Some Sundays back, the New York Times fronted a story from its Paris correspondent, Suzanne Daley, about the fear and loathing Americans induce among Europeans these days. America is “a worrisome society,” it seems. It’s ” a menacing, even dangerous force intent on remaking the world in its image.” Among the many criticisms the piece listed — guns, the death penalty, our obsession with “globalization” for all — one stood out. It has to do with our lapsed relations with the past and our inability to see ourselves as others see us. “Omnipotence and ignorance,” a French parliamentarian named Noel Mamere says in a book Daley quoted. “It is a questionable cocktail.”
The following Sunday, the Times ran another curious piece in the same position — Page 1, above the fold. This one was about the 1953 coup that toppled Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and installed the last Shah as an unchallenged monarch. It was the Central Intelligence Agency’s first successful overthrow of a foreign government,” the Times wrote of this coup that has been “lost to history.” The piece then went on to draw the straight line Iranians draw as matter of course between the coup in ’53 and the revolution twenty-six years later that landed them with clerical rule.
History as news, then. This is encouraging, though one doesn’t want to make too much of it. Iran in 1953 was a seminal cold war event, with more straight lines poking forward from it than a bicycle wheel has spokes — to the coup in Guatemala a year later, to the Bay of Pigs, to Indonesia in ’65, to Chile in ’73, to Indochina. An officially leaked report about Iran in a paper such as the Times suggests an important change. Are we now encouraged to know or remember all that was patriotically hidden or forgotten all these years? It’s a fine thought. Americans, like everyone else frostbitten by the cold w ar, pay dearly for their ruptured relations with history. As so often, the victimizers turn out to be victims, too.
The problem is that cocktail. Let’s call it an Americano. It has been our daily sundowner for so long now that one wonders whether we will ever, so to say, sober up and climb on the wagon. In a dysfunctional democracy such as ours, public ignorance (and its sibling, indifference) is essential to the exercise of power — to the principle that in dealing with others we have no principles. That was true throughout the cold war, of course, and has been grimly true since. The real post-Berlin wall peace dividend would have been knowledge –self-knowledge, above all — for to know would be to object, as the keepers of secrets understand. So we can add to the notion of history as news the notion of history as a kind of subversion, a weapon in the ongoing war between rememberers and forgetters.
Several of Chalmers Johnsons’s fifteen books, the work of a long career in Chinese and Japanese studies, have turned out to subvert the orthodoxy. His first, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power (1962), forced late-McCarthyist America to acknowledge the treasonous truth that the Chinese communists enjoyed immense popularity in the years leading up to the revolution. In 1982 he published MITI and the Japanese Miracle, a founding document for the “revisionist” view of Japan now prevalent. MITI upended another tradition, to, it turns out. “I did not realize then,” Johnson now writes of it, “that my research would inadvertently lead me to see clearly for the first time the shape of the empire that I had so long uncritically supported.”