The Left’s Orwellian Use of History

WERE HE ALIVE TODAY, GEORGE ORWELL would be flabbergasted by the political Left’s attempts to appropriate history for its own agenda.  Whereas both sides of the ideological spectrum have historically sought to present themselves as the rightful heirs to mankind’s greatest leaders, the modern Left has attempted to throttle political discourse by denying conservatives’ right to even refer to many great men.  In other words, the Left has asserted ownership of certain historical figures.

President John F. Kennedy now stands pre-eminent within this gated pantheon.  When Republicans recently used excerpts of a 1962 JFK speech about cutting taxes to further the Bush administration’s current tax reduction program, the Left went into overdrive.  Senator-for-life Ted Kennedy described the use of JFK’s philosophy as indecent and, along with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, ordered the GOP to cease and desist.  President Kennedy’s remarks, which remarkably presage supply-side rhetoric, seem to lend historical legitimacy to the current president’s argument.  Rather than debate his brother’s views (for obvious reasons), Teddy has acted as though Republicans have violated his copyrighted surname.

Such protestation is Teddy’s only real means of defense.  The far-Left senator’s voting record has certainly not provided a clear portal into the mind of his elder brother.  During the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy excoriated the Eisenhower administration for allegedly falling behind the Soviet Union militarily. (Forget for the moment that subsequent revelations show “the missile gap” ranks alongside the treasures of Al Capone’s vaults as a synonym for empty hyperbole.) In contrast, in 1982, Ted Kennedy proposed a unilateral nuclear freeze.  Jack fought Nikita Krushchev to keep Cuba free of aggressive Soviet missiles; Teddy fought Ronald Reagan to keep Western Europe free of defensive American missiles.  JFK’s inaugural address pledged to “bear any burden” to defeat Communism; according to a 1983 KGB memo, Ted Kennedy tried to set up a meeting with the Soviets to oppose the Reagan-era nuclear arms build-up that eventually bankrupted the USSR.

So much for Teddy’s career as a living Ouija board.

Unfortunately, Ted Kennedy is not alone in claiming his brother’s memory as left-wing property.  Rush Limbaugh has drawn leftist ire from the grassroots level for his own allusions to the slimmer Kennedy.  On a recent broadcast, “The Maha-Rushi” played highlights of JFK’s speech to the Economic Club of New York in 1962.  An outraged female caller from Sacramento, her voice aquiver, denounced Limbaugh’s hubris for appealing to Kennedy’s words to justify a – gasp! – Republican policy.  When questioned, she agreed that the Left had the “exclusive” right to appeal to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, because, after all, he was a Democrat.

For the truly radical Left, there is no distinction between Party members; like the Stalinists of the 1940s, all follow the official ideology of the moment.  No words or rationality will drive them from their devotion to what David Horowitz has called “the Idea,” nor can they be shaken from the belief that the good men of all the ages also approved of the Idea – even if the particular agenda necessary to implement the Idea changes minute-by-minute.  The message is simple: JFK belongs to the Left!  “Within the Revolution everything, outside the Revolution nothing!”

Indeed, it appears the Left believes it exerts the right-of-eminent-domain over any number of historical figures.  Another prime figure is the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.  King famously declared his dream “that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” However, today the mere quotation of this call to a colorblind society has spurred Jesse Jackson to brand one conservative opponent an “intellectual terrorist.”  In another context, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton asserted the Left’s ownership of King by admonishing an opponent, “Stop quoting dead saints!” The reason for their assertion of ownership is clear: they cannot claim to hold the ideals of their putative forefathers.  For instance, as regards Martin Luther King Jr., today’s race hustlers demand the government consider race first and foremost, striving to impose race-based quotas on universities and businesses, demanding slavery “reparations,” and calling for “hate crimes” legislation.  The modern Left exploits race to shakedown wealthy corporations, let celebrity murderers go free, and help brawling high school thugs weasel out of school discipline.  Since these views are diametrically opposed to King’s vision of a nation in which race no longer mattered, the Left can only choke off conservative recourse to King’s words through none-too-subtle racialist screeds.

Even the Founding Fathers are not exempt from this treatment.  The late Communist Party USA boss Earl Browder once referred to George Washington as a “revolutionary.”  No wonder leftist reporters could refer to Fidel Castro as the George Washington of Cuba.  More than 50 years ago, Bertrand Russell wrote that during the McCarthy era, “If by some misfortune you were to quote with approval some remark by Jefferson, you would probably lose your job and perhaps find yourself behind bars.”  Even Jefferson’s idealization of the American farmer has been used to clothe the Communists in light, as leftists described Mao Tse-tung as an “agrarian reformer” on his bloody path to power.

The leftists’ rhetorical tactics are anti-democratic, thwarting discussion of great ideas.  The highest tribute one can pay a fallen hero is attempting to contextualize his ideas in order to apply them to the ever-changing circumstances of the present.  By removing the authentic legacy of these figures from modern political discourse, the Left has impoverished the public, which would have otherwise benefited from exposure to these men’s beliefs.  In so doing, leftists hope to endow the Idea with a higher sanctity by snatching for themselves a richer pedigree.  In this process, they cross the line into truly Orwellian territory.

History is the great arbiter and judge of nations and creeds.  It is history that has proven Adolf Hitler a madman, Communism a bankrupt and tyrannical delusion, Aleksandr Solzenitsyn a prophet, and Ronald Reagan an underestimated genius.  By falsifying history, the Left deprives the public of Fate’s resounding rebuke to its failed Utopian schemes.  It also masks leftists’ infidelity to their own linear predecessors, like JFK and Martin Luther King Jr.  This inversion of the historical record exempts the modern Left from the just censure of history’s verdict. This dishonesty condemns man to repeat the failed ideologies of yesterday – and, perhaps worst of all, keeps today’s generations from living out the best ideas of that portion of American history that is “liberal” in the truest sense of the word.  As Orwell wrote in 1984, “if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”  In Oceania, Big Brother did not allow “any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment…to remain on record. All history was…scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”

Failing to reinvent history altogether, today’s Left seeks to circumscribe each historical figure so tightly that only a leftist shell of his actual deeds remains.  Kennedy “stood up to racist Republicans and was probably killed by the CIA.”  Whereas the historical King fought bitter rhetorical battles against Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam, a popular poster on college campuses today depicts the two as smiling comrades.  The Left’s goal, like that of the character Syme in 1984, is to “make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” At the very least, leftists hope to expunge every reference of heterodoxy from figures of any contemporary value (Kennedy, King, et. al.).  And when intransigent conservatives continue to cite the wisdom of her historical icons, the Left merely screams that the Right has no “legitimacy” to quote those people it regards as within its “exclusive” historical purview.

Perhaps in this sense the modern Left embodies the quality King most forcefully deplored: treating men like property.

This article originally appeared on May 9, 2003, on FrontPage Magazine.