American Memory Deficit Disorder

Why are Americans so quick to forget even the most egregious political outrages, when the rest of the world seems to have no trouble holding grudges for centuries?

| Thu Dec. 28, 2000 4:00 AM EST

When the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to hand the presidential election to George W. Bush, pundits assured us that Americans angry about the court's decision would eventually forget their outrage. Rehnquist and his Gang of Four cynically assumed that pissed-off liberals would get over it. They always do.

Al Gore agreed. "This is America," Gore noted helpfully, in case Bush needed some geographical assistance. "Just as we fight hard when the stakes are high, we close ranks when the contest is done."

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Even Jesse Jackson, who had called for "a civil-rights explosion" should the Supremes end up voting exactly the way they ended up voting, promised to cooperate with Bush just two days later. Americans, it seems, can't hold a grudge even if it's handed to them in an empty Big Gulp.

The willingness of Americans to let political by-gones be gone while they're still front and center is stunning. In virtually any other nation on the planet, a president found guilty of the same laundry list of crimes as Richard Nixon -- fixing elections, bugging phones, embezzling money, manipulating the police -- would likely have found himself behind bars. Not only did Nixon avoid criminal prosecution after leaving office, by 1980 he was a fully-rehabilitated senior statesman whose books flew off the shelves and whose calls to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. were always returned promptly.

It's not just Republicans who get off so easy, either. Not even two years after getting impeached in the most embarassing manner imaginable, there's little doubt that Bill Clinton would have kicked Bush's ass had he been allowed to run for a third term. All is not only forgiven, it's so forgotten that it's not even a topic of discussion. Monica who?

Memory, however, defines nearly every other nationality. Yugoslavia's ethnic factions ripped into each other for much of the last decade mostly over unresolved issues stemming from the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. Sitting in a bar in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan a few years ago, a local taxi driver asked me what I thought of his hometown. "It's stunningly beautiful," I replied truthfully. "No one should die without seeing this."

"I guess," he sighed, "but it just hasn't been the same since Genghis." He said it like the Golden Horde had passed through the previous Thursday.

The ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinians is really an endless blood feud, with atrocity leading to reprisal leading to overreaction until neither side remembers who started the whole thing in the first place. And that's just recent Middle East history. Muslims are still pissed off about the Crusades and borders which were cynically gerrymandered by British colonists, while Arab complicity with the Nazis is remembered even by Israelis not yet born.

The persistence of historical memory is nowhere more powerful than among the dispossessed and disenfranchised. The Turkic-speaking Uyghur Muslims of China's far west, when they're not occupied blowing up government office buildings and sniping at Chinese troops, reminisce about their 17th century domination of what used to be called Turkestan and fully expect Muslims from as far away as Bulgaria to supply them with cash and arms in their fight for independence from China.

"We Turks, we're all the same," a Uyghur traffic cop told me in all seriousness. "Just because it's been a few hundred years since we were together doesn't mean that they've forgotten us." And just because the Brits kicked the French out of the New World in 1710 doesn't mean the Quebecois aren't waiting for a rematch: Their license plates read ominously: "Je me souviens" (I remember).

If anything, it should be a lot easier for us to remember our own relatively brief history and with it, maintain appropriate grudges and friendships. Consider the Chinese: They have to keep track of five millennia of this stuff. Why don't we care about what happened two years ago, much less a brief two centuries ago?

If the US were anything like the Old World, American Indian terrorists would be busily bombing bridges and office towers and we'd be kissing French butt for making us independent in the first place. Madonna would never have sold another CD after she got caught lip-synching at a "live" appearance in Japan, and George Will would never have worked in journalism again after getting caught (with David Stockman and David Gergen) using a stolen copy of Carter's 1980 debate briefing book to prep Carter's opponent, Ronald Reagan.

Lately we've devolved from Alzheimerstan to a country with predictive memory loss. When it turned out, four days before Election Day, that Bush had been arrested for drunk driving and then repeatedly lied about it, it didn't cost him a fraction of a percentage point. We'll all forget about this soon enough, the public essentially said, so why not just get it over with and forgive him now? That's what the Supreme Court essentially said when they issued their patently wrong ruling.

When no one remembers what you did wrong, being American means never having to say you're sorry.

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