In George Orwell's "1984," the central character, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting news items from the past so they support what the all-controlling inner Party asserts as present and past reality. The slogan that sums up this process is, "He who controls the past controls the future." Past government reports, economic plans and projections, official accounts of battles fought in remote places against whoever is the enemy, all are made to align with what the Party is doing now.
If the people would be disappointed that chocolate rations are being cut, the Party tells them that they are being increased and changes historical records so that rations from past months have lower quantities than the current rations. If apartment buildings are dilapidated, plumbing clogged, food inedible, clothing poorly made and unaffordable, the Party claims that the standard of living has improved and predicts even brighter days ahead.
The Party controls the citizens of Oceania with fear of enemies abroad and at home. It keeps people focused on perpetual war in far off lands. Every dead soldier is a hero, so questioning the reasons for war is a crime.
It is hard not to feel we are living in an Orwellian age.
In "1984," Smith briefly held in his hands hard evidence that the Party had lied about the activities of three political figures who had been accused, tried and convicted of treason. A news clipping accidentally came across his desk proving that the three traitors were at a conference in New York City on the very day they were convicted of being in Eurasia betraying Oceania.
Smith, frightened by what would happen to him if he makes known that he has, or has even seen, this hard evidence contradicting the Party's version of reality, sends it down the ironically named memory hole, where it is instantly burned.
Hard historical evidence like documents housed in the LBJ Library or the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas makes true history possible, but it does not guarantee it. The art of history has been so marginalized that it is not making a dent in ongoing political discussions.
In the manufactured controversy concerning President Barack Obama's citizenship and eligibility to be president, images shown on one news network of birth announcements in old Hawaiian newspapers are never seen by people who never watch that network.
Worse, last month on CNN, a guest anchor on "Lou Dobbs Tonight" reported that Factcheck.org, the Republican governor of Hawaii, and those very clippings established that Obama was born in Hawaii. Three days later, Lou Dobbs asserted on the same program, his own, that the questions had not been dealt with.
Worst of all, the ensuing coverage was all about the potential embarrassment to Dobbs, not about the harm done to our political process when such falsehoods are perpetuated.
Winston Smith realized that as time went by, the past would be rewritten so often that what once constituted hard evidence might no longer contradict the current version of history.
We have reached the point where truth in history is determined by whoever can buy a news network and get partisans to shout loud and long.
Hold onto your birth certificate, just in case.
Tom Palaima teaches classics at the University of Texas, Austin.
Republished with permission from the History News Network. Originally published in the Austin American-Statesman (8-21-09)