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Media Obsess Over Biden’s Memory But Our Loss of Historical Memory Is the Real Crisis

How we remember the past will help us understand the current fascist threat and how we might imagine a just future.

President Joe Biden, House Speaker Mike Johnson and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries bow their heads during the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol on February 1, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

Memory currently occupies a large media presence, less as a tool of historical remembrance than as a source of political repression and regressive ignorance and thoughtlessness. In an act of elimination and erasure, far right GOP legislators such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are attempting to whitewash, censor and ban Black history. Memory is now administered, cleansed of its democratic revelations, relieved of the practice of moral witnessing and devoid of lessons learned from the past. The history of Indigenous genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, and a wave of resistance movements extending from the fight for civil rights to struggles for labor rights — which reside in the domain of the unpleasant and repressed — are being systemically removed from schools, libraries, books, curricula and classroom pedagogy. This attack on historical memory brings to mind Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch’s trenchant reflection: “The most tragic form of loss isn’t the loss of security; it’s the loss of the capacity to imagine that things could be different.”

Remembrance is under siege as far right politicians work to disintegrate, misrepresent and eliminate its emancipatory possibilities. The absence of critical memory work poses both a crisis of witnessing, the cancelling of moral vision, the destruction of public education and the depoliticization of agency itself. What is particularly disturbing is that this notion of historical erasure is barely acknowledged in the mainstream media as a serious threat to democracy. This is in spite of the fact that when history is erased as a repository of dangerous memories, it becomes complicit with the emerging threat of fascism. Amid this widespread and underreported attack on public memory, the mainstream media has instead chosen to focus relentlessly on another story of memory: President Joe Biden’s alleged loss of memory and his assumed decline in cognitive abilities.

When Republican Special Prosecutor Robert Hur released his lengthy report following a year-long investigation into Biden’s handling of classified materials, he concluded that “no charges were warranted because the evidence wasn’t sufficient to support a conviction.” Hur then argued that another reason he did not convict Biden of mishandling classified materials was because a jury would not convict a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory … of a serious felony” because such a charge “requires a mental state of willfulness.” The mainstream and conservative media seized upon Hur’s claim that Biden was an elderly man with “poor memory,” and by implication, diminished critical capacities.

Ignored here is that both Hur’s and the media’s politically lethal commentary has little to do with the subject of the investigation and served largely to legitimate a partisan right-wing attack that provided red meat for the MAGA crowd. In addition, as Fintan O’ Toole argues, Hur’s report brought into public view a highly dramatized issue of memory. What O’Toole fails to mention is that the report and subsequent coverage in the mainstream media had nothing to say about the much more important crisis of forgetting.

Notwithstanding the fact that Hur is a lawyer who lacks any qualifications to provide a medical opinion, Biden received toxic coverage from major media outlets. Many of them seized upon the claim that Biden was “sliding into dementia” and should not run for reelection in 2024. Judd Legum, echoing the commentary of a host of medical experts, wrote in Popular Information that Biden’s alleged fitness “crisis” lacked any scientific evidence and was nothing less than a partisan hit job by Hur that the media defined as a “major political crisis for Biden and an existential threat to his re-election campaign.” He writes:

A Popular Information analysis found that just three major papers — the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal — collectively published 81 articles about Hur’s assessment of Biden’s memory in the four days following the release of Hur’s report. Incidents that raised questions about former President Trump’s mental state received far less coverage by the same outlets. Overall, The New York Times published 30 stories about Biden’s alleged memory issues between February 7 and February 10. Over those four days, the story was covered by 24 reporters (some of whom filed multiple stories), four opinion columnists, and the New York Times Editorial Board.

There is nothing surprising about the mainstream media fabricating an issue in order to increase its revenue. In fact, many believe the media’s one-sided attention to Trump in 2016 contributed to his election. What is interesting regarding media coverage of the Hur report is how the media function as assassins of memory. There is also a much larger issue at work here — neoliberal capitalism is waging a full-scale war on historical consciousness, the power of remembrance and historical knowledge itself.

