The narrative of constant crisis promulgated by the Democratic party and progressive activists is merely a fig leaf for authoritarian, anti-democratic power grabs.
Emergencies have been recognized as unique and special events for most of human history, something the dictionary definition confirms. On the societal or civilizational scale, these crises can take many forms and relate to myriad causes – natural disaster, war, famine, pandemic, economic collapse, revolution, and more. These unforeseen, dramatic events are generally time-sensitive and limited in nature; floodwaters recede, harvests improve, viruses weaken and immunity spreads, and the business cycle rises once more. As the centuries have gone by, human societies have found useful ways of dealing with these emergency events, often tasking government institutions or leaders with crisis response. From the ancient past to the modern day, those temporary powers granted to government during periods of extreme tumult have been used to greatly relieve suffering and shorten the duration and scope of the disaster. But just as often, they have been used for ill; to agglomerate power in non-emergency situations, superficially extend real crises to retain deeper control, or permanently alter the political status quo. We are not yet at those destructive levels, but our politics have been slowly inching along that path for decades now. Under the current Democratic administration and Congress, however, this slow burn has rapidly accelerated. History can help us understand the perils that come along when one stokes the flames of permanent emergency.
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.
The quote above, from Plato’s Apology, was purportedly spoken by the ancient philosopher-sage Socrates just prior to his condemnation to death by the men of Athens. His crime? According to Plato, Socrates was condemned to death for the unforgivable offense of ‘corrupting the youth’ of the august city-state through his teachings, philosophy, and exhortations to greater self-knowledge. The resolve with which Socrates met his death and the stand he took for his principles have been celebrated throughout the ages as defining examples of political and philosophical courage. One of the historical eras which was typified by its fascination with the ideas and history of the ancient Greco-Roman world was the period of the late Enlightenment just prior to the French Revolution. The story of Socrates and his principled stand in the face of a hostile state was extremely resonant for French intellectuals in this period; one such intellectual was the famed painter Jacques-Louis David, who crafted a masterpiece depicting the moments before Socrates drank the hemlock that would kill him. David’s masterwork, The Death of Socrates, is a powerful visual representation of a literary and historical event as well as being an exemplar for an Enlightenment attitude – the value of defending one’s principles even to death – that would resound throughout the French Revolution.