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Circling the Memory Hole
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Circling the Memory Hole

Ritual without memory isn’t ritual, it is obedience—to a fad, a cult, or a fanatic.

Imagine for a moment, you woke up with no memory of anything. 

What would walking around your house or apartment be like? You might not know to look in the fridge for food. You might think Tide Pods are edible. Not knowing that the faucet turns on the water, you might think you should drink out of the toilet. 

It could take you days, weeks, or months to figure out how to use basic tools and appliances. If you went outside, odds are pretty good you’d get run over by a car, get punched in the nose for eating someone else’s food, or be arrested for using the street in the same way that other people use that giant porcelain device you’ve decided is a water bowl.

In other words, memory is the opposite of ignorance. I know, I know, very smart people like to talk about the difference between knowledge and information, data and wisdom. Those are interesting conversations. But all of those things are downstream of memory. Memory is the thing that all of those things are grounded in. Without memory, we are all perfect Cynics—not in the world-weary modern sense—but in the original Greek sense. To be a true, capital-C Cynic in the spirit of Diogenes was to live “like a dog,” kunikos, without a care for convention or manners and without fealty to the accumulated wisdom stored in memory.

One of the things I really liked about Game of Thrones was the gratuitous violence and nudity. But another thing I liked was its treatment of memory. It’s one of the central themes of the whole series. Preserving memory was the mission of the maesters of the Citadel: “We are this world’s memory. Without us, men would be little better than dogs,” Archmaester Ebrose explains to Sam, in a wonderful rebuke of Diogenes. The first goal of the Night King isn’t to kill all of humanity, but to destroy the Three Eyed Raven—Bran Stark, the latest incarnation of that TriOcularCorvus. Death and forgetting are two sides of a coin. “That’s what death is, isn’t it?” Sam tells the war council. “Forgetting. Being forgotten. If we forget where we’ve been and what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore. Just animals.”

Religion without memory is not religion but fanaticism. If you’re making up the religion as you go, you are letting your will-to-power define the religion. Ritual without memory isn’t ritual, it is obedience—to a fad, a cult, or a fanatic.

Memory is not only our tether to the past, it is often our lifeline to the future. Being remembered—having a name that will “ring out,” to make your mark, to leave something that will last beyond you—has always been one of the central drivers of human ambition and accomplishment. If you think the pursuit of money is the sole driver that motivates the wealthy (and those seeking wealth) in market economies, you have a one-dimensional understanding of civilizational advance. All those hospitals, libraries, orphanages, and foundations that have served as arteries and organs in the body politic weren’t created as part of a get-rich scheme. They were the beneficial fruit of our natural desire to be remembered after we are gone. Novelists and painters generally love to get paid. But what the best really strive for is to be remembered for giving the world something that endures after they are gone. 

It occurs to me that ancestor worship, which is one of the oldest forms of religion, isn’t simply about venerating the dead. Implicit in it is a promise that you, too, will be remembered if you behave honorably. We all want to make a difference, but we also want to be recognized for it. That recognition usually takes the form of memory—if not in the history books, then at least with our children and community.

Digging the memory holes.

This is an odd introduction, I know, for a “news”letter about current events. But that’s where the current of recent events has brought me. 

I’ve been thinking about memory a lot this week—my God it’s only Wednesday—because I spent some time (re)reading up on FDR’s court-packing scheme. 

It’s difficult to exaggerate how poorly FDR’s effort was received at the time. Countless leading Democrats and progressives found it utterly indefensible. As I wrote in my column, William Allen White wrote, “Surely, Mr. Roosevelt’s mandate was to function as the president, not as Der Fuehrer [sic].”

Harvard Treasurer Jerome Green, an old friend of FDR’s, wrote in the New York Times, “For one who knows the President it is impossible to believe that he is aiming at a future dictatorship; but it is impossible not to recognize the packing of the Supreme Court as exactly what a dictator would adopt as his first step. The President may not know where he is going but he is on his way.”

