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.
Welcome back to the Foreign Telegram, a series of posts in which I touch on some of the most important international stories that you may not have seen on the news. This time around, we’ll be visiting Israel to see how their new government helps debunk so many of the false narratives about the Jewish state, Taiwan to address the escalating Chinese incursions into their airspace, and Afghanistan to see how the precipitous American withdrawal is delivering the country into the hands of an unrepentant terrorist regime, as well as seeing how the Chinese-developed Sinovac vaccine is doing to stop Covid-19 (spoiler alert: not well).
Rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO) was a mistake.The Biden administration should revoke their promise to do so, post-haste.
Throughout the past year of the global pandemic, the World Health Organization has been negligent and has routinely gotten things wrong. From their wholesale reliance on China’s word when it came to the early outbreak to their stance against masking and long-time claims that the virus was not airborne, the group failed at its mission of global public health. These failures are not unrepresentative of the WHO’s general approach, as the body seems to focus more on international politics than it does health these days. The organization is led by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian public health figure whose candidacy to lead the body was mainly supported by the Chinese government in opposition to a Western-backed figure. Tedros has come through in a big way for his Chinese Communist Party backers, taking the Chinese government line as the gospel truth and pushing against any and all parties who blame China for this plague year. The WHO has been inconsistent on nearly all aspects of its coronavirus approach, but for its constant support of the CCP. This should be unacceptable in a global public health organization.
In this recurring series of posts, I’ll be highlighting some of the most important and interesting developments in foreign affairs that may have been missed by casual news consumers. These posts may be infrequent, but that all depends on what catches my eye in the realm of international events. I’ll generally describe a few items in each Foreign Telegram, giving an overview of the news itself and some brief commentary on what it all means. Without further throat-clearing, here’s the Foreign Telegram for February 3, 2021.
A sale to an American company would only serve to create perverse incentives.
The Chinese-owned video-sharing social media app TikTok has been all over the news recently, as the federal government has been considering banning the app from the US. I am a big proponent of this strategy and laid out the case against TikTok a few weeks back on this blog. This past weekend saw a flurry of activity on the TikTok front, as President Trump first stated that he was planning to ban the app outright before backing off of that position. The current plan du jour is to allow the American technology giant Microsoft to pursue a full acquisition of TikTok’s US operations. A sale to Microsoft would include the app’s American business, as well as the user data which the app collects. This would solve the problem that I delineated, would it not?