One passage from George Orwell’s 1984 that has stuck with me for a long time is the scene where Winston Smith, suspecting that the accounts of British society prior to the totalitarian revolution may be false, decides to ask someone who was actually alive then about them. Wearing the “worker’s” overalls that mark him as a Party member, he slips into a pub which caters to the Proles, or common people. There, he encounters an old man who is unsuccessfully trying to order a pint of beer:
“And what in hell’s name is a pint?” said the barman, leaning forward with the tips of his fingers on the counter.
“Ark at ‘im! Calls ‘isself a barman and don’t know what a pint is! Why, a pint’s the ‘alf of a quart, and there’s four quarts to the gallon. ‘Ave to teach you the A, B, C next.”
“Never heard of ‘em,” said the barman shortly. “Liter and half liter — that’s all we serve. There’s the glasses on the shelf in front of you.”
Winston buys the man a drink and proceeds to question him about what life was like when he was younger. The man, though, responds unsatisfyingly that the beer was better, and cheaper. Winston then presses the point:
“The history books say that life before the Revolution was completely different from what it is now. There was the most terrible oppression, injustice, poverty worse than anything we can imagine. Here in London, the great mass of the people never had enough to eat from birth to death. Half of them hadn’t even boots on their feet. They worked twelve hours a day, they left school at nine, they slept ten in a room. And at the same time there were a very few people, only a few thousands — the capitalists, they were called — who were rich and powerful. They owned everything that there was to own. They lived in great gorgeous houses with thirty servants, they rode about in motor-cars and four-horse carriages, they drank champagne, they wore top hats-”
The old man brightened suddenly.
“Top ‘ats!” he said. “Funny you should mention ‘em. The same thing come into my ‘ead only yesterday, I dono why. I was jest thinking, I ain’t seen a top ‘at in years. Gorn right out, they ‘ave. The last time I wore one was at my sister-in-law’s funeral.”
Winston keeps trying, citing pieces of “history” that are increasingly ludicrous and unbelievable: the “capitalists” could do what they liked with you, “ship you off to Canada like cattle,” sleep with your daughters, flog you with a cat-o’-nine-tails. The old man, though, is unable to grasp the meaning of the questions, responding instead with his fragmentary memories of the vanished objects and words. His nostalgic tone implies that things were not so bad, but he fails to directly refute any of the Party’s claims. Finally, Winston asks him simply: was life, then, better in 1925, or in 1984? The man merely replies that the ailments of old age are troublesome, but that he is glad to be free of the worries of a young man, concerning, for instance, women.
Within twenty years at the most, he reflected, the huge and simple question, “Was life better before the Revolution than it is now?” would have ceased once and for all to be answerable. But in effect it was unanswerable even now, since the few scattered survivors from the ancient world were incapable of comparing one age with another. They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sister’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones. 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.
Even in a society with strong traditions, the bulk of memories held by a particular generation are lost when they pass away; after two generations, the loss is almost complete, or, as someone remarked on View From The Right today, “I know basically nothing about my great grandparents!” On the other hand, provided that a people satisfy the minimum requirements for maintaining their identity as a people – reproducing, inhabiting the same land, passing down their language and essential values to the next generation – then however much the culture may change, there is always the possibility of re-connecting with the past generations. It is in this way that the Chinese, only a few decades after smashing their ancient monuments and sending their intellectuals to labor camps to be purged of “feudal” thinking, can now set up Confucius Institutes (!) in places like the United States to promote their culture abroad. Unfortunately for the United States, the changing ethnic composition of our population is threatening us in ways that Communism never threatened the Chinese.
The United States is rapidly slipping into a state of collective amnesia about her past that truly rivals that of Orwell’s old man. Large numbers of people – white Americans – truly seem to believe that prior to 1965 black people could not venture out in public without running into white men who would push them into the gutter and snatch their wives away; or that women were prevented from learning to read and chained inside the home to be brutalized by their husbands.
All right, I exaggerate a little. But white America is certainly portrayed in a consistently negative light. I recently caught an episode of a TV drama, Mad Men, which illustrates perfectly the liberal view of the older America. Beneath the surface of bourgeois ideals, nice dress, and prosperity is a world of sexual predation, ruthless competition, self-satisfaction, abortions, alcohol abuse, Cold War paranoia. Even with the sound off, the shadows and shifty glances of the characters convey a society so ugly as to be hardly worth saving. And yet there are millions of Americans still living and active who belong to the very generation being portrayed. Why aren’t they criticizing this program?
I am afraid it is vain to hope that older people will come to the rescue by telling how things actually were. As long as the authoritative ideology rules, perpetuated by our “experts” and institutions, the memories of individuals will be, in Orwell’s words, no more than “rubbish heaps of details.” Even more, ideology shapes the way people understand their own memories. When we are told that something we remember as good or benign was actually evil, unless we are equipped with a mental defense of our perceptions, we will be inclined to believe what is being claimed. This, I think, is what has probably happened with many older Americans. Many do have a strong feeling that things were better in the old days, but they are not able to articulate why this is so. Indeed, since it was their generation that initiated the breakdown of the old social order in the 1960s and 1970s, it is safe to assume that there were flaws in their ideas to begin with – just as Orwell’s old man bought in to some of the socialist rhetoric of his time. (Well, so did Orwell.) It may be too late for most of them to come to terms with this.
Still, the truth remains the truth, and it is waiting to be discovered, or perhaps, to be brought back to life. If you believe that something is not right with the direction of our society, and don’t accept the present common wisdom (read: the common un-wisdom) about how we got here and what needs to be done, you have a powerful weapon already. And, unlike Orwell’s imaginary regime, I believe the actual ruling powers are deeply immersed in stupidity and blindness. That’s not reassuring when you’re counting on them to protect you, but it may be an advantage when you’ve decided they need to go.