02/22/2008 02:45 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Memory and Machiavelli

There has been much decrying in the anti-war movement of deception and disinformation, accusing the Bush administration of using both tactics to fool the American people into the invasion of Iraq. Little has been said about the shallowness of political debate that allowed the public to be fooled in the first place. On PBS this weekend there was an enlightening interview with Susan Jacoby, author of a new book, The Age of American Unreason (Pantheon, 2008), where she makes the point that ignorance underlies the war as much as trickery and deception. In a poll, college and high school-educated respondents were asked to find Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel on a world map. Only 23% of the college-educated under the age of 25 and 6% of high school-educated could find all four, despite the fact that the map they were given was labeled -- we are not talking about maps where the countries are left blank.

Ms. Jacoby has taken up the virtuous but frustrating cause of improving public education and striving for an informed electorate. Let's hope that Barack Obama represents a trend in that direction. The right wing, as represented by Karl Rove, stands for the opposite trend. In their playbook, manipulating the public through fear and capitalizing on ignorance not only works, but is justified because it works. That is, any question of morality and ethics is beside the point, as Machiavelli long ago informed his prince. Ms. Jacoby asserts that lack of historical memory is one of the most serious symptoms of what she calls American unreason. Instead of remembering that Iraq had no suicide bombers until the U.S. invaded, or that the war was entirely unjustified in the first place, the public can be fed a slogan -- "the surge is working" -- and the past evaporates.

In the Cold War this tactic was known as the Big Lie and was associated with the Soviet Union's programmatic disinformation, which approached the Orwellian. The right wing is Orwellian enough until something worse comes along. Whole areas of prejudice, bigotry, and mean-minded selfishness have been made respectable and even worthy. Liberalism has been equated with un-Americanism. The entire Muslim world was turned into a pack of vicious, anti-Christian terrorists, and the stripping away of civil liberties was implemented without consulting the people being affected. Without memory, Machiavelli has a much greater chance of succeeding. But ultimately historical memory isn't enough. What's needed is for the public to wake up and value alert, intelligent consciousness. We must look beyond our national borders; we must look beyond the present moment. But most of all, we must enlarge the horizon of our minds. Ignorance has proved fatal in the Iraq war, as it did in Vietnam. It will bring new, unforeseen fatalities in the future unless the passive, easily manipulated "folks" that Bush talks down to turn into an active, aware electorate.