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Freedom of Expression: History

George Orwell envisioned information control to rewrite history
George Orwell envisioned information control to rewrite history
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We noted last week that some countries make it a crime to claim that the Holocaust never happened. We expect this in Germany, and Belgium, and some other countries immediately affected by the catastrophe, but there was a criminal conviction for such talk as far removed from the location as Canada. Most of my readers, though, see no problem here. After all, this is the denial of a historic event, coupled with a racist claim that it was invented by those who claim to have been its victims. Every intelligent educated person in the world knows that there was indeed such an act.

The phrase History is written by the winners has been around for a long time, and is attributed variously to Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill, and George Orwell. Its presumed meaning is that we do not know what really happened, only what those who won the wars want us to believe happened. There is an inherent logic to it--after all, everyone paints himself in the best possible light, which includes painting his enemies as worthy of despite, and ultimately the people who won the war are going to give their side of the story. Yet perhaps we might have foreseen that this notion would in the modern age be turned against reality: since history is only the story told by the winners, whoever can tell the most credible story ultimately gets to decide what the world believes really happened. Persuade enough people that Nixon was framed for Watergate, that Lincoln was a racist, that a secret organization called the Trilateralists always chooses our Presidents, and suddenly that becomes the official version. Argue that the Holocaust never happened, and do it effectively enough, and for practical purposes it will cease to become part of recorded history.

So perhaps it is of no consequence that in some countries Holocaust denial is a crime; we do not want people to believe such an atrocity never happened, so we do not want such a message espoused.

What, though, if it is your history someone wants to erase?

Imagine something like the Internet, but imagine that some organization controls it--that Google has a board of censors which carefully determines which information can be found and which simply does not exist. This is the sort of thing Orwell envisioned in his 1984: whenever someone fell out of favor, a search was made for all past newspaper articles speaking well of that person, the articles rewritten to show what a terrible person he actually was, and corrected copies of all these papers delivered to all libraries, so that the affirming articles no longer existed. It would not work that way today; rather, the ruling powers of our culture would label certain ideas correct and other ideas nonsense, and anyone who held to those other ideas would be marginalized as a conspiracy theorist or delusional nutcase.

Yes, in this particular case we are talking about criminalizing a claim that a well-established historic event never happened; but what if we did that for other information? The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was called by one historian the best attested event in all of history; it has been rejected as a completely unsupported fantasy by others. Should either side be able to make the expression of the opinion of the other side a criminal act? There are many facts of history that are inconvenient for someone--that European settlers and their descendants drove Native Americans onto reservations, that east Africans were the primary agents in the sales of west Africans into slavery in Europe and America. What of other notions--make it illegal to claim that there is, or is not, global warming, or to support evolution or creationism, or to argue for or against intelligent design, or to say that fetuses are or are not human lives, or homosexuality is or is not genetic? As Justice Holmes noted, it makes perfect sense to make speech with which you disagree illegal. In the long term, however, someone will make your ideas illegal. Your right to think and speak your mind is ultimately dependent on your recognition of the same right for everyone else--even for those who would deny history.