Beware those who would manipulate the past to satisfy the narratives of the present.
The English writer George Orwell, born 119 years ago last week, was a trenchant and far-sighted critic of all forms of totalitarianism. Those critiques and warnings for the future are most famously depicted in his novels Animal Farm and 1984 – books which, thankfully, haven’t yet caught the attention of the censors on either side of the political aisle. One of the main ideas explored in 1984 is the manipulation of history by the Party, the totalitarian government which rules the state of Oceania and lords over the novel’s protagonist Winston Smith. The Party, commanded by the ubiquitous and all-seeing Big Brother, frequently alters history to conform with its present goals, forcing the populace to wholly buy in to the new narrative or be sent for reprogramming. This passage, from Chapter 2 of 1984, explains this process and how and why the Party seeks such minute control over the events of the past:
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory.
In the same chapter is the quintessential version of this manipulation of history for totalitarian political ends, one which has become a part of the cultural lexicon of the West:
At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.
This approach to our past – a presentist mindset that places history at the service of current narratives and future politics – is not only visible in works of dystopian fiction. Examples abound in modern life, both at home and abroad.
As usual, the Chinese Communist Party is at the forefront of modern totalitarianism, working its hardest to make Orwell’s novel into reality. Besides its rampant surveillance state, intense persecution, detention, and murder of dissidents and minority groups, and recurring total lockdowns enforced by drones, China has been working to reshape the past in its own favor. For decades now, China has promoted a false map of its territorial claims in the South China Sea, as well as over the lands of its neighbors; economic extortion to compel recognition of that map has ramped up in recent years. These maps are based on extremely broad historical claims with little basis in reality. The modern Chinese government extends its territorial claims to the furthest extent of any past Chinese government, despite the fact that those territories were often not held in concert, have fallen under other national jurisdictions since then (sometimes for centuries), and would be incorporated into China against the will of the local populations. Some of the more farfetched claims are based on the naval voyages of the Ming Dynasty Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433/35), who traveled as far afield as South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa on treasure and trade expeditions. This true history has been used by Xi Jinping and the Chinese government to make broad grabs at territory and power in these regions, as they fall under the aegis of ‘historical China’. This is patently absurd, yet it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the CCP’s manipulation of the past.
In the most recent – and most disturbing – example of historical revisionism in the service of the present, China has begun altering educational textbooks to reinforce its ideology of Han Chinese supremacy and integrate it throughout history teaching. The most stunning instance of this is a statement in new textbooks being used in Hong Kong high schools which baldly states that Hong Kong was never a British colony and was instead always a fundamental and inalienable part of China. This is especially important because it is part of a larger effort to remove any vestiges of democracy or human rights leftover from the 150-odd years Hong Kong was indeed under British control. The British Empire tended to bring – in the long run and to varying degrees in different regions – institutions of civil society, neutral rule of law, and Western conceptions of rights to the places it governed. Hong Kong, being mainly an entrepôt for the lucrative trade coming from Chinese ports (most of which were dominated by European powers, especially Britain and Germany), was one of the most progressively-governed spaces in the Empire. The fact that the British held it for so long, combined with the granting of far greater rights to self-governance after Japanese occupation in the Second World War, made Hong Kong something of a model of liberal capitalist democracy through the 1990s.
Upon the handover to Beijing on July 1, 1997, there was a binding treaty signed by the UK and China to leave in place Hong Kong’s representative bodies and civil liberties for a period of at least 50 years; the CCP abrogated that treaty wholesale when it cracked down on the territory in 2019 after promulgating its bogus ‘National Security Law’ criminalizing dissent. The alteration of history in this way serves a dual purpose: reinforcing the totalitarian control the CCP has over the citizenry and trying to ensure the children of current Hong Kongers are taught to embrace a fictionalized past which only serves the present needs of the Party. Big Brother would be proud.
Although it is not nearly as severe, audacious, or pervasive, this totalitarian-inspired program – one of manipulation of the past to suit the present – is slowly advancing in the United States as well. The prime example of this historical falsification comes from the New York Times’s widely-lauded effort at ‘history’, The 1619 Project. Named for the year in which the first African slaves arrived in the British colonies which would eventually become the United States, the program took a strident tone when it declared that it told the ‘real’ history of the American founding, grounding our national principles, documents, and systems firmly in the evil of chattel slavery. The explicit aim of the Project was to undercut the foundations of those documents, principles, and systems so as to push a progressive – if not radical – political agenda in the current day. The Times and the Project’s editor and conceptualizer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, were fêted across the media and education landscape, with a K-12 curriculum being based on the Project shortly after it was released 3 years ago and Hannah-Jones receiving a tenured professorship essentially on nothing but a single magazine issue. (The rapidity by which the new narrative was embraced in educational circles is an eerie similarity to the Hong Kong story.)
