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.Read More »