AN ORWELLIAN PURGE
Baltimore Sun, Apr 28, 2003
by Leila Christenbury
ONE OF the great classics of contemporary literature is George Orwell's 1984, a novel that is routinely taught in English classes in this country. Many readers are riveted by 1984 and by Mr. Orwell's terrifying vision of a totalitarian society, ruled by Big Brother and dominated by control of all citizens' reading material, actions and even thoughts.
Doublespeak - saying one thing and meaning another - dominates in 1984, and the government's three doublespeak mottoes are posted