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American Oblivion

Nearly two hundred years ago the Russian diplomat and poet Fyodor Tyuchev wrote a poem that helps describe how Donald Trump and his associates impact all of life. The poem “The Vision (Videnie)” (1828) begins with four lines about a starry night when “the living chariot of the universe rolls openly into the sanctuary of the heavens.” But then the “night thickens, like chaos on the waters, and oblivion, like Atlas, crushes the earth [Bespamiatstvo, kak Atlas, davit sushu].” President Trump and many of his associates display ingrained habits of deception as well as bespamiatstvo—literally “without memory” or oblivion, the “state of being forgotten.” Tyutchev offers an apt description for the effect upon us of the flagrant deceptions of Trump and his team. A blizzard of lies, falling incessantly upon the public discourse and infecting our imaginations, makes truth itself a suspect. Bespamiatstvo threatens to crush and obliterate all that is sharp and clear in our minds.

The Russian poet anticipated what Nobel laureate in economics Robert J. Shiller has written about the climate of lies and distrust enveloping the United States (New York Times, November 10, 2019). “An atmosphere generated by a steady flow and variety of lies is like a dark cloud over the facts.” Surveys by the Pew Research Center find that Americans trust each other less than 40 years ago and that trust in the U.S. government is at historically low levels. Shiller complains that “businesses can’t plan effectively when they don’t know who or what can be trusted,” Indeed, this is true of Americans in all walks of life, reducing their capacity for cooperative reciprocity.

Recent statements by Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, as well as by the president himself illustrate the problem. In September Sondland maintained that the United States had not demanded something in return—a quid pro quo—for delivering Congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine. In a text message dated September 9 Sondland told U.S. chargé d’affaires Bill Taylor in Kyiv that he (Taylor) was “incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” When this text message became public, the president applauded and praised Sondland’s efforts.

On September 26 the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released the unclassified text of the whistleblower complaint regarding the interactions between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In this document, Ambassador Sondland, along with the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, Ambassador Kurt Volker, were described as having “provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelensky”. All the signs suggested that the president had made Sondland his point man in dealing with Ukraine. The lead Russia expert on the National Security Council, Fiona Hill, told House investigators that Sondland did not intend to harm the country, but that the Trump-donor turned ambassador posed a national security risk because he was so unprepared for the job.

On October 8 the Trump administration attempted to block Sondland from testifying in the impeachment inquiry against the president, but Sondland did testify on October 17. He said he “never” thought there was a precondition attached to the aid to Ukraine. On November 5, however, Sondland sent the House committees a three-page addition to his testimony, saying he had remembered a September 1 conversation in which he told a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the security aid was linked to investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and to the 2016 election. “I now recall speaking individually with Mr. (Andriy) Yermak, where I said resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”

Four days later, on the South Lawn of the White House, Trump said of Sondland, “Let me just tell you: I hardly know the gentleman”—a phrase similar to his characterization of his long time “fixer” Michael Cohen after his conviction

The ambassador’s change of heart or mind elicited a wide range of commentary. One observer requested the recipe for the “Gordon Sondland memory cure.” Another asked if there is an Omega 3 pill against perjury. A third wondered if the prospect of a stainless-steel toilet in jail did wonders for Sondland’s recall.

As John Dryden in 1700 described a similar situation.

Among our crimes oblivion may beset;

But ‘tis the King’s perfection to forget.

A century later, Thomas Carlyle in 1872 asserted: “The deeper oblivion of the Law of Right and Wrong…is by no means beautiful.” A certain T. Sinclair added in 1878 that “the oblivionists do not clearly see the whole truth here.”

Shiller worries that lying erodes trust, and that this process can be accelerated when publicity is given to lies. Long-term differences in economic and social achievement reflect cultural values. Young people in the United States who are just becoming interested in politics and the news have seen only this period of rampant lying, and that might affect them for the rest of their lives. Attitudes toward trust can linger for generations.

The current spectacle of blatant, persistent, and unapologetic lying could inspire young people, who, with no basis of comparison, to adopt kneejerk attitudes of cynical disdain, while persons who still attempt to engage in honest debate may lose credibility—as when bad money drives out good.

Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He wrote Complexity Science and World Affairs (SUNY Press, 2013).

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