The administering of memory, whether by the far right or the mainstream media, involves more than ideologically driven and lopsided reporting. Such reporting privatizes memory, reducing it to a tool for judging individual competence and moral character. This is both an act of historical displacement and a form of depoliticization. For instance, the mainstream media’s focus on memory and Biden’s occasional slips and forgetfulness erases his current support for Israel’s war of revenge and genocide against the Palestinian people. What is lost in this one-sided and repressive coverage of Biden is a version of memory-work that serves to reveal injustices, a politics of disposability, and the relentless elimination of the Palestinian people by Israel with U.S. support. Memory in the Biden narrative becomes a mask for all that is missing. Arwa Mahdawi writing in The Guardian sums up what is missing regarding the crimes being committed in Gaza when memory is depoliticized. She writes that what is willfully overlooked in the mainstream media is Biden’s “clear disdain for Palestinians, his dehumanization of Arabs, and his complicity in what many experts have termed a “plausible genocide.” She notes: “There is not a single university left. The health system has basically collapsed. 1.9 million people have been forcibly displaced. The UN has said 100,000 people in Gaza have been killed, injured, or are missing.” For instance, Megan K. Stack writes in The New York Times that “Israeli officials have said there was no shortage of food in Gaza and denied that they were responsible for people going hungry, accusing Hamas of pilfering aid bound for civilians and saying the United Nations failed to distribute food.” These statements come from officials who are deeply implicated in the morally and politically reprehensible assault on Palestinians. They have blood in their mouths as they perpetuate a form of totalitarian terror that is both unthinkable and unimaginable while issuing statements that shield frenzied attempts of violent imperial repression.

Julian Assange and the late Alexei Navalny committed an act that all authoritarians fear: They made visible the unwritten history of forgetting and collective memories.

Under neoliberal capitalism’s embrace of fascist politics, authoritarian countries such as the United States, India, Turkey, Hungary and Russia share in their perpetuation of a crisis of witnessing, the gutting of memory, and a frontal attack on moral vision, dissent and the connection between past and present injustices. Truth-tellers such as Julian Assange and the late Alexei Navalny have been imprisoned and even murdered because they embraced a pedagogy of the uncanny — a pedagogy which turns something that has been normalized into something that needs to be interrogated and held accountable. Moreover, they committed an act that all authoritarians fear: They made visible the unwritten history of forgetting and collective memories. As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi observes, what is at stake under such circumstances is more than the decay of collective memory. He writes in Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory that “in the world in which we live it is no longer merely a question of the decay of collective memory and the declining consciousness of the past, but of the aggressive rape of whatever memory remains, the deliberate distortion of the historical record, the invention of mythological pasts in the service of the powers of darkness.”

When memory is relegated to the language of the ahistorical, it evolves into a form of complicity, relieved of its burden of witnessing as an act of translation. For instance, when systemic racism is removed from books, curricula and classroom teaching, crucial lessons to be learned from the history of slavery and the longstanding assault on movements for racial justice disappear. Under such circumstances, students are denied any possibility of understanding the present as an extension of the past, and their own agency in the fight for social justice and moral witnessing is undermined, if not cancelled altogether.

As John Gray notes, in the current context, unpleasant history, its horrors and its resistances, are either demolished or consigned to the memory hole. Neoliberalism breeds what he calls an “obsession with mobility, fluidity and ceaseless innovation [which] are the ruling imperatives in the turbo­charged economy that shapes our lives.” In a society trapped in a culture of immediacy, overrun by the commodification of everything, and subject to a fascist politics at war with memory, it is even more crucial for educators and other cultural workers to address how history is being mediated, distorted and erased. That is, how do dominant cultural apparatuses such as digital media and other elements of screen culture mediate memory, in the words of James E. Young, “less as a reflection of [fascist politics] than as an extension of it”?

