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Feature 09.30.2020 7 minutes

The Stakes of American History

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Who controls the past, controls the future.

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In this matter of history, freedom is at stake, but also our humanity is at stake. America having been made for humans, the nation is at stake too.

In the novel 1984 (1949), the job of the protagonist Winston Smith is to rewrite history. He is one of thousands, likely millions, who rewrite every account of past things: every newspaper and magazine article; every book of every kind; anything written down they adjust to the changing desires of the regime. The new versions are reprinted in an endless stream.

These alterations concern big things like with whom the nation was at war, and little things like whether some middling official was a hero or a villain. Winston, secretly alienated from the regime, does not fully understand why he undertakes his work until the end of the novel. Here, in a series of conversations that are among the great contrivances of literature, a member of the inner party named O’Brien explains to Winston, as he tortures him, the purpose of these revisions: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Teaching philosophy by torture is characteristic of the regime.

This dark novel is only restating the theme that can be found in writing about despotism that goes back to the classics. It is in Book V of Aristotle’s Politics. It is in the grim and profound novel Darkness at Noon (1940). It is in the apparently happy world described in Brave New World (1932), where the classic books are kept locked in a safe for the private enjoyment exclusively of the world controller Mustapha Mond.

The key to understanding the slogan of the regime in 1984 is that tyranny, to be complete, to be perfectly itself, must overturn nature or reality. Only then can the passion for power run free. The part of reality about which we can know the most is the past. The present is fleeting and constantly changing, and the future is not yet here. This gives rise to the great doctrine of Aristotle, repeated in Thomas Aquinas and in many great places: “This alone is denied even to God: to make what has been not to have been.” If there is any reality, the past is not malleable.

Today our children are being raised in the gloomy light of a false view of our history. This view is legislated and enforced through centralized standards and textbooks that proceed from Washington, D.C. and the capitals of the biggest states. It is reinforced in schools of education across the land where teachers are trained. It is ingrained in graduate schools, where the teachers of teachers are trained. In its most radical statements it does not even pretend to be true. It is a perspective committed entirely to fashionable and “correct” attitudes.

Here is a simple example: students all learn that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder and that he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Therefore he was a hypocrite. In some ways he was, but you cannot quite claim him to be a hypocrite unless you study what he says. And what he says consistently about slavery is that it is wrong and must be got rid of. “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just…. The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII: Manners, 1781)

Children today do not learn this, nor do they learn that Jefferson the slaveholder understood the Declaration to condemn the practice of slavery, and that Jefferson the slaveholder was the prime agent in assuring that the first land upon which our union expanded, the Northwest Territory, would be forever without slaves. If they learned this it would open the way for them to love and know their country better, but also it would open the way for them to understand things better, because things are like that: never perfect. The soul that knows this growing up knows that life will be full of challenges and that it must try to do well, even if it cannot do perfectly. Nevertheless, it is worth the striving.

In such failures of education we are laying the groundwork for an overturning of two things: first, our connection with the great principles of America that have militated against the evils that are common in both our history and our present and in the history and present of every land occupied by every people; and secondly, our attachment to the forms of government, above all the Constitution, by which the American people remain in control of the awesome power of government.

The relationship between the final cause of the union, the Declaration of Independence, and the formal cause, the Constitution, was stated sublimely by Abraham Lincoln as so many things were. Quoting the Bible, Lincoln said that “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” The Apple in this image is the Declaration, the frame of silver is the Constitution. We should cling to both of them. We must learn once again how to study and teach history and find the truth, both tragic and sublime, in its stories.

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