Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
—1984, by George Orwell
Sarah Palin and Richard “Rick” Santorum may not have read Orwell’s classic novel.
But they share at least one thing in common with the fictionalized dictator–Big Brother–who rules Oceania: A desire to attain power through the rewriting of history.
On June 2, Palin, the former Alaska governor, offered her version of Paul Revere’s famous ride:
“And, you know, he warned the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.”
Generations of Americans who had been taught that Revere made his “midnight ride” to warn colonists–not the British–of approaching British troops were understandably surprised.
Revere made his ride without the ringing of bells and the firing of warning shots. Secrecy was in fact critical as the silversmith raced to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops were coming to arrest them.
And on June 7, Santorum, the former United States Senator from Pennsylvania, gave perhaps the most bizarre reason ever imagined for the launching of D-Day against Nazi forces in Normandy, France:
“Almost 60,000 average Americans had the courage to go out and charge those beaches on Normandy, to drop out of airplanes who knows where, and take on the battle for freedom.
“Average Americans. The very Americans that our government now, and this president, does not trust to make decision on your health care plan. Those Americans risked everything so they could make that decision on their health care plan.”
Generations of Americans who had been taught the June 6, 1944 invasion of France had been launched to destroy the Third Reich were understandably surprised.
But there is more.
Palin supporters made dozens of changes to the Paul Revere page on the Wikipedia site after Palin made her nonsensical claims. Their goal was to rewrite history to conform with the latest historical fallacy put forth by their political idol.
Wikipedia allows people to add information or make changes to pages, but an army of dedicated users worldwide seeks to ensure the information is accurate.
Jeff Schneider, a Wikipedia online editor and contributor, said that Palin interview videos weren’t considered “reliable sources” for updates to the site. He added that he was the first to “remove someone adding historic information based on Palin’s interview.”
Again, Orwell’s novel is instructive:
“And when memory failed and written records were falsified—when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested.”
The leaders of the Soviet Union were notorious for repeatedly rewriting history to suit their own political ends. Thus, Joseph Stalin wrote his longtime rival, Leon Trotsky, out of the history books.
Similarly, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, consigned Stalin to historical infamy–while ignoring his own role in carrying out Stalin’s murderous purges of millions.
And so on–through the succeeding reigns of Leonid Brezniev, Yuri Andropov, Constantin Chernenko and, finally, Mikhail Gorbachev.
As a well-known underground joke went among Russians: “The trouble with writing history in the Soviet Union is you never know what’s going to happen yesterday.”
Neither Palin nor Santorum controls the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency to shape public opinion. So they must rely on their own powers of persuasion–and, in Palin’s case, on her army of political enforcers–to reshape history into whatever they want it to mean at any given moment.
Similarly, Republican leaders generally have enthusiastically used inaccurate historical comparisons to advance their party’s fortunes. President Barack Obama, for example, has been labeled as both a Nazi (complete with a Hitler mustache) and a Communist.
The Nazi comparison ignores the most obvious truth about Nazism: There was no place in this party for anyone who wasn’t white. And the Communist libel ignores the billions of dollars Obama authorized to save the capitalistic infrastructure that was on the brink of collapse.
Moreover, a man who was both a Communist and a Nazi would have to be constantly at war with himself. The dictators of the Soviet Union (Joseph Stalin) and Nazi Germany (Adolf Hitler) felt themselves to be locked in a mortal struggle during the 1930s.
And, from 1941 to 1945, they–and the millions of soldiers under their command–waged that struggle openly and brutally.
But for those bent on attaining total power, historical truth by itself means nothing. History–like the lives of those they seek to rule–exists only as a means to whatever end they desire.
It remains for the potential victims of such power-seekers to remember the truth offered by Ernest Hemingway: “Fascism is a lie told by bullies.”
A similar alarm was sounded by the man Republicans now revere as their holy-of-holies: Ronald Reagan. Speaking at a Presidential news conference on January 29, 1981, he bluntly described the philosophy of the leaders of the Soviet Union–in words that now apply as fully to the leaders of his own party:
“The only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that, and that is moral, not immoral, and we operate on a different set of standards. I think when you do business with them, even at a detente, you keep that in mind.”