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Getting a Death Grip on Memory

A headline in the New York Times announced a few days ago: “Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory.” This news ran above the fold on the front page.

“Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain,” the article began. Readers quickly learned that it’s starting to happen: “Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory…”

Big deal.

American media outlets have been pulling off such feats for a long time.

The scientists trying to learn how to wipe out “specific types of memory” are lagging way behind.

Don’t need to remember the vast quantities of napalm, Agent Orange and cluster bombs that the U.S. military dropped on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s? Or the continuing realities of burn victims, dioxin poisoning and unexploded warheads?

Don’t want to consider the many thousands of civilians killed by Salvadoran death squads, Guatemalan troops and Nicaraguan contra guerillas during the 1980s, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers?

Don’t care to recall the Pentagon’s estimate that the Gulf War in early 1991 killed 100,000 Iraqi people during a six-week period?

Forget about it! That’s what selective memory is for.

Prefer not to recollect how the U.S. government trained and armed President Reagan’s beloved “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan — including the likes of Osama bin Laden and other fundamentalist mujahedeen — for their insurgency against the Soviet occupiers in the 1980s? Rather not remember how those “freedom fighters” became “terrorists”?

Hate that particular gray? Then wash it away!

Enough bleach in the spin cycles will do the trick. There’s more than one way to be “editing memory.”

“So far, the research has been done only on animals,” the Times reported in its April 6 story. “But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.”

The Times account managed to balance enthusiasm for the advances of scientific research with some potential downsides: “Millions of people might be tempted to erase a severely painful memory, for instance — but what if, in the process, they lost other, personally important memories that were somehow related?”

Dominant media have blotted out countless painful memories — national or personal — if only by treating them as irrelevant or incidental to news and concerns that really count. All in a day’s work: part of the mix of organized forgetting.

“The greatest triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished, not by doing something, but by refraining from doing,” Aldous Huxley observed. “Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.”

And, of equal relevance to the brave new world of U.S. mass media in 2009: “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”

With constant media prompts, the widely replicated screens end up screening us, from ourselves and from each other.

Now we know the names of the Pentagon’s drones — Predators and Reapers — but not the names of the people they’re killing.

Easy enough to approve of bombing people when they’ve been rendered unreal. Forgetting becomes a simple matter.

Is some memory not worth remembering? Of course, we could always let the market decide.

More articles by:

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, where he coordinates ExposeFacts. Solomon is a co-founder of RootsAction.org.

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