The only uniformly positive press FDR got was in Germany and Italy, where state-controlled media (once again) hailed America’s turn toward their way of doing things. And lest you think that’s just some special pleading for my book, Liberal Fascism, that fact comes from the very liberal historian Robert Dallek’s excellent biography of FDR.

I could go on for pages, but you get the point. FDR’s effort to pack the Supreme Court to bend it toward ideological obedience was one of only a handful of FDR’s actions liberal historians will concede was a profound mistake. 

And it’s worth recalling that at least FDR had the good manners to deny—i.e., lie—that this was his aim. He claimed that some justices were too old to handle the workload. So his plan would add additional justices to make things easier on them. Everyone saw through it—in part because the argument was garbage. The court handled its caseload very efficiently—which was FDR’s real problem.

But ever since Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, the idea that court packing is a valid tool has not only taken on new legitimacy, the very meaning and historical context has been bent, folded, and mutilated. “Real” court-packing is when Republicans fill existing vacancies, particularly—as Kamala Harris claimed—with conservative white men. 

Ahistorical preference.

But you’ve probably had your fill of this stuff, so let us instead turn to the phrase “sexual preference.” Literally, until yesterday, this term was used widely by liberals and conservatives alike as an acceptable synonym for sexual orientation. Sure, a handful of activists disliked the term, and they are free to make that argument.

Yesterday morning, Amy Coney Barrett used the term in its colloquial sense. She said she had “never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and would not ever discriminate on the basis of sexual preference.” As Noah Rothman ably lays out, this set off alarms among the cadres of progressive activists and thought police, seeking to paint it as a “dog whistle.” A writer at Slate insisted this cannot be “dismissed as a poor choice of words.” Barrett had let the mask slip, showing her desire to “condemn gay Americans to second-class citizenship once again.” This, despite the fact that the plain meaning of her statement was a full-throated rejection of said desire. 

I could add to Noah’s tally of progressive politicians and publications using the term recently (according to a quick LexisNexis search, the New York Times has used it 44 times in the last five years; The Washington Post 63 times; Slate a mere four times, etc.).  But that’s not central to my point. By the end of the day, Webster’s online dictionary modified its definition of “sexual preference” to tell people it was suddenly offensive. Senators who would not have blinked at the term when they read it in the morning paper were, by the end of the day, deeply troubled by Barrett’s bigoted use of a term she employed to renounce precisely the bigotry they claimed was in her heart. 

In the grand scheme of things, these are almost trivial examples. But we rarely get to see things memory-holed in real time right before our eyes. I couldn’t care less if “sexual preference” is thrown on the lexicological dustbin of history alongside “negro,” “coolie,” “Mohammedan,” etc. Likewise, I am perfectly capable of navigating through the neologistical chaff filling the air over the term “court-packing.” Watching established meanings disappear like Marty McFly’s family in the Polaroid is annoying, but it’s not a big deal by itself. 

But what vexes me is how representative this is of the larger effort to simply sever ourselves from the tether of the past. The fierce urgency of now is a jealous god, and it despises competing sources of authority. The past—which only exists in the medium of memory—is a competing source of authority, because it is one of the most important repositories of meaning. It’s a cliché to quote Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future.” But that doesn’t make it any less insightful.

But what that quote leaves out is that ignorance of the past opens the door to all manners of authoritarianism. Erasing what happened, what worked, and what didn’t liberates those living today to try things they wouldn’t if they knew any history. This has always been the radical and progressive brief against not just tradition, but notions of “precommitment” to the existing order. (We are born into contracts we did not sign, the Constitution only being the most literal of them.) But in fairness to the radicals and progressives who offered such indictments, most of them actually knew their history. They just didn’t want to be shackled by it.

From the idiot hordes of iconoclasts tearing down statues of abolitionists to the president who hasn’t a clue about the American history he claims to defend, we are beset by people who don’t even bother to argue with the past, because they don’t know enough to even argue with it. All they have is the present and the invincible arrogance of now, with a dog’s memory of what came before them.

Photograph by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.