Sunday, October 12, 2008


By now everyone's heard about the $440,000 AIG executives squandered on a bacchanalian orgy celebrating the first $85 billion bailout given to them by Washington. Since then AIG has received an additional $38 billion.

At the tale end of an eight year run that brought us Enron and other disastrous corporate scandals, the invasion of two "sovereign" nations first armed by the US, the privatization of these wars, a wholesale war on civil liberties at home, an undisguised attack on the poor during the Katrina debacle, two rigged presidential elections and god knows what else, the Bush administration chooses to closeout its second term in office by giving kickbacks to investment banks whose deeply unethical antics have finally caught up with them.

After the Reagan years I took comfort in the fact that the historical record would always disclose what a ruthless, evil bastard he was. Ditto for Nixon before him. In the case of Reagan we had the Iran-Contra scandal that armed Iraq at the expense of Nicaraguan self-determination. The Reagan years also gave us anti-union government intervention in the air-traffic controllers strike which eventually broke the back of organized labor in the US. Despite this, Reagan was canonized as a saint by American media at the moment of his death. The same is true of Nixon, whose presidential career was marked by the Watergate scandal and the secret blanket-bombing of Laos and Cambodia. But when Nixon died he went out in a blaze of media-friendly glory that insisted on rewriting the historical record and reinventing American memory. Like Reagan, Nixon too was transformed into a martyr.

Will this also be the case for Bush? When the man is on his deathbed and journalists are clamoring to cover his presidential career, will mainstream media's "investigative" journalists conveniently forget the willful mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the permissibility of torture at Guantanamo Bay, the unwarranted dismissal of US Attorneys, the Valerie Plame case, or the mortgage scandal that gave rise to the current global financial crisis?

Memory is never memory as such. It is invented as if out of thin air. Memory is a narrative cobbled together from the visual and textual materials at hand. The malleability of memory makes it a site of contestation, a site of struggle. It is perhaps for this reason poets like Olson and Duncan preferred Herodotus over Thucydides. In Herodotus there is no pretension to scientific method. History is not science. And it is perhaps for this reason Paul Metcalf insisted that myth is a form of "essential truth" — a truth that struggles to reconfigure the coordinates of power but is also itself a product of power.