Near the end of the Game of Thrones series, just before the battle to save humans from annihilation, there’s a strategy meeting among the leaders of the human forces. It’s pointed out that the enemy’s objective is to bring about “endless night.” To do that, he must destroy the all-seeing conservator of humans’ memories, a more-than-human being who has been tasked with keeping all of history in his mind. This steward of knowledge remembers everything and can see everything that’s happening, all over the world, in real time. If he is killed, humans have no past; there’s no collective experience, so they are wiped out and completely isolated mentally, as they will then be wiped out physically. The entire world would be plunged into permanent, soulless darkness. Should any humans remain in some far-flung corner, they will never pose a threat, because they will have no knowledge of this dark enemy, the Night King.
Of course, science fiction is replete with mechanisms for altering and, more importantly, disappearing facts and events. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, with its premise of book burnings, and Orwell’s 1984, with its memory holes, being among the most notable and graphic.
In a much more plebian and personal example, an incoming division VP at the company where I worked nine years ago wanted to dismantle the entire group where I was assigned, and assimilate it into some properties he already managed (to their detriment). His first move was to terminate my boss and myself, as we represented the institutional memory of the publications. I was charged with filing and preserving magazine issues, along with keeping in touch with vendors and key corporate contacts, while my boss was not only the heart and soul of the group, he also kept a running mental (and digital) record of topics covered, major articles produced, industry leaders who’d worked with us, and so on. He was an invaluable resource, and was pushed out with no attempt at mining and retaining anything he knew. Our computers were both wiped, and, self-defeating though it may have been, the new guy proceeded to conduct a merge/purge with our group and his previous properties, with our group’s being decidedly on the losing end. But the new guy was more ambitious than wise, as the company eventually discovered. By then, of course, it was too late.
Fast-forward to the present day and the big picture in this country. It seems there are schemes and initiatives to erase the past on multiple fronts, some newly hatched, others having been ongoing for decades. The most recent example, of course, being the GOP’s effort to reframe the events of 1/6/21 as inconsequential, nothing more than just another day of tourism at the Capitol. The Republicans refused to pass legislation to create a commission to look into the insurrection, and now they’re saying that the panel the Democrats have created is merely for the purpose of “maligning conservatives.” In other words, they’re telling everyone to move along, there’s nothing to see here. They’re desperately attempting to sweep the whole thing under the rug, which, as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank points out, could embolden extremists to escalate violent attempts to subvert the U.S. government.
In terms of obliterating history, Texas is currently leading the pack with its ban on the teaching of various topics, including critical race theory. Beginning on September 1st, teachers will not be allowed to bring up racism in the context of current events, eliminating the connection between the past and the present. Without a continuous, big-picture view of interrelated occurrences and mindsets, there’s no way for students to grasp how we got where we are. Destroying context also wipes out meaning and severely limits an understanding of cause and effect, leaving no basis for foreseeing and comprehending future developments.
Another political figure has been in the news lately, pushing altered versions of history. George W. Bush has criticized the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, conveniently white-washing his motives for invading the country and making no mention of the utter failure of efforts to install a democratic government there. Of course, Bush II is a past master at such expedient omissions; after all, when no weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq, thereby giving the lie to his stated reason for attacking that country, his constant, insistent claims that such weapons were an imminent danger to this country just….faded away, never to be mentioned again. Now, Bush is lionized as an elder statesman in many quarters, instead of being prosecuted for the war criminal he is. Eliding the facts does indeed lead to grossly altered versions of history.
The burying of the memory of Vietnam is one of the more egregious alterations in the last century. If one knew only the stories published in the last decade or so about how valuable a trade partner Vietnam is, how wonderful a tourist destination it is, one might think those scenarios were always the case. Again, the hysteria over Communist takeovers, the shameful U.S. invasion of Vietnam, the futile attempt to prop up a failing government in the south, then the abandonment of that government, the invention of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the deaths of over 58,000 U.S. troops — the entire gamut of events revolving around the U.S. relationship with Vietnam in the ’60s and ’70s, has been [deliberately] “forgotten” as if none of it ever happened. Far be it from anyone in the military to bring up that sad period of our history in connection with the current situation in Afghanistan.
Thus far, Holocaust deniers are an outlier fringe; there are voluminous records and thousands of people left who remember it, families everywhere who have heard the stories from their parents and grandparents. But suppose the records disappeared? Once the last person with any direct or ancestral knowledge of that most horrific of slaughters is gone, what keeps the history alive? Any group or party with a reason to make that series of events disappear could eventually do so by deleting all mentions from textbooks and pushing the lie that the Final Solution never happened.
And there are hundreds of other examples of the way history is erased and replaced with sanitized tales. Those of us who lived during the Vietnam years know the truth. We saw the protests, we watched the body bags come home, we knew what a disaster that war was. The same was the case with the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions. Most recently, any ten-year-old who watched the live broadcasts of the insurrection this past January will always remember the fear of that day, which was the prevalent emotion throughout the country. We know what we saw. Despite the GOP’s consistent efforts since then to trivialize that day, we were ALL afraid as we stared at our TVs. But….as the months pass and the rightwing propaganda machine chews up and swallows the destruction, hate, and violence of that mob, à la Stephen King’s Langoliers, the scary details will fade for those who embrace such oblivion. And once the last person perishes who remembers that day, then the reformers will be able to re-write the facts to suit the powers-that-be of that future period. The immediate, crucial lessons learned that day will fade and lose their edges. There’s an old adage that, “History is written by the victors,” but any successful tyrant, petty or formidable, knows that the real victory lies in erasing history.