Unless you change it!
May 2, 2021
When I first read George Orwell’s “1984”, I did not think I would still be needing to remember its warning when I reached 75.
In Orwell’s writing, history had no permanence, it was only another way of conveying a cynical but powerful political message. “it appeared from ‘The Times’ of the seventeenth of March that Big Brother, in his speech of the previous day, had predicted that the South Indian front would remain quiet but that a Eurasian offensive would shortly be launched in North Africa. As it happened, the Eurasian Higher Command had launched its offensive in South India and left North Africa alone. It was therefore necessary to rewrite a paragraph of Big Brother’s speech, in such a way as to make him predict the thing that had actually happened. Or again, ‘The Times’ of the nineteenth of December had published the official forecasts of the output of various classes of consumption goods in the fourth quarter of 1983, which was also the sixth quarter of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. Today’s issue contained a statement of the actual output, from which it appeared that the forecasts were in every instance grossly wrong. Winston’s job was to rectify the original figures by making them agree with the later ones…As short a time ago as February, the Ministry of Plenty had issued a promise (a ‘categorical pledge’ were the official words) that there would be no reduction of the chocolate ration during 1984. Actually…the chocolate ration was to be reduced from thirty grammes to twenty at the end of the present week. All that was needed was to substitute for the original promise a warning that it would probably be necessary to reduce the ration at some time in April.”
When the New York Times launched its 1619 Project it places the importance of history clearly before us. Its aim was to correct the historical narrative that, its creators believed, were foundational to our nation’s continuing and virulent racism “by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
As I read it, a set of questions kept ringing in my head. As a “well-educated” person why was so much of this new to me? How could I not have known that?
These were the same question I had asked as when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”, Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law” and Ari Shavitz’s My Promised Land.” Each presented history that I did not know.
It was history that I had not been taught because those who taught me did not want me to know it. The history I had been fed had been carefully curated to avoid difficult and unsettling realities.
As Orwell had recognized, controlling the narrative about yesterday is a powerful tool in controlling how we respond to the challenges of today and the future we are building. What we know about our past provides the important context for how we can understand our present. It forbids us from cavalierly covering over the blemishes, scars and still open wounds that cannot be ignored without a terrible cost.
How can you understand what is occurring in Israel/Palestine if your sense of the past has edited out centuries of Palestinian life on the land that is being struggled over? How can you grapple with the conflict of two people’s quite different national story if the facts of one story have been removed from what we “know” and teach?
When this is tolerated, we find ourselves hearing people like former Senator Rick Santorum. Their American history has no room for unsettling facts. “We came here and created a blank slate. We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
We build the history we want to avoid the price of confronting reality, as unpleasant as that reality is. The authors of that history had, like Big Brother, had, a purpose in mind. We protect our wealth and power, wealth and power that has been the result of that history.
Rather than look at the past without varnish; rather than grapple with uncomfortable questions, questions which demand we take our values seriously before we reach answers, we too often just attack the bearer of information we just do not want to consider.
For the defenders of our tightly controlled history, like the Heritage Society, the issue is not about facts but about protecting us from seeing our flaws. ““The overriding lesson is clear: young people must learn to despise their nation—its Constitution, ideals, economic system, and its Founders. They must resent and reject their past; possess an aggressive, contemptuous, and disobedient attitude toward the present; and strive forcefully to create a triumphant future where the enemies of old are punished, and the innocent finally rule. Teaching young people that they have no country, that there is neither God nor justice, but only their own anger to right wrongs leads not to civilized self-rule, but to fanaticism and self-destruction.”
That is the import of Senator Scott’s response to President Biden’s recent speech. When he said “Hear me clearly, America is not a racist country” he was wiping away the importance of our learning deeply about the truth of our national history. From that perspective, those things, even if true, have lost their relevance to modern life; at best they are only historical footnotes, little oddities best left ot those few scholars who want to sift through the du9st of artifacts.
Even President Biden, the consummate middle of the road politician, in his response to Scott, recognized that writing history to be what we want it to be does not protect us from its still festering wounds, it only guarantees that at we will not get better, that we will not fix the problems that remain unsolved. “I think the overhang from all of the Jim Crow and before that, slavery, have had a cost and we have to deal with it.”
We can only solve the problems that we are willing to see. And we can only solve those problems if are ready to assume a degree of responsibility for our past errors. In the short run that may be costly; in the long run it is the only way to avoid paying the terrible human price of looking back in 2119 and asking why we are still struggling with the same issues?