“Who controls the past controls the future;
Who controls the present controls the past.”
-- Winston Smith in George Orwell’s “1984”
There is a battle for language that I fear goes unnoticed to most Americans, and it is being fought primarily in the culture wars.
Despite Shakespeare’s admonition that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, both our language and our history are being rewritten by advocates and activists of all stripes as a way to lay the groundwork for the cultural changes they wish to impose. Those efforts, in addition to the now long-standing imperatives of political correctness, appear to be succeeding.
To cite just a few examples, there are people on the conservative side who describe their belief systems as being reflective of American “family values.” One of those values appears to be that marriage should be available only to heterosexual couples, and perhaps that transgender people are not to be accommodated in the military or in public restrooms.
On the other side, people who are opposed to a full legalization of 9-months of abortion on demand have been described as “opponents of women’s reproductive health.” Talk about euphemisms.
Terms such as those are not meant to be precise or to inform. They are designed to have an emotional impact and to impart either a positive or negative spin.
Lewis Carroll had Humpty Dumpty say that words mean just what he chooses them to mean, neither more nor less. We are reaping the results of a vast language re-engineering today that is busy removing precision and common understandings of meaning in favor of an Orwellian double-speak that is entirely designed to manipulate.
Our only defense is to be acutely aware of it.
Moreover, there are attempts being made to move the focal points in the telling of our nation’s history. I spend a lot of time volunteering in Colonial Williamsburg, and I continue to meet retired teachers and professors who lament the sad state of the teaching of history.
It seems that a lot of academics have come to the conclusion (either own their own or under pressure) that a primary focus of their courses needs to be a catalog of America’s sins and on all the victims of America’s transgressions. One retired professor of history told me his entire department had been directed by the administration to “diversity enhance” their courses.
Somewhere along the line, diversity, multiculturalism and ideology got in the way of a classical education. As a result, our children and grandchildren are learning about the contributions of a large number of currently favored ethnic and minority groups while they are being screened away from learning about the much despised “dead white males” and what they had to say. How many recent college graduates could tell you much of anything about the ideas of Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, Voltaire, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates or Hutcheson? How many of our newly minted acolytes of socialism could contrast the ideas of Adam Smith and Karl Marx?
In terms of our nation’s history, we need to do less judging and condemning in favor of reaching a greater historical understanding of the people and events that shaped our past. Surely the legitimate contributions of women and minorities should be included, because they are real and they are historically significant, but not to the point where the other people who offered so much to the Enlightenment and to the development of Western civilization are excluded or denigrated.
Finally, in terms of our language, before the deliberate desecration of words in Mr. Orwell’s “1984” becomes the reality of the 21st century, perhaps Mr. Humpty Dumpty needs to have another great fall.
Filko lives in Williamsburg and has taught American Government and Economics.