The problem? Several of the main contentions of the 1619 Project were outright falsehoods, some of which actually parroted Confederate propaganda on slavery’s economic importance. These issues were raised in the fact-checking process by the professional historian hired for the task (Hannah-Jones has no background in history), but she was ignored, as her corrections would have massively undermined the narrative change the Times was seeking to promote. Upon publication, criticism came in hard and fast from a wide variety of sources. Conservative media was on the case from the beginning, given the ideological predilections of the 1619 Project, but as it gained wider purchase and readership, the pool of opponents grew. One group which was especially strong in its disparagement of the inaccurate history promulgated by the Times was, surprisingly, the World Socialist Web Site. They dove into what they called the “racialist falsification of American and world history,” working with well-respected and highly credentialed historians to debunk many of the core claims of the Project. (I would commend their work on this issue to anyone who is interested; it is fair-minded and deals with the myriad errors of fact and interpretation within 1619. Scholar Phil Magness has also been excellent on the issue.) Still, the 1619 Project is seen by many as a legitimate work of history that accurately reinterprets the American founding as revolving primarily around race, impacting current politics. The manipulation is working.
Another more recent example revolves around the progressive politics of gender and sexuality which are becoming an all-consuming culture war flashpoint among partisans on both sides. From transgender participation on opposite-sex sports teams to controversies over childhood education on gender and sexuality, these fraught debates have been widespread in media and political discourse. Advocates for progressive gender ideology have attempted to marshal history in service of their aims, as could be expected by any political movement. Again, the problem here is that they are not sticking to actual history, instead indulging outright fabrications, deliberate misinterpretations, and an ahistorical vision of past persons, cultures, and events through the most progressive modern lens. Needless to say, that is not merely bad history, but purposeful manipulation for the sake of a present political agenda. Let’s go through a few examples.
- Released in early June for 2022’s Pride Month, the Discovery+ program “The Book of Queer” claims to tell “the story of multiple historic and groundbreaking queer individuals throughout history.” It touches on important gay figures from the past, like the genius British mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing, but also makes outlandish and completely inaccurate claims about other periods and figures from the past. (Warning: that link contains bad musical theater; don’t say you haven’t been warned.) These falsehoods include misinterpreting Abraham Lincoln as “queer” because of a close platonic relationship he had with his friend Joshua Speed, labeling Joan of Arc as “non-binary” because of her martial aspects and taking on of a more masculine appearance, and placing the mantle of modern homosexuality on the ancient Greeks – which is not a flattering comparison for today’s LGBT movement given the ancient Grecian tendency towards pederasty.
- The Egyptian New Kingdom pharaoh Hatshepsut, the most powerful female ruler in the history of that august civilization, has been called “nonbinary” in a clear discounting of the actual culture and history of ancient Egypt. Advocates of this twaddle claim that Hatshepsut’s wearing of a ceremonial beard, use of male titles, and depiction as a genderless child in religious art means that she must have been an early adopter of gender ideology. Instead, those are all easily explained by anyone with a basic level of knowledge about the woman, the period, and the civilization. Hatshepsut was depicted as masculine in art, official records, and public appearances because that was the accepted way to refer to the Pharaoh in Egyptian culture and politics at the time. It does not signify her identity as anything other than King and Son of Ra – important ceremonial and religious titles which played a crucial role in the region’s deeply-held faith. If she was to gain and retain the power she sought, Hatshepsut had to fit her ambition into the cultural mold of her society; hers is not a tale of queer transgression, but instead of female empowerment.
- A few years ago, stories rocketed across the internet with a shocking discovery: an important Viking warrior burial may have been of a “transgender, non-binary or gender fluid” person. These claims were based on the discovery of presumedly-female remains alongside typical objects associated with warriors, such as swords, horses, and other weapons. Politically-motivated historians reinterpreted the original findings to lend credence to the idea that all pre-modern societies shared the progressive conceptions of gender favored by the modern left. Again, this relies on both misinterpretation of cultural evidence and diminishing the actual story of a female playing a martial role in a patriarchal group. Viking warriors were absolutely most often men, but there was no shortage of female camp-followers, some of whom may have been tasked with defense and even attack in difficult situations. Burial with such honors could have been granted to a woman who particularly distinguished herself in this right. This was indeed very uncommon, but that should only make the discovery of one such burial worthwhile in its own right.
All of the examples in the list above rely on the application of modern gender ideology to a past which has absolutely nothing in common with it. As such, they share much in common with the falsifications of the 1619 Project which frame American history through the lens of progressive racial politics, as well as the fabrications of the Chinese Communist Party that try to erase the democratic, British past of Hong Kong. These claims have no basis in reality and, if questioned seriously and fairly, are impossible to defend on the merits. And that is where we can succeed. As Winston Smith said in 1984, “All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory.” That “unending series of victories” only needs a few defeats to fall apart entirely, and poking holes in these historical manipulations is something any proper historian or thinker should engage in. The response to these critics is often telling; Hannah-Jones, the ‘thought-leader’ behind the 1619 Project, spoke about legislative attempts to bar her program from uncritical instruction in schools, saying “We should all, as Americans, be deeply, deeply concerned about these anti-history laws, because what they’re really trying to do is control our memory and to control our understanding of our country.” The reaction of Big Brother is often projection and obfuscation. It falls to us to say: “No, we have not always been at war with Eurasia.”