Educating for Democracy: Mayor Giuliani's "Memory Hole"

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The erroneous statement made by Mayor Giuliani that "there had been no terrorist attack" during the Bush Administration, conveniently forgetting 9/11, reminds me of the "memory hole" in the novel, 1984 by George Orwell. The protagonist, Winston Smith, disposes of scraps of paper containing inconvenient facts, in his job as a "re-editor" at the "Ministry of Truth," when the information contradicts or puts into question the political agenda of "Big Brother."

Orwell has, in recent years, seemed more and more accurate in his predictions of what has been happening to the English language, with the growing influence these days of "Newspeak"--distorting the meaning of words to manipulate readers-- but I wonder exactly how far Giuliani and other right-wing politicos are going to go in trying to underestimate the intelligence of the American voters. Pretty far, I'd guess.

Although a spokesperson made a "correction" about what the Mayor meant, including further misstatements about terrorist attacks, I am more concerned about the premise upon which he operated: if you tell a lie in public with a straight face, you can more often than not get away with it. Not that Giuliani is a model of political finesse. He best demonstrated his political acumen at the Republican National Convention, in his charming Attila-the-Hun fashion, by ridiculing candidate Obama as a "community organizer" when it was in large part the President's knowledge of community organizing that led to his spectacular electoral success.

I am not very much concerned either that George Stephanopoulos let Giuliani's reinvention of history go by without a comment. Since television news is primarily geared to the American propensity for amusing ourselves to death, it might have upset some of the network's viewers if an inconvenient fact had intruded into the Mayor's fantasy. And, as we know, good ratings are what drive the kind of news we mostly get.

What upsets me as an educator is that it is likely that many of the show's viewers will now believe that 9/11 occurred before Bush became President since here was Hizzoner declaring so on national television. To illustrate this habit of mindlessness, about a year after the attack, I got into an argument with a woman who insisted that 9/11 had happened when Clinton was President. When I found the copy of the Times I had saved displaying the falling of the Twin Towers and showed it to her, instead of admitting her mistake, she defended it by claiming that 9/11 was Clinton's fault anyway.

We live in a country where an increasing number of its citizens seem to take refuge in ignorance when the facts are too bothersome to examine. Where a significant number of us believe in intelligent design-our useless appendix notwithstanding--in the face of massive physical evidence to the contrary. Where a large portion of our population had avoided taking the swine flu vaccine although, at least when the vaccination campaign was in full swing, only six deaths world wide were reported whereas 10,000 Americans have died from the disease as of mid-December. Where global warming is still regarded in some quarters as a "socialist conspiracy" while the evidence of melting ice caps and vanishing glaciers can be seen in countless news reports.

As an educator I wonder: where will this glorification of stupidity end? I am fairly certain that the Republicans are relying on what will be the ignorant majority to sweep them back into power. When Congressman Joe Wilson can call the President a liar on national television and be rewarded for his atrocious behavior with $2 million in campaign contributions, especially since Wilson was wrong in what he thought the President was saying, the lesson is clear: trying to underestimate the intelligence, at least of a significant part of the electorate, is good politics.

But why do politicians think this is good politics? Is it because a majority of Americans who were supposed to be taught about logic and civics and statistics and the scientific method in high school have not learned what they should have known? Known to make it political suicide to lie or make up facts? Known so they could ridicule a Senator who recently quoted the Declaration of Independence as the Constitution instead of cheering him on for his ignorance?

I am not certain how knowledgeable American citizens were several generations ago compared to those today. I would like to believe that the average voter of my youth in the 1950s could tell when politicians made errors in fact. But I am pretty sure that no one political figure of any consequence fifty years ago could get away with saying in the national media that "Franklin Roosevelt wasn't President when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor."