Jefferson Robbins is a journalist and sometime film reviewer living in the wilds of Washington State. He would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

“Going Forward”

The executive uses this phrase, or some variation (“the way forward,” et cetera), nine times in one meeting. It’s a signal that, despite his stated confidence in the future, he has no idea what it holds. What’s more, it marks a reluctance to consider his corporation’s past — the missteps and crap initiatives (oh, I could name a few) that brought him to this sad juncture, with his workers diminished in strength and chewing their cuticles over each new memo that hits the inbox.

I hate this phrase. It’s banal weasel-speak that says both much and nothing. It disavows the past and suggests we’re born anew with each passing hour, and none of the decisions that led us to this point are worth revisiting, revising, learning from. History doesn’t matter, only now — never mind that now, in the life of any group or organization or species, is defined by then.

This was performance coach Phil Towle’s default verbal tic when he was trying to shepherd Metallica past its near-breakup, as recorded in the documentary Some Kind of Monster (2004). Among other results, these encounter sessions spurred drummer Lars Ulrich to sell off his considerable collection of modern art, all in the name of cleaning the slate and “going forward.” (He got loaded while watching the artworks vanish at auction.)

Towle’s outcomes are not inherently negative, and rich people still pay him a lot of money to escort them toward tomorrow with success as their goal. But at some point the band came to suspect that in “going forward,” Towle was crafting a secret future for himself as a permanent shadow member of Metallica.

Human beings have a funny relationship with the past. When we’re not living in it, we’re compelled to run from it, like a species of Don Drapers reflexively denying our birth and background. Sometimes we come to a bridge moment that recalibrates our sense of identity, and allows us to cast ourselves as brand new creatures. For Draper, it was a horrifying but convenient explosion in a Korean trench.

“Peggy, listen to me. Get out of here, and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”

For George W. Bush, in 1984, it was a Holiday Inn baptism from a traveling evangelist with the wildly apropos name of Arthur Blessitt. Was Bush — then a self-confessed heavy drinker, a failed politician and a failing businessman — certain he would go to heaven upon his death, Blessitt asked? No, said Bush.

“Then let me explain to you how you can have that assurance and know for sure that you are saved.”

Kickass! Bush thought. He was born again. Without a single AA meeting, without one look back, he had carte blanche from the Almighty to publicly ignore and refuse to learn from his past missteps. He might never touch the bottle again, but he would also never seek to understand why he’d picked it up in the first place. Those wrongs belonged to somebody else, who erred long ago.

Once in power, Bush’s operatives made it clear they weren’t merely intent on finding a way forward, but in blazing one. The phrase was a commandment for them, not jargon. The entire world would reshape itself around an everlasting American moment, which the reborn Bush and his circle would will into existence. They would pay no attention to precedent, and have no truck with posterity: The judgment of history held no gravity for Bush because, after all, “We’ll all be dead.”

I interviewed a Bush II diplomat less than a year after he left office. A seasoned Middle East specialist, a fluent Arabic speaker, he’d written an unsolicited memo in 2002, advising against an invasion of Iraq. Ethnic, sectarian and clan strife would surely follow, he argued, and the United States and its allies would have a peacekeeper’s worst nightmare on their hands. In 2007, on the verge of retirement, Bush asked the diplomat to become the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, just as the troop surge was being deployed to stabilize the country. He remembered his memo, how he’d tried to stop the last few bloody years from arriving. He took the job anyway. It was the “way forward” that he served, not the steps that led to now.

Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress, despite their mandate and despite Americans’ hopes for a cleansing, were likewise not inclined to look back. Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act … these things happened, and they’re still happening, and they can’t be outrun until they’re reckoned with. But that would mean a reckoning with ourselves, and a recognition that the bedrock of our present politics bears substrata of horrible errors and misbegotten crusades. Prosecutions, truth commissions, and reconciliations would only bog us down. It is the task of leaders, in the interest of agenda and self-preservation, to always appear to be going forward.

“Going forward …” the executive said again in my meeting. The hashmarks keeping count on my folded notepaper were adding up. There were general statements of things that needed to happen in this misty progression, but nothing about how we’d come to have this gathering, on this day. All of us there suppressed the desire to take him gently by the shoulders, turn him around, and make him look backward instead.

  1. Moff says:


  2. Moff says:

    (There is actually a link in that “THAT” up there.)

    By the way, Jefferson, this was a good read. I get why “up” got associated with positivity and “down” with negativity (because up is where God lives, and down is where basements are, and consequently spiders), but I’m not sure how “forward” got such a great subconscious connotation. Because generally, people like memories, whereas the future is one great big unknown.

  3. fred w. robbins says:

    what we learn, we learn from the past. denial of history is a classic american flaw. henry ford, “history is bunk.” we run to the other extreme, too:puritans and their obsession with precedent and finding meaning only in history, while ignoring life and reading the testament (or Koran). A fine essay.

  4. cool post.

    *perhaps you might like to peep this funny story:

    Rock on!

    Curt King

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