Trump and the MAGA Party have emerged from the shadows of the U.S.’s real history that is both ugly and terrifying. At the same time, memory is produced within a historical void filled with anguish, lies, and bigotry while mobilizing and appealing to white fears about race. In this instance, the ongoing attack on history, memory, and historical consciousness aligns with fascist politics by producing in large segments of the public a moral ignorance and a crisis of thinking and agency. Gray is right in stating that “willed collective amnesia leaves [us] with no identity at all.”

A crucial lesson to be learned from the mainstream media’s obsession with Biden’s memory and its erasure of a broader understanding of remembrance and collective memory is not only how ignorance gets normalized but also about how the absence of critical thought allows us to forget that we are moral subjects capable of changing the world around us. The suppression of historical memory constitutes a crisis that must be confronted both historically and through a comprehensive politics that allows us to learn from the alarming signs of a growing fascist movement in the U.S. and around the globe.

Americans today, to quote Gray, are “threatened by an ideology that wages war on their past. Societies that repudiate their historic inheritance in this way leave themselves defenseless against the dark forces that are now re-emerging.” Memory in the service of historical amnesia represents what Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell label as a “kind of psychic numbing” that diminishes our capacity to recognize the underlying conditions that produce human suffering, while perpetuating the false fascist claim that interrogating the past is a burden that must be shed because it holds no insights into the present or the unfolding future.

The attack on historical memory in the U.S. coincides with a war on truth and the collapse of the habits of citizenship. As truth becomes malleable, education increasingly is mobilized as a force of censorship, repression and indoctrination. As language becomes thinner and detached from history, and as education is reduced to a site of repression, those public spaces that offer possibilities for critical thought, informed dialogue and historical inquiry begin to disappear. Consequently, dangerous memories are removed from public view and the scourge of historical amnesia furthers the domestication of the unimaginable. Deflated values and endless sensations accelerate under the production of relentless spectacles in which painful truths are consigned to a memory hole that furthers the U.S.’s slide into mass forgetting. As the Spanish painter Francisco Goya reminds us in “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” an inattentiveness to the never-ending task of history — witnessing and critique — generates horrors such as failures of conscience, wars against thought and flirtations with irrationality that lie at the heart of the triumph of everyday aggression, the withering of political life, and the withdrawal into private and hateful obsessions.

Public memory is under siege by both the far right and the apostles of neoliberalism. In the age of white supremacy and its embrace by the Republican Party, the denial of truth, the suppression of history, and the support of a culture of lies transforms memory and history into a politics of subjugation and denial. What cannot be missed here is that this politics of erasure is what Ayana Mathis calls a way of “codifying whiteness” as a tool of domination.

Matters of history, remembrance and memory are crucial to the survival of a radical democracy. When people cease to remember, politics loses its emancipatory possibilities, and individual and collective actions that can resurrect the unkept promises of the past disappear. Moreover, under such circumstances, knowledge is criminalized, as is evident in the war on history taking place in several GOP-led states. Yet the struggle over history is more than an educational issue. It is central to the struggle over consciousness, critical agency, collective resistance and democracy itself.

How we remember the past will help us understand the current fascist threats and how we might imagine a possible and just future.

Americans need to shake off the threat of historical amnesia as one step in the struggle against fascism, white supremacy, ultra-nationalism, and a culture of cruelty and elimination. Fighting the assassins of memory and history should be central to the struggle against fascism both in the U.S. and abroad. How we remember the past will help us understand the current fascist threats and how we might imagine a possible and just future. As Roger Simon has brilliantly argued, when informed by the search for justice, freedom, and equality, historical memory and the process of remembering offer the possibility of reappraising the connections among civic life and the educative practices that “establish the conditions necessary for democratic life.” Paraphrasing Ernst Bloch, memory may be wounded, but it is not lost. Historical memory can help us anticipate a future that is not only conceivable but necessary.

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