The Public Interest

What’s Wrong with History?

Michael Nelson

Spring 1980

THE aspect of his dystopia that George Orwell himself found most frightening-‘ more terrifying than mere torture or death”—was personified in the occupation of his protagonist, Winston Smith.  Smith spent his days at the Ministry of Truth “rectifying” stories that had been “malreported” in old editions of the Times. Through the efforts of people like Smith, “Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date” with current Party dogma. “All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean . . . as often as was necessary.” That Smith himself often could not remember the old version of an event after he had altered it for posterity was the best evidence of all of the truth of the Party slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’”

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