With this article, we begin a new weekly feature from the editor of our closest sister publication,Books & Culture: A Christian Review.
Fifty years ago, George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-four, his prescient novel on the psychology of the totalitarian state. In 1949, it was not yet fashionable in the West to recognize the true nature of the Soviet Union, that monstrous experiment in human engineering. But Orwell saw the truth, and told it unforgettably in one the great books of the twentieth century.
Last weekend a group of distinguished scholars met at the University of Chicago to mark the 50th anniversary of Orwell's masterpiece. Before the conference began, Chicago's NPR station, WBEZ, devoted a segment of its program "Odyssey" to a discussion of Nineteen Eighty-four. The panelists included legal scholar Richard Epstein, historian Peter Novick, and novelist Margaret Drabble. During the conversation the host brought up the special attention to historythe control of history, the ongoing rewriting of historythat is a marked feature of the totalitarian state as portrayed by Orwell. Does this aspect of the novel ring true?
Astonishingly, both Epstein and Novick declared without hesitation that on this point, Orwell had simply "got it wrong." Of course the Soviet regime tried to manipulate history for its purposes, though it wasn't such an obsessionso these scholars confidently saidas Orwell's novel might suggest. And clearly he overestimated the effect of such tactics. Look at what happened when the Soviet empire crumbled: it became immediately apparent that most of the people didn't believe the official line anyway.
But Orwell didn't get it wrong, as any one of a hundred memoirs and historical studies of the Soviet era will confirm. (A good starting place is Czeslaw Milosz's classic book, The Captive Mind.) The need to control the pastto control public memory and thus control the minds and spirits of its subjectswas absolutely central to the Soviet project from the beginning, and its devastating consequences will be felt for generations.
As Mark Noll has shown in "History Wars," a four-part series in Books & Culture (see "Related Elsewhere" links below), the discourse of historyin scholarly monographs, textbooks, historical movies, and countless other formsis always subject to such pressures, even though rarely is the power to govern that telling as ruthlessly concentrated as it was in the Soviet Union.
We encounter competing efforts to "spin" history every time we pick up a newspaper. The history may be very recentwhat happened in the president's office a couple of scandals ago, for instance, or what's happened in the three years since welfare reform began to be implementedor decades pastwhat happened under a bridge in South Korea almost 50 years agoor much, much further back: who first settled the Americas, and where did they come from? But whether the history is recent or distant, someone has a strong interest in getting you to see it in a particular way.
The New York Times Magazine for Sunday, September 19, for example, featured a series of scenes from the last millennium as imagined by living artists. A caption for one of the scenes instructs us that "the Crusades defined Western civilization in terms of righteous warfare and conquest of foreign territories, and they also initiated Western suspicion of the inhabitants of the Middle East, who had to be viewed as forces of evil in order to justify European conquest." In the accompanying commentary, Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God, states that "Crusading made Islam the ideological enemy of the West."
Unmentioned is an earlier wave of conquest, summarized thus by Peter Partner in God of Battles: Holy Wars of Christianity and Islam (Princeton University Press):
Following Muhammad's death [in A.D. 632] there was a very long period of Islamic holy war that extended to much of western Asia, North Africa, and parts of Europe. These wars overturned the Persian Empire entirely, and robbed the Roman Byzantine Empire of something like half its lands.
(Oh, that conquest! How did we miss that?) And among the territories conquered in that first wave of Islamic expansion were some of the earliest Christian communities.
Christians, alas, have been guilty of heavy-duty spinning of their own. A good New Millennium's resolution would be this: to commit ourselves to telling the truth, even when it makes "our side" look bad. By doing so we will honor the one who promised that "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."
All four parts of Mark Noll's "History Wars" are available online at www.booksandculture.com:
Some Recent Battles (May/June 1999)
Intellectual Fallout (July/August 1999)
Allies? (September/October 1999)
A Peace of God? (November/December 1999)
Listen to WBEZ's "Odyssey" broadcast about Nineteen Eighty-four in RealAudio format.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.