A vast machine for forgetting

Ewan Morrison writes on historical amnesia, the process of forgetting, and offers a counter-intuitive perspective on the internet’s role in perpetuating amnesia:

Milan Kundera is 90-years old on April 1, 2019 and his central subject—The Power of Forgetting, or historical amnesia—could not be more relevant. Kundera’s great theme emerged from his experience of the annexation of his former homeland Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in 1948 and the process of deliberate historical erasure imposed by the communist regime on the Czechs.

As Kundera said: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long that nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”

I first read Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) back in 1987, when I was a member of the British Communist Party. The book shook my beliefs and Kundera’s writing became a part of a process of truth-speaking that shook the USSR to the ground in 1989.

In the 90s we believed we were living in a “post-mortem” era in which all the hidden graves of the 20th century would be exposed, the atrocities analyzed, the lessons learned. Lest we forget. We also thought we’d entered a time in which the Silicon Valley dream of digitizing all knowledge from the entire history of the printed and spoken word would lead us towards the infinite free library, the glass house of truth and the global village of free information flow. The future would be a time of endless remembrance and of great learning.

How wrong we were. The metaphor of the glass house has turned into that of the mirrored cube. The global village has collapsed into tribal info-warfare and the infinite library is now a war zone of battling conspiracy theories. The internet has become a tool of forgetting, not remembrance and the greatest area of amnesia is the subject that Milan Kundera spent his entire life trying to preserve, namely the horrors of communism.

This theme is set out on the very first page of the Book of Laughter and Forgetting in which Kundera describes a moment in Prague in 1948 amidst heavy snow in which the bareheaded Communist leader Klement Gottwald, while giving a speech in Wenceslas Square, was given a hat by his comrade Clemetis: “Four years later Clemetis was charged with treason and hanged. The Propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of the history and obviously the photographs as well. Ever since Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clemetis once stood, there is only bare wall. All that remains of Clemetis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”

If you want to make data vanish these days, don’t try to hide them, just come up with four other bits of data that differ greatly and start a data-fight. This is historical amnesia through information overload.

When we lose not just the data, but the record of who did and said what in history beneath the noise of contrary claims, then we are in trouble. We can even see this in the accusation made against Milan Kundera in the last 10 years—that he was a communist informant, that he was a double agent, that his entire literary canon was the result of a guilty conscience for having betrayed a fellow Czech to the communists.

The confusion and profusion of narratives around Kundera lead us to simply drop the author completely, due to conflict-induced apathy. It has already eroded his reputation. We will never know if what he said in his own defense is true, the argument-from-apathy goes, so we shouldn’t trust anything he’s ever said or written, even his indictments against communism—even his theories about historical amnesia as a communist propaganda tool. All of this might as well be forgotten.

To get rid of an enemy now, you don’t have to prove anything against them. Instead, you use the internet to generate conflicting accusations and contradictory data. You use confusion to elevate hatred and fear until that enemy is either banned from the net, their history re-written or erased from the minds of millions through conflict-induced apathy.

If the struggle of man is the struggle of memory against forgetting, as Kundera said, then we have in the cacophony of the internet a vast machine for forgetting.

Blue skies

I took this photo a few weeks ago while waiting for a Metrobus on M Street in Georgetown. A clear and resplendent sky, holding that plane aloft. What was its destination? Where are its passengers now? What triumphs and sorrows have they experienced since their time together in the skies?

To Allentown for a day

We left Washington early yesterday morning for Allentown, Pennsylvania to attend a friend’s wedding. We stopped along the way at the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where the first American saint lies.

We stayed downtown in Allentown for the wedding, which was happening about 20 minutes away at the Glasbern Inn in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania.

‘Incompatible with life’

Pope Francis recently witnessed to the importance of a humane attitude toward human life:

No human being can ever be incompatible with life, not due to his age, his health conditions, or the quality of his existence. Every child that enters a woman’s womb is a gift, which changes the story of a family: of a father and a mother, of grandparents and siblings. And this baby is in need of being received, loved and taken care of….

Yet, there is something that medicine knows well: children, who from the maternal womb show pathological conditions, are little patientswho not rarely can be cured with pharmacologic, surgical and extraordinary care interventions, now capable of reducing that terrible gap between diagnostic and therapeutic possibilities, which for years constituted one of the causes of voluntary abortion and abandonment of care at birth of so many children with serious pathologies. Fetal therapies on one hand and perinatal hospices on the other obtain surprising results in terms of clinical-assistance and provide essential support to families that accept the birth of a sick child….

Therefore, it’s indispensable that doctors have very clear not only the objective of the cure but the sacred value of human life, whose protection, in the end, rests on medical practice….

