1984: Ahead of It Time

I used to love Orwell’s novel, foolishly believing we would heed his warnings, like those of Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451. Surely we would never turn into book burners,  and – while we don’t always acknowledge the full truth of our history – surely we would not seek to revise it completely.

I was wrong. We have failed to heed those warnings too often. We must turn the tide.

Book banning and revisionist history are both on the rise. You need only to look at Valdimir Putin’s efforts to develop new history books. “Dictators are not content with controlling the present; they want to control the past as well. ‘Correctly’ crafted historical narratives can give them an appearance of legitimacy and provide justification for their actions” (washingtonpost.com). Despite being in the midst of a tragic war with Ukraine, Putin took the time to create a task force to produce a new history textbook for 10th and 11th graders. Completed in less than four months, the new texts offer new versions of Russian history. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian dissident jailed for his opposition to the war against Ukraine, writes:

Russian students will be taught that both the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan were conducted at the behest of these countries’ own governments; that “human rights violations” (written exactly like this, in quotation marks) in the Soviet Union were just a pretext for Western interference in its internal affairs; and that Mikhail Gorbachev was an incompetent and ignorant leader whose policies led to the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” as the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. is described in the textbook, using Putin’s well-known expression. The history of the Soviet dissident movement is illustrated with a “primary source” — not a declaration or pamphlet by dissidents or human rights groups, of course, but a 1972 report from KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov about “organized subversive activity … by anti-Soviet elements.” (Ibid.)

Even these fabrications pale compared to the way the texts present the war with Ukraine. It is unusual, to say the least, to include current and unfinished events in a so-called history textbook, but Putin wants to reshape history and squash opposition, so the books call Ukraine a “neo-Nazi” state that came to power in a “military coup” in 2014 and claim Ukraine started the war. The books even claim that Russian soldiers are now “fighting shoulder to shoulder for goodness and the truth… and the special military operation has consolidated our society” (Ibid.). Putin would replace history and truth with propaganda and slogans.

This matters, not only in Russia. We are seeing efforts within our own borders to revise history; just look at what the Governor of Florida’s history commission claims about slavery. Book banning runs rampant in some of our states, trying to limit access to ideas and issues disliked by the book banners. Even though they often claim they have the right to limit access as parents concerned about their children, they are content to limit the rights of other parents to decide for their own children.

At least in our country, the backlash is beginning to make an impact. When Florida’s Martin County, trying to interpret the bill DeSantis pushed through, released a lengthy list of books to be removed from school library, authors fought back. Most were selected because of the complaints of a single parent! This list included twenty books by Jodi Picoult, claiming they are “adult romance.” They are not, but they do address controversial issues. Picoult slammed the bans. She said, “We have actual proof that marginalized kids who read books about marginalized characters wind up feeling less alone… Books bridge divides between people. Book bans create them” (washingtonpost.com2).

The New York Public Library has a new program called “Books for All: Protect the Freedom to Read in Your Community.” They offer toolkits for activists, free digital access to banned books, discussion groups, teen writing contests, reading lists, and ways to take action (https://www.nypl.org/spotlight/books-for-all). The American Library Association partnered with the New York Public Library, and they, too, offer resources.

Rewriting history and limiting access to books that don’t agree with the objectors’ views are a proven path to repression and authoritarianism. We can’t let that happen here. Speak up! Follow your library and school board meetings. We need to turn the tide while we still can.