Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Do You Remember When...

George Orwell's 1984 has the protagonist, Winston Smith, work in a job where he changes the past newspaper records to accord with the newest interpretation of events. Anything that actually happened but is no longer deemed desirable to have happened goes into the Memory Hole: a slit in the wall of Winston's office. When the government starts a new war any evidence of the fresh foe having once been a bosom buddy is erased. Hence the famous quote from the book: "We have always been at war with [add the name of the current enemy]."

This is all chillingly familiar in the new faith-based world George Bush has built us. "Facts" change overnight, and nobody seems to remember the old ones. It is not that many years ago that conservatives thundered about the big government. It was the Democrats who were seen as the spendthrifts. Today the situation is reversed and this causes little astonishment or surprise.

Winston Smith would find all this familiar: We went to war because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Then we didn't go to war for that reason at all, but for the Long March of democracy! No, I got it wrong: We went to war to build a bigger and smarter mousetrap in Iraq so that we would have no mice at home! No. It's democracy and purple fingerprints we want!

History changes the minute it is over, events slip into the Memory Hole, and every dawn the journalists accept the administration's most current construction of history. Revisionism at its finest, because it is not only the public history that is continuously being reinterpreted, but the participants appear to have blank slates for their own memories, too, slates which can be rewritten with any new message from the Bush administration.

All this is frightening, of course, and very frightening when I read some pundits tell me that looking at the past is a waste of time, that we should storm ahead, into the bright new future. But how do you even understand what future is if you no longer have a reliable past, no longer possess a memory of the real events? Wouldn't this future just hover there, like a bright balloon, not moored to anything? Wouldn't it be as fragile as a balloon, too, and as childish?

Perhaps memory is what really distinguishes children from adults. Adults have more memories, and because of that adults have the ability to learn from experiences on a much wider scale. If we as a society condemn our collective memories into the Memory Hole, can we ever really grow up?

There are days when I think that this is the greatest sin of the current administration: that they have made the Memory Hole much bigger. Imagine what you would be like without any memories at all. How would you cope? What or whom would you love? I fear that the same thing can happen to a country which refuses to have real memories, and that would be a terrible crime, on par with those in Orwell's 1984.