THE BLOG
06/26/2012 12:07 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Memory Loss and the Political Year

The mind plays games in love and romance -- and in politics and activism. For me, those worlds are converging this year.

I had often heard of collective amnesia, voter apathy, and electoral ignorance, but I had never bought into them as unshakable truisms. After all, I was a journalist: There couldn't be such a thing; otherwise all my efforts to inform and educate the public were wastes of time and effort. Yet now here it was staring me in the face -- in a presidential year. And in part, I was now facing a personal type of amnesia, as well: Memories that ostensibly had been etched indelibly in my brain, because they were so vital and ever-present in my life, were "suddenly" now just Etch-a-Sketch moments -- gone.

Memory loss, both public and private, has been at the forefront of my mind (you'll forgive the phrasing) for two reasons, actually. Secondarily, the phenomenon has presented itself repeatedly lately, through what I assumed was the continued willful insistence of people to not remember recent history (too painful?), not question politicians' platitutdes, and not analyze the messages being offered (with virtually no accountability by those paying for those messages). The inanity that often arises in American presidential politics, where Alice in Wonderland logic -- doublespeak, avoidance, duplicity, and worse -- prevails among the office seekers, at first was jaw-dropping to me: How could the masses not recall the Bush years and how deregulation and lack of enforcement led to economic turmoil and collapse (never mind the mismanagement of the budget, deficit, a needless war, and more)? They'd have to go out of their way to not recall.

But that's where my own personal recent awareness of memory loss (or memory blockage? memory tricks?) dovetails, and why I'm somewhat reluctant now to sneer at the great unwashed (and brainwashed): Maybe they truly, honestly, sincerely don't remember. Or maybe they truly, sincerely, honestly are misremembering. Theoretically, all it should take to jar their minds back to recollecting recent history accurately is for them to look online or at a TV news report or listen to the radio or pick up a newspaper to generally find succinct analyses (even if that would take a little personal initiative and integrity) -- but what I've recently discovered about myself is that sometimes even that isn't enough.

You might recall that I recounted the tale of a bi-supportive ex-girlfriend who emailed me out of the blue this year after decades of no contact. At first I was thrilled (and still am, though I can't say my spouse is especially pleased), and we started exchanging messages. The ex started recounting certain events that occurred during our short but intense relationship, and what came flooding back to my mind was: nothing. I remembered some good times and generally how I felt about her, but recollections of significant events and facts that should have instantly popped up in my brain simply didn't spark.

How could this be? Was I getting Alzheimer's? Had I had a stroke? Was it situational, a result of the trauma of the relationship's breakup, with my brain suppressing/walling off painful memories in order to protect my emotions? At what point did I forget? And what else have I forgotten? At what point -- after how long -- do memories fade or disappear? And, extrapolating, does that mean there are others -- voters -- who have blocked out our recent painful past even if shown news clippings? Do they truly have collective amnesia? Is it the same as mass hysteria (i.e., Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Sudan, and more)? Something more organic? Or is it just a different interpretation of whatever information (real or fictional) they come across?

Collective amnesia or blockage would explain (to me) certain recent public votes and utterances. And while I used to be dismissive of such a notion, I'm feeling far more inclined to be compassionate, sympathetic, and patient these days with friends and neighbors who don't "correctly" recall recent events. I'm not talking about how they view or interpret the events; I'm talking about just their basic grasp of the facts of the events, about their actually not remembering key moments in our shared sociopolitical times. Maybe there really are dead spots in their memories or impairments to their mental/analytical abilities. And maybe I'm in the same boat. (But, no, I'm not suggesting that there be a voter litmus test for mental acuity; you can imagine the inherent abuses that could arise.)

This awareness possibly extends into LGBT activism, and in my case bi advocacy: I'm not expecting to win the hearts and minds of the most homophobic evangelicals anytime soon (just as they won't win my heart and mind), no matter how much dialogue and data sharing we have. And now I'm not so sure that we can even reach a "live and let live" détente with some folks. But at what point does an activist of any stripe acknowledge that the effort to convert an adversary into an ally becomes futile because of the other person's (perceived) mental limits and (in)capacities?

It is, of course, to some degree an art form to know when to acknowledge that you are tilting at what essentially is a human windmill and pursuing a Pyrrhic victory. But we must try to assume that the vast majority is logical, reasonable, to some degree malleable, and in the end fair. My current revelation about memory loss/suppression/misplacement does give me pause, but I take comfort in E.B. White's reminder that democracy is the recurring suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time; that inability to recollect certain particulars at a certain moment isn't necessarily equivalent to analytical incapacitation; and that the powers of logic, reason, fairness, and compassion will more or less win the day more often than not (otherwise we would still have slavery in Egypt and America, and the gay rights movement wouldn't have come as far as it has).

So, after my initial panic over (still) not recalling significant moments and data in my personal past (one chapter in particular), I have come to accept that this is the way things are, and I move on. And together we move on. Even if we vote differently and disagree about gay/bi rights and the economy and more, we should continue to debate, dialogue, accept our differences, and respect one another. Even if I can't quite recall your name at the moment.

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