On amnesia

The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

In my more paranoid moments – and which of us isn’t prey to a few of those nowadays? – I sometimes wonder if there aren’t some people who take Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as their template for the ideal future of our civilisation. It certainly seems to be working out that way sometimes.

Consider the telescreen. In the novel, these are in every home, and serve two purposes: they are a vehicle for Party propaganda, but they also allow surveillance by the Thought Police. Aren’t these functions perfectly served by social media, especially when consumed via smartphone? The modern world has gone one better than Orwell; we carry ours around with us everywhere, and moreover pay good money for the privilege.

Social media is also the home of another Orwellian institution, the Two Minutes Hate. I think we can all recognise this description:

Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

But the thing I want to draw attention to this week is the way in which what was true or important yesterday magically ceases to be true or important today. This has always happened, of course, but it seems to me that it happens more often and more blatantly than it used to, even over my lifetime.

Seen much in the news lately about the Syrian civil war? Probably not. Is this because the Syrian civil war is over? Nope. It’s still going strong. People are still dying, there’s still a huge refugee crisis, all that stuff that used to be all over the headlines is still happening. It’s just been dropped from the news agenda. A cynic might suggest that this is because the evil Assad regime (they must be evil because they’re clients of the evil Russians) has not been swept away by the heroic freedom fighters (a.k.a. the clients of the USA) as was supposed to happen, and it’s all a bit of a mess.

All propaganda needs a nice clear story-line. You need to be able to see who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. But as Orwell points out, these roles can be reassigned as required. Consider the career of the late, unlamented Saddam Hussein. He was installed as dictator of Iraq by the USA in order to oppose the evil Iranians (you can tell they’re evil because they have oil and prefer to dispose of it on their own terms rather than the ones America would prefer). So long as he performed this role, Saddam was one of the good guys, and he could do what the hell he liked to the Marsh Arabs or anyone else he didn’t like. Only when he decided to start thinking for himself and maybe selling his oil in a currency other than the US Dollar did his white stetson mysteriously become black.

An even more striking example of this mutability of virtue is the late Colonel Gaddafi. By a spooky coincidence, he also controlled substantial oil reserves. Gaddafi enjoyed a long and colourful career as the Libyan Antichrist. He was blamed for pretty much any and every terrorist attack for many years; indeed he seems to have embraced this, and claimed responsibility for things he had nothing to do with. At his peak, he was almost as ubiquitous a scapegoat as Covid-19 or Vladimir Putin.

Yet even he was brought back to the fold when he denounced the 9/11 attacks, and for a time he was the blue-eyed boy, best mates with Tony Blair, removed from the official list of bad guys by the US, and even paid a subsidy by the EU for helping to curb illegal immigration from North Africa. Despite this, however, his new friends in the West shed no tears when he was deposed and killed, providing air cover for rebel forces.

It’s not just recent history that’s getting the Orwell treatment. Hollywood has of course always played fast and loose with the facts, and many of us already know that “Inspired by true events” usually means “Mostly made up” – although perhaps not enough of us. But the recent film The Woman King is quite spectacularly mendacious even by Hollywood standards. While the female warriors it depicts did exist, they were by no means anti-slavery; the historical Kingdom of Dahomey was heavily dependent on the slave trade, and those women took an active part in slave-raids. It’s almost as if they’d remade Schindler’s List with an SS officer as the hero.

The most impressive attempt to rewrite recent history going on at the moment, though, has to be the campaign to pretend that the claims made for the various Covid vaccines were never in fact made, either by the manufacturers, public health authorities, or politicians, and even that there were never any lockdowns. It was claimed, as we remember, that vaccinated people would not catch the disease and would not pass it on to others. It was also claimed that the vaccines were safe. Those claims may or may not have been made in good faith, but they aren’t looking so robust now.

I can only assume that the people trying to deny all this are either so detached from reality that they think people will actually believe this tripe over their own lived experience, or so desperate to avoid the likely backlash that they’ll try anything. The public health policies of many nations were founded on these claims, and it’s far from clear that those policies did more good than harm.

Who knows, maybe they’ll get away with it. They may need to expunge quite a few criminal records, and they’re certainly going to have to delete an awful lot of video footage. And it wouldn’t be the first time Joe Biden put his foot in it – just ask the State Department. Perhaps one day the pandemic which was supposedly the worst thing since the Black Death will be quietly forgotten, just like the Syrian civil war.

But I hope not. I hope Lincoln was right about the impossibility of fooling all of the people all of the time. Winter is almost here, and naked emperors may find it less than comfortable. Will enough people buy into the Party line du jour to maintain business as usual? Maybe for a while, but certainly not forever. Keep a journal. The history of the next few years may be interesting, and it can’t hurt to have an independent record.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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