The central character in George Orwell’s 1984 is Winston Smith. He works at the Ministry of Truth, and his job is rewriting history. He’d receive, say, an old edition of the official news source, the Times, where Big Brother referred to the war with Eastasia. Now, though, they’re at war with Eurasia (and always have been), so Smith would correct the “facts” and a new edition would replace all the earlier ones, and with the original date. The past was constantly being updated.
Radio host and writer Thom Hartmann tells of a visit to a right wing think tank, and being taken through a room with about thirty cubicles. In each one was a young guy rewriting Wikipedia pages. Conservatives have always been big on historical revisionism, since their own history is too unsavory for a discriminating palate, with an aftertaste of greed, avarice, and corruption. They’ve never had a monopoly on these vices, but they have perfected them to a fine art. Witness the public perception of the Carter presidency, that he was weak and ineffective. The truth is a little different; he was actually one of our better presidents.
He established a national policy of renewable energy, even installing solar panels on the roof of the White House. The plan was that by 2000, we’d be getting 20% of the nation’s energy from solar power. Think how different things would be today if people had listened. During his administration the Departments of Education and Energy were created. He was the only president in decades that didn’t need a dirty little war somewhere. He brokered the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, a partnership that continues today. Egypt is currently trying to facilitate peace talks between Israel and Palestine.
The Iran hostage crisis damaged his legacy, and he also oversaw the deregulation of the airline, rail, communications, and financial industries, which hasn’t turned out well. Perhaps his worst fault was his habit of telling Americans the truth, as in his famous 1979 “Malaise” speech. Bummer. Nobody wanted to hear that stuff. Along came a Hollywood cowboy named Ronald Reagan, who had the gift of intuitively knowing what people wanted to hear, and then telling them exactly that. He was a hack actor until he got to the White House, by which time he’d learned how to deliver his lines, like “morning in America” and “a shining city on the hill.” People ate up that shit. I do have to give him this: his confident, avuncular manner made Americans feel good about themselves again. The public perception of Reagan is that of a great president fitting a place on Mount Rushmore, if you read the rewritten history, that is. Shining some sunlight on his presidency reveals some inconvenient truths.
Reagan more than tripled the national deficit from about $700 billion to $3 trillion, in a binge of borrowing and spending, which led to an orgy of conspicuous consumption. It set the tone for living beyond one’s means. But for the first time ever, increased productivity was not followed by increases in wages, which flatlined, and have stayed flat. America lost two million manufacturing jobs, outsourcing becoming the new business meme. Reaganomics, the idea that by cutting taxes on the wealthy, that revenues would somehow increase, has proven to be complete bullshit. Even Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, admits they knew that when they were doing it! Reagan basically handed the country over to the millionaires, who are today’s billionaires. It was the triumph of style over substance.
When Reagan busted the air traffic controllers’ union Patco, it was the opening salvo of a long assault on unions, which continues today. Under Reagan it became socially acceptable to ignore, and even have contempt for, the sufferings of the poor and needy. Homelessness exploded, partially because thousands of mental health facilities were shut down. Another tone that was set was selfishness, and those years were called the Me Decade. The AIDs epidemic was ravaging America, and yet Reagan couldn’t bring himself to even mention it until nearly the end of his presidency, in 1987. By then 20,000 Americans were dead. On top of all that was the Iran Contra scandal (still unresolved), the collapse of the savings and loans institutions, and the beginning of the huge gap in wealth inequality. We can’t blame him for racism, but just about everything else that’s gone wrong with this country began under his administration. He did a few good things, too, I’ll give him that. He was shrewd enough to see the need for détente with the Russians, and their new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was fairly progressive. Reagan’s ultimate vision was of a world without nuclear weapons, and I (reluctantly) applaud him for it.
