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The Case For Cultural Amnesia. I Guess?

I remember seeing a talk show in the 80s, either Oprah or Donahue, where they had on this family who had basically been chased out of town after one or more of their children got AIDS from a blood transfusion. I don’t think it was Ryan White on the show, but it could have been. The details are hazy after all this time. But the idea was to get the towns people and the family on the same show and see if they could get to some kind of understanding or at least have everyone air their fears. It got out of hand fast, and this was before that was what daytime talk shows were supposed to do. I remember watching as a full grown man in his mid-thirties, a typical suburban dad type, screamed at these sick kids. The rage and fear on his face was unnerving. I must have been 11 or 12 and I just felt like this guy’s raw panic and hate was coming through the screen. Again, this was before Jerry Springer or Reality TV, seeing people give themselves over to mindless histrionics was not something you saw routinely on TV yet. This was also still a period when AIDS was viewed by most as a totally mysterious death sentence that was spreading with unstoppable speed. I was terrified of it. But I was more terrified that it seemed to be doing this to adults, turning them into these screaming, frightened, unreasoning monsters who had totally lost control.

I can’t find the video. I have looked. My keywords are not doing the job, and I may not be trying that hard. I am very ambivalent about even wanting to see it again. There also seems to be this thing where the populace gets swept up in these panics — AIDS, the Satanic Panic, the Red Scare — and then it runs its course and the next thing comes along and the people, the neighbors and family members that were wholly a part of it, are suddenly replaced with people who have no memory of screaming at children or calling the FBI because the guy at work is a communist spy. That would be a ridiculous thing to do. The new people genuinely have no memory of any of this and that is their reality. I don’t even necessarily think that this amnesia is deliberate or even convenient. I think that for the vast majority of people, identity is a very fluid thing and more a reflection of whatever moment they are in than any set collection of beliefs or values. Of course, they would never see it that way themselves. But bra burning hippies become free love swingers become trickle down yuppies and if they remember the previous incarnation at all it is through a hazy film of nostalgia that completely glosses over the fact that they were the one screaming “BABY-MURDERER!” at some traumatized Vietnam Veteran. They stand in line to buy the Born in the USA single or to see Platoon for the second time during it’s theater run and that was genuinely someone else in another lifetime.

This, of course, isn’t everyone. There are always true believers who are who they are, be it regular German who, into his eighties, believes that the Nazis were right and won’t shut up about it at holiday dinners or the uncle who is still following any incarnation of the Grateful Dead that is still alive.

But I think it is safely “most folks.”

Anyway, I have wandered far afield. My point is: That talk show episode from the 80s comes to mind for me more and more these days. I see that suburban dad’s rage and panic in the photos and videos of people at Trump rallies. It’s that same look of near hysterical ecstasy of being swept up in a wave where all your most irrational fears and hatreds are echoed back at you. It’s catharsis and furor with the full energy of a mob behind it. I see it in the contorted faces and bulging eyes of people screaming unintelligible invective at his racist immigration speeches or his demonizing rants against the press. I see those people and I think of that guy shouting himself red-faced and heaving at those little kids with AIDS.

America has been lucky so far. These fevers burn hot and they definitely do damage and innocent people get hurt. But they burn themselves out and attention shifts, usually before true mass catastrophe. We don’t know what a Great Leap Forward looks like. And that is very lucky. I hope that luck holds out. I hope that there are people shouting their support for the jailing of immigrant children who will have the luxury of being someone else entirely in three years because that horror is a distant memory that seemed to have happened to some one else. Just like the people who sat behind that guy and nodded along as he spewed at those children with AIDS only remember that they got to see Oprah one time, back when she did that nice thing for that poor family whose children got sick.

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