In the more than seventy years since its publication, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has been read as a commentary on totalitarianism, on the technology of surveillance, and lately on the rise of propagandistic “fake news” and “alternative facts.” One aspect of the dystopia, however, has a continued relevance which hasn’t been perceived quite as often: the falsification of history. Orwell’s protagonist Winston Smith works as a functionary in the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to review and re-edit old newspapers to have them conform to the current policies of Big Brother’s Oceania, so that no document from the past ever contradicts the invented reality of the present. “How could you tell how much of it was lies?” Winston reflects, studying an official history book that portrays the suffering which the Party had supposedly eliminated. “It might be true that the average human being was better off now than he had been before the Revolution. The only evidence to the contrary was the mute protest in your own bones…”
This scenario may not seem all that recognizable in our own era: after all, there are still plenty of unofficial history books and other lessons available to anyone who’s interested in what things were like a long time ago. But today’s “reckoning” with various forms of oppression and discrimination is conspicuous in how it recasts as problematic many developments which were once considered progressive. Capitalizing the descriptor “Black,” for example, implies that the countless previous printed uses of “black” by writers of any color were all tainted by racism – even though “black” was itself once considered a linguistic improvement over “colored,” “negro,” or more derogatory terms. Likewise, the ideology of #Me Too can characterize ostensibly consensual sex between individual men and women as subtle exercises of male power and coercion – even though women’s agency in selecting whatever partners they chose was once considered an improvement over Victorian ideals of feminine purity and innocence. And the entertainment industry has shown particular contrition over its historic lack of diversity – even though Jewish, Black, female and gay artists and entrepreneurs had long considered opportunities in show business to be an improvement over the exclusion they faced from more traditional professions.
Here’s where Nineteen Eighty-Four comes in. Orwell’s Insoc falsified the past to maintain that Big Brother had always been correct, but the reckoning falsifies the past to maintain that the system has always been wrong: that only now is social injustice being properly identified and confronted, that every purported advance prior to this moment was merely a cosmetic tweak of an underlying and eternal evil. More, the reckoning denies that standards of what constituted discriminatory laws or inappropriate speech have ever changed. Those standards have always been fixed, runs the Orwellian line, and we have always failed to meet them. Today’s activism decides for itself the sole measures of sufficient tolerance and inclusion, and applies them retroactively. Today’s activism would have us believe that everything up to the arrest of Harvey Weinstein, the transitioning of Caitlyn Jenner, and the protests over George Floyd’s death was one interminable stretch of sexism, racism, and homophobia undifferentiated by evolving public values or breakthrough government legislation.
The compliant Party member, Winston Smith learns from what he thinks is an unauthorized text, “must be cut off from the past, just as he must be cut off from foreign countries, because it is necessary for him to believe that he is better off than his ancestors…It is not merely that speeches, statistics, and records of every kind must be constantly brought up to date to show that the predictions of the Party were in all cases right. It is also that no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted.” The repeated message, in both Orwell’s book and in the contemporary rhetoric of diversity, is that real progress was out of reach until just recently; not until the revolution have we addressed the cruelty and ignorance that define every era prior to our own. We are, admittedly, a long way from the kind of control over history that Big Brother exerted in the fictional 1984. But in our actual 2021, the serene and strangely sinister assurances of a uniformly unjust and irredeemably hateful pre-reckoning age are not so very far off.