At the social level, the fear and hostility in meeting disabilities often induce to the choice of abortion, configuring it as a practice of “prevention.” However, the teaching of the Church on this point is clear: human life is sacred and inviolable and the use of prenatal diagnosis for selective ends is energetically discouraged, as an expression of an inhuman eugenic mentality, which removes from the family the possibility to receive, embrace and love their weakest children. Sometimes we hear it said: “You, Catholics, don’t accept abortion, it’s the problem of your faith.” No, it’s a pre-religious problem. Let us not charge faith with something that has not been its responsibility since the beginning.  It’s a human problem….

Abortion is never the answer that women and families seek. Rather, it’s fear of the sickness and loneliness that makes parents hesitate. The difficulties of a practical order, both human and spiritual are undeniable, but precisely because of this the most incisive pastoral actions are urgent and necessary to support those that accept their sick children.

“No human being can ever be incompatible with life, not due to his age, his health conditions, or the quality of his existence.”

Walking the Key Bridge

I’ve crossed the Key Bridge from Washington to Arlington, Virginia most days since moving here in September, because our office has had its headquarters in Arlington. But we’re moving into Washington today, and on Monday my commute will change as I start heading near Dupont Circle in Washington, by the Cathedral of Matthew the Apostle. That means my Key Bridge crossings will diminish significantly.

When I left our Arlington office yesterday, a late afternoon shower had just passed and the sun was coming out, and I decided to enjoy a walk home.

What we’re seeking to conserve

Sohrab Ahmari has written against what he calls “David French-ism,” which I’ll describe as the tendency of conservatives to attempt to maintain social peace through accommodation with cultural forces that don’t necessarily seek accommodation so much as replacement of America’s older social order with a wholly new order—and a new order with a wholly new set of moral goods. “Though culturally conservative,” Ahmari writes, “French is a political liberal, which means that individual autonomy is his lodestar.” And the problem with the logic of individual autonomy is that it ends with an unraveling of human relationships, duties, responsibilities, and rights in pursuit of an abstracted sort of liberty that believes its fulfillment will be found in the transgression of all limits, and the dissolution of what conservatives would recognize as social order.

Ahmari points out that the conservative project is doomed if it does not become more confrontational, and if it doesn’t shake off its perhaps excessive concern with abstract goods and its perhaps naive forfeiting of concrete social and political goods in the process of promoting those abstracted goods. Preaching the value of federalism, free speech, pluralism, or toleration doesn’t end up meaning much if you’re only preaching to the choir. At least, this is what I think Ahmari is pointing out. If you’re curious about this intra-conservative debate, first read Ahmari’s piece, then read David French’s response. And then read Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Rod Dreher.

There’s an aspect of Ahmari’s piece that is being widely misinterpreted; many are reading his piece as if he’s deriding conservatives for being “too nice,” when what he’s really doing is point out that calls for civility and niceness are not effective tactics for sustaining pluralism if your opponents no longer care about accommodation. Susannah Black highlights this:

“[Ahmari] wrote that ‘Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.’ This has been read by some as a call to do away with civility and decency. It is not. At least, it is not as I read it. It’s rather pointing out—at least, this is what I take—that if they are in service to an inverted moral order, an un-peace, then these things are not actually civility and decency. … True civility, true decency, are not neutral tactics of conversation which we can use to avoid confrontation. If you’re using something you call ‘civility’ that way, you are not civil. You are dodging. It is not the office of love of one’s enemy to ‘get along with’ him no matter what, to fail to tell him the truth. We must love our enemies—our hosti, as well as our inimici. But the way to do that is sometimes a face off. And there’s nothing noble about shirking.

As with most debates within conservatism, what’s unfolding is an attempt to resolve the question, “What are the things we’re seeking to conserve?”

Human remains, abortion, and eugenics

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Box v. Planned Parenthood, ruling 7-2 that Indiana’s human fetal remains law is constitutional. Americans United for Life had filed a brief in support of Indiana’s law, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court because the Seventh Circuit had struck it down as unconstitutional:

Americans United for Life filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of Indiana on behalf of AUL and the Charlotte Lozier Institute, asking the Supreme Court to take the case to address this nationally important question. The brief explains that human fetuses are human beings, and as such, it was constitutional for Indiana to require the humane and dignified disposition of human fetal remains—especially in light of reports of an Indiana waste company dumping human fetal remains in landfills. 

“AUL is delighted that the Court agreed to address this important issue,” said AUL’s Litigation Counsel Rachel Morrison. “Without laws like Indiana’s fetal remains law, medical providers are free to dispose of human fetal remains by incineration with medical waste, by dumping in landfills, and even by burning the remains to generate energy. Indiana’s law recognizes the simple biological fact that human fetuses are human beings and, as such, should be treated with humanity and dignity whether in life or in death.”

Box v. Planned Parenthood is a major victory for life-affirming law and policy, because it is a de facto acknowledgement by the U.S. Supreme Court of the basic humanity of those once-living human beings whose lives were terminated through abortion. Where do human fetal remains comes from, but from human beings?

Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurrence is highly significant, because he uses Box v. Planned Parenthood to speak authoritatively on an aspect of the case that the Supreme Court has punted on, namely whether eugenic abortions (abortions for reasons of race, gender, disability, etc.) are permissible. Thomas writes powerfully on the history of eugenics and abortion, and concludes by getting to the heart of the matter, which is that abortion will continue to haunt the Supreme Court because it is the Supreme Court itself created the right to abortion and therefore will need to continue to legislate its boundaries so long as it continues to promote abortion as a legitimate human practice:

“This case highlights the fact that abortion is an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation. From the beginning, birth control and abortion were promoted as means of effectuating eugenics. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was particularly open about the fact that birth control could be used for eugenic purposes. These arguments about the eugenic potential for birth control apply with even greater force to abortion, which can be used to target specific children with unwanted characteristics. …

Today, nonwithstanding Sanger’s views on abortion, respondent Planned Parenthood promotes both birth control and abortion as ‘reproductive health services’ that can be used for family planning. And with today’s prenatal screening tests and other technologies, abortion can easily be used to eliminate children with unwanted characteristics.

“Indiana’s Legislature, on the 100th anniversary of its 1907 sterilization law, adopted a concurrent resolution formally ‘express[ing] its regret over Indiana’s role in the eugenics movement in this country and the injustices done under eugenic laws.’ Recognizing that laws implementing eugenic goals ‘targeted the most vulnerable among us, including the poor and racial minorities, … for the claimed purpose of public health and the good of the people,’ the General Assembly ‘urge[d] the citizens of Indiana to become familiar with the history of the eugenics movement’ and ‘repudiate the many laws passed in the name of eugenics and reject any such laws in the future.’

“In March 2016, the Indiana Legislature passed by wide margins the Sex-Selective and Disability Abortion Ban at issue here. Respondent Planned Parenthood promptly filed a lawsuit to block the law from going into effect, arguing that the Constitution categorically protects a woman’s right to abort her child based solely on the child’s race, sex, or disability. The District Court agreed, granting a preliminary injunction on the eve of the law’s effective date, followed by a permanent injunction. A panel of the Seventh Circuit affirmed. …

“Enshrining a constitutional right to an abortion based solely on race, sex, or disability of an unborn child, as Planned Parenthood advocates, would constitutionalize the vies of the 20th-century eugenics movement. In other contexts, the [U.S. Supreme] Court has been zealous in vindicating the rights of people even potentially subjected to race, sex, and disability discrimination. … Although the Court declines to wade into these issues today, we cannot avoid them forever. Having created the constitutional right to an abortion, this Court is dutybound to address its scope. In that regard, it is easy to understand why the District Court and the Seventh Circuit looked to Casey to resolve a question it did not address. Where else could they turn? The Constitution itself is silent on abortion.”

I want to highlight something from a footnote from Justice Ginsburg in Box v. Planned Parenthood, because it’s something that will only look worse with time. In responding to Justice Thomas’s concurrence, Justice Ginsburg asserts that pregnant women who choose to abort their children are not mothers: “a woman who exercises her constitutionally protected right to terminate a pregnancy is not a ‘mother’”. While this might be causally accurate—in the sense that women whose children have died are no longer mothers—it’s neither intellectually nor scientifically coherent. Despite his rejection of her, Steve Jobs was the father of his daughter Lisa from the very first moment of her existence—and it’s no different for mothers, despite Justice Ginsburg’s tortured philosophy.

Overcast on Dumbarton

I visited Epiphany for mass this morning on Dumbarton Street, and on the way home walked past this:

A green car on Dumbarton Street in Georgetown

Take a moment and put yourself in my shoes taking the photo—there’s without looking left or right, there’s no way to tell you’re not looking right into the past. This same scene could have existed nearly fifty years ago: same house, same fence, same car, same street, etc. And eventually, even when cars like this are converted to electric and homes are running off of clean geothermal or solar, the scene could still otherwise be the same, a little window for looking out into another time.

We will remember them

It’s a warm, sun-lit, breezy Memorial Day in Georgetown. I took a walk earlier and am reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

A Georgetown home with an American flag

In honor of American soldiers both killed in action and departed in the course of time, here’s a bit from Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen,” which I first heard in Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old earlier this year:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
we will remember them.

A preaching that awakens

I’m at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington for a wedding. It’s a beautiful day for it, and appropriate for sharing this sort bit from Oscar Romero:

A preaching that awakens, a preaching that enlightens – as when a light turned on awakens and of course annoys a sleeper – that is the preaching of Christ, calling: Wake up! Be converted! That is the church’s authentic preaching. Naturally, such preaching must meet conflict, must spoil what is miscalled prestige, must disturb, must be persecuted. It cannot get along with the powers of darkness and sin.