By the time he left office he was already afflicted with Alzheimers, a condition I would wish on no one. It also served to immunize him from much deserved criticism and investigations into the Iran Contra affair and the S & L debacle. It was time to build a new mythology, and the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project was launched in 1997. One of their goals was to get a building named for him in every legislative district in America. It began with the Washington, D.C. airport, and he got an aircraft carrier a few years later. By 2005 over a thousand books had been written about him. One of the biggest Disneyfications is that he ended the cold war. Remember him in Berlin, saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”? The Soviet Union and East Germany were already crumbling when Reagan said that, but he was like the politician who sees a parade going by, and runs around to get in front of it.
Today mythology has become theology. Reagan has attained sainthood with conservatives everywhere, although he’d most likely be exiled from today’s Republican Party for being too liberal. Perhaps most damaging of his legacies was this quote: “Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” It gave rise to thirty-five years of thinking the government can’t do anything right (therefore, let the private sector run everything — at a profit, of course). It’s always puzzled me why people who hate government so badly want to get into it, because whenever they do, they somehow seem to prove their point.
When the history of the Obama presidency is rewritten, it will say he was weak and ineffectual — they’ll Carterize him. Everyone will forget that Republicans obstructed and blocked everything he tried to do (see “Sabotage, Treason, or Something in Between?” in archives, Nov 2014). That history won’t mention that when Obama took office in January, 2009, unemployment was at 10% and the stock market at 7500 or so, and today they are 5.9% and over 17,000, respectively. The economy is averaging over 200,000 new jobs created each month. When Obama took office we were hemorrhaging over 700,000 jobs a month. It doesn’t matter, though. All his accomplishments will be forgotten, swept away.
Historical revisionism is now in the textbook publishing business, and it’s always by those on the Right. Democrats, liberals, progressives, whatever you call them, just don’t have the neural wiring to think that way. The Texas School Board has lots of clout in publishing, as they are the biggest purchaser of school texts, and they’re also a little to the Right of ISIS, the Islamic State. They want to drop Jefferson and Franklin from the history books, and add arch-conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and Rush Limbaugh. Indiana and Louisiana are using textbooks published by the Christian conservative Bob Jones University. Our children will learn from them that most slaveholders treated their slaves well (isn’t that nice), that the Ku Klux Klan were reformers mainly concerned with bootleggers and wife-beaters, and that 1960s hippies wore dirty clothes, seldom bathed, and many rock groups of the era were Satan worshippers. And I found this little item as I was writing this. In a Dec. 10th article on mediamatters.org: “North Carolina Newspapers Mostly Silent as ALEC and Koch Brothers Rewrite History.” The state legislature passed a bill, “The Founding Principles Act,” written by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.” It’s a group made up of corporate lobbyists and state legislators (99% Republican). They draft legislation that’s ready to introduce back home in the state houses. By the way, the merger of business with government is the very definition of fascism. The curriculum was written by the Bill of Rights Institute, a right wing think tank heavily funded by the Koch family. The materials are slanted against marriage equality, gun control, and the usual wedge issues. It directs students toward cases challenging racial equality, rather than the more numerous cases that struck down segregation practices. Not only did ALEC write and push it through, but hand-picked the organization that creates the classroom materials.
I suppose even now there are other Winston Smiths busily rewriting history for George W. Bush, the village idiot from Crawford, Texas. Excised from the record will be the invasions of two countries who neither attacked nor threatened us, up to a million Iraqi deaths and millions more displaced, of over 5000 deaths of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands with broken bodies and shattered minds, of wiping his ass on the Constitution and pissing on our civil liberties. Perhaps he, too, will be canonized as one of our greatest wartime presidents. And those who designed and implemented these atrocities and others — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Alberto Gonzales, Donald Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, David Addington, Steven Bradbury, Jay Bybee, and John Woo — will be painted with colorful strokes as true patriots, instead of the war criminals they really are.
It’s said history is written by the winners; I think the facts prove otherwise. These people are losers. They may be the ones rewriting our history, but they are and will remain, on the wrong side of it. So don’t believe everything you read — especially on Wikipedia.
Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.
— George Orwell