Resetting the Normalcy Index

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battered clock

It’s close to, but not quite, the time to press the start-button of the internal clock we’re all blessed with. It’s a memory timer, a special one. It doesn’t make it harder or easier to remember things. It’s a device that measures the time it takes for us to lose our sensory experience at the moment of an occurrence – be it a thought, a visceral reaction, or a conditioned response to some action or turn of events. I mean the time it takes for it to be more and more difficult to recall, never mind feel with the same spontaneous immediacy, just how bad it was.

There’s a general wisdom afoot, a not surprising one given the hegemony of domestic media in attracting and shaping our attention, that this is a particularly American phenomenon. It might not be; but merely the result of our great self-absorption… that and the media learned we aren’t very much interested in news about the rest of the world, real news.

The de facto result, if it’s not actually verifiably, as John Oliver likes to say, “objectively” true that, for us in the U.S., what else matters? It’s as if Europeans, say, for whatever reason, or the Koreans, or the Armenians, are much better at keeping alive in all their sharp intensity, their affective spikiness, the outrages visited upon them. But especially to remember the perpetrators and the depths of their perfidy and cruelty.

Even in very recent history, the effects of this peculiar kind of mnemonic anesthesia become manifest – more precisely, to becoming touchstones of how effectively and swiftly the anodyne development of the process occurs. There’s Nixon, of course, and in the course of his historical reconstruction how, merely 20 years after he left office in disgrace and within a whisker of becoming our first president to be criminally indicted, he would be eulogized by another President, Bill Clinton. In 1994, at Nixon’s funeral, Clinton said, and this was only halfway through the largely laudatory remarks, “He gave of himself with intelligence and energy and devotion to duty, and his entire country owes him a debt of gratitude for that service.”

Only six years after that, we voted into office the man whose tenure and whose conduct as the chief executive did, indeed, seem to eclipse the level of Nixonian transgression – in tenor, in inhumanity, in criminality. Then, we were barely more than a single administration away from seeing the back of George W. Bush, to the collective relief of a great many people, including not a few of those naturally disposed to look favorably on his politics and his policies before a new standard emerged. Trump was barely in office when what we saw with a rapidly diminishing view through the rear view mirror began to look like a poignant recollection of a better time in the context of what was suddenly a monstrous and – a new quality – inescapable present; for the first time, an omnipresent and pervasive presidency.

And once again, our standards for imagining the bottom of what had seemed in earlier, now nostalgic times, almost with that romantic quality of the long ago, that time we reserved for a sense of yesteryear, a fairy tale quality never to be recaptured, were transformed. There was that jocular meme, “Miss me yet?” and only one of the many artifacts that seemed to sprout spontaneously, like plants in a desert that hadn’t seen rain in century. Suddenly, it seemed sudden anyway, George W. Bush wasn’t so bad after all. How many of us have heard that, and how many times? And all it took was eight years.

While we’re resetting the clock, and calibrating our sensibilities – assured we’re on the verge of a new era of normalcy – while we’re waiting for the moment to start the timer going again, how long do you think it will be before we’ve reached that interior state of sensibilities that have settled in, content, like old sleeping dogs, and prodded to recall just how it was during the time of you know…? That terrible time… and we think, hmmm, maybe it wasn’t so terrible.

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