Winston, the hero of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984 was employed at the “Ministry of Truth … which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts.” The Ministry of Truth’s main task, of course, was to continually realign the past to suit the present.
This sort of thing, however, does not only occur in fiction. Many modern nations would appear to have taken their cues from Orwell’s novel. For instance, young people in China today, I’m told, have little if any knowledge of what occurred in Tiananmen Square in 1989, or of the horrors of the “cultural Revolution,” or other horrors of their nation’s past. Of course, Orwell had plenty of examples in his day, on which to pattern his novel.
The rewriting of history by authoritarian regimes is repugnant to most Americans, as grounded as we are in the freedoms guaranteed to us in our Constitution – freedom of speech, of the press, of worship.
Yet a few weeks ago, as members of our House of Representatives piously read through the U. S. Constitution, those who actually listened and were familiar with the document, noticed an omission almost immediately. I heard this pointed out, so I sat down with my copy and watched a video on the web. The omission was in Article One, Section 2, having to do with the appointment of legislators to the House of Representatives. The number was to “be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons.”
It was this statement that was left out. Why? I have not heard the rationale, and I suppose that a possible reason for the omission was that being referred to as 3/5 human might offend said persons, i.e. African Americans. So just leave it out, right? It was like removing the N-word from Huckleberry Finn (see my previous post).
We in America don’t have an official “Ministry of Truth,” although many of our political leaders would seem to be engaged in similar activities. But we don’t need to look to Washington for such truthiness. It seems to be a national pastime.
It seems to be considered a matter of patriotism to exalt our past. We want to promote our founding fathers and other leaders of the past as great heroes, as righteous, godly men. Those historians who point out the sins and injustices of America’s past are termed “revisionists.”
But I believe a true patriot is not a person who believes myths and half-truths about our nation, but one who loves his or her country enough to desire to know and reveal the truth about it.
And the truth is that our nation was a nation of racism from the start. Many of our founding fathers held slaves. Slavery was written into our Constitution. Our “Manifest Destiny” of ruling the continent from sea to shining sea included the suppression and sometimes slaughter of indigenous and other minority peoples.
We’re told by some that the past is the past and we can’t change it, that we in this generation are not to blame for the status quo, that we’re not responsible for the evils of our ancestors. I suppose that’s correct. But if that is so, then why do we want to take credit for their good accomplishments?
So let’s face our past. Let’s not sweep it under the rug. Let’s do what we can to right the wrongs of the past, including our own. And let’s try to make sure that future generations – our children and grandchildren – won’t have to cover for us.
“Our country, right or wrong! When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right!” – Carl Schurz, 1872