George Orwell’s,1984, may have seemed a bit excessive at the time it was published, but given the era in which we are living, some aspects of this work of fiction don’t seem fictitious at all.
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”― George Orwell, 1984
In Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, the story’s protagonist, Winston Smith, belongs to the Outer Party and it is his job to rewrite history in the Ministry of Truth, bringing it in line with current political thinking. The Party has created a propagandistic language known as Newspeak which is designed to limit free thought and promote the Party’s doctrines.
Fast forward seventy years and it seems that every time you turn on the news or read a newspaper, stories of various groups petitioning to remove statues of historical figures and symbols are prevalent. Cries for the removal of these icons and the reimagining and rewriting of the history they contain are rampant. The “woke agenda” and cancel culture attacking our Nation’s history is as dangerous and disturbing to me as doublethink was to Winston.
If we judge history as a static, black and white entity, then we do not leave ourselves open to acknowledging the progression of our society, the transformation in our thinking and understanding, and the important lessons we have learned from it. More frighteningly, we leave ourselves vulnerable, as Winston irrevocably learned, to a society where free speech and thought are replaced by indoctrination.
It is quite normal to debate our history, to discuss it, and learn from it. At the same time, we should not be so quick to glorify only the heroic deeds and the heroes of the past, while downplaying its darker side or vice-versa. History does not require a predetermined narrative to be interpreted or understood. Rather, it reveals itself, just as we as human beings are revealed through our choices and our actions.
As we have grown and evolved as a country and as a society, our ideals have grown with us. And while things that were once commonplace in our past but that are no longer accepted today attest to that evolution, eradicating the history books of their existence is a dangerous and slippery slope to embark on.
Like using biblical references to uphold a religious position, history can also be interpreted, tweaked, even fabricated to further a cause or an agenda. If repeated often enough, it then becomes fact regardless of its origin and/or its accuracy.― JN Fenwick
The study of history requires research, asking hard questions, and acknowledgment of the humanity contained within each story to see past the proscribed narrative. It takes a great amount of patience and is a responsibility that ultimately requires us to place ourselves in the shoes of those who lived it.
Historical context is a key component of a thorough and unbiased examination of history, enabling us to place events within the social, religious, economic, and political conditions that existed at the time they occurred. Historical context is critical because, without it, our memories, the stories, and the events as a whole have less meaning and importance. Examining history in the context in which the events took place enables us to accurately interpret them rather than simply judging them.
The same applies to the symbols that represent history. National symbols confirm and celebrate our national identity. They honor the past, the sacrifices made, the groundwork laid, the lessons learned, and the people who came before us. Removing these monuments leads to forgetting and opens us up to further rewriting of the very history that got us here.
I recently read an article about Cornell University removing a bust of Abraham Lincoln and a plaque of the Gettysburg Address from their library following a complaint. Though I can only surmise that the complaint fell in line with other such grievances that resulted in the removal of the statue of Theodore Roosevelt that has stood in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York since 1940 or the statue of Robert E. Lee that has stood on the grounds of the United States Capitol since 1909, the end result is the same. The statues represent the country’s history, no matter how complicated. Taking them down is to censor, whitewash, and potentially forget that history.
What happens to a society whose history fades either from lack of curiosity or perceived irrelevance or as a result of darker motives, like those Winston witnessed in 1984?
Without our history, our past, and our shared experiences, who are we as a nation? Without the lessons our history has taught us, the wisdom each generation has earned, the knowledge we bequeath to future generations, who will we become?
“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.”― George Orwell, 1984
Jennifer N. Fenwick, former U.S. History teacher, editor, and contributor, In the Eye of the Storm