Gore Vidal famously quipped, “We are the United States of Amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing.”
Vidal was known for his brutal honesty about American politics and those who voted people like George W. Bush and his predecessor Bill Clinton into office. I agree with the general proclamation that Vidal is submitting to us. We do suffer from a brutal case of amnesia. The most popular examples are our holidays and the birthdays of our long dead American heroes and villains. In a country that has reduced its moral landscape to an us-versus-them mentality—most well shown in Donald Trump’s bid for elected office—we deny the complexity of history and the world around us. To not remember the past is to eliminate reality. Totalitarian societies are well known for their subservience to a mythology where truth has been eroded.
Thomas Paine’s life and post-life story has been all but erased from the chamber of American historical conscience. In its place, we have a watered down and neutered narrative that has been picked up by the likes of Glenn Beck, a conservative extremist and renowned conspiracy theorist. The only tale told is that of a man who wrote “Common Sense” and pushed a reluctant colony into action. Forgotten are his calls for economic equality and social welfare. Gone are the harsh criticisms of organized religion. Paine was the founding father who actually made slavery an issue. Paine went to France, in search of new revolutions he could inspire, when he stood for his belief in opposing the death penalty, Paine once a leader in French politics and author of “Rights of Man,” was sentenced to death. While in prison, he would write “Age of Reason,” a pamphlet that banned him from American society. A country he had ignited and inspired lambasted and destroyed his life and legacy. No one would remember the radical, the symbol of so many revolutions here and abroad that would come decades and centuries later. Paine’s birthday was on Friday, Jan. 29.
The other figure whose radicalism has been wiped clean from our collective memory is Martin Luther King Jr. We remember his walk in Selma and the last bits of his “I Have A Dream” speech. The radical King, who was put on the FBI watch-list, whose phone was tapped by none other than the ruthless brute J. Edgar Hoover, the man who dubbed the United States, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” is a man who is but a whisper amongst those who still fight for African Americans and all other men, women and children who suffer in this country. Dr. King spoke like a Christian who really obeyed and preached Jesus’ basic philosophies. King excoriated the evils of capitalism while proclaiming himself a democratic socialist. King was shot and killed after years of abandonment by white liberals who didn’t want to join his Poor People’s Movement or crusade against the war in Vietnam. Over the last few decades the radical, who believed in compassion and resistance, has been adopted by a political class that has morphed and distorted his legacy into one that conforms to rigidity and complacency.
History is such an important tool to understand the world around us. I won’t claim that I have some superior knowledge of what happens in this country, but the more I read and listen, the more I cannot submit myself to the illusion of our nation’s mythology. I would love to truly believe we are the best or greatest nation on earth. That kind of narcissism is delusional. There is no greatest or best nation. There is only the ability to improve on the present well-being of the people here and abroad. We cannot forget the past as if it was some abstract notion. It guides and influences everything we do. Instead, let us begin by unshackling ourselves from the ignorance of mythology and propose a new story for this country: the truth. As a country, Americans must reflect upon our collective history and what it means to us. If we fail to do so, we have failed future generations in our promise to carry the torch of unbiased, truthful knowledge.
Mark Kobzik is a junior majoring in English/journalism.