
The Empire’s days are already numbered when it’s forced to shift from diplomacy to military action as its primary means of retaining power. This renders its propaganda transparent, inducing a crisis of faith among the imperial citizens and convincing many of them to withdraw their moral support from the imperial project. Very few will remove their material support, due to their dependence on the imperial system, but their moral objections are enough to create a “brain drain.” Having become disillusioned with the Empire, many of its most gifted citizens will therefore avoid careers in politics or civil service, leaving the ship of state to be steered by people whose loyalty outstrips their intellect. (Insert your own George W. Bush joke here.)
Luckily, the elite are chockfull of people with little interest in or knowledge of History. It’s a subject that seems to have no effect on their lives. Like the Too-Big-To-Fail banks, they’ve been protected from the consequences of their actions by the transfer of those costs onto the rest of society. They prefer the official imperial history, the sanitized version that glorifies their greed and flatters their vanity. The truth is considered rude conversation in polite society and is gratefully forgotten or swept under the rug.
Thus the Empire descends into anti-intellectualism. Leadership becomes a matter of following your “gut instincts” and ignoring the cowardly, four-eyed naysayers. The mainstream no longer has anything but contempt for “eggheads” who question the wisdom of its leaders with facts. Special scorn is reserved for those who suggest that the Empire is treading a well-worn path of self-destruction. History, showing as it does the folly of the elite, must be wrong. At this point, only the obedient and dim-witted are allowed into the inner sanctum to sing the Empire’s praises.
By losing any patience with dissent, the Empire and Progress seal their fate. To understand how the process plays out with Progress, all that is needed is to change “political elite” to “scientific elite” and change “four-eyed” and “egghead” to “wild-eyed” and “loose cannon.” The open debate that once ensured a rigorous formulation of policy (or theory) is replaced with an echo chamber in which the mistakes of the past are repeated and reinforced in a positive feedback loop. Proving George Santayana right yet again, the elite are doomed by their ignorance of History to take their place in its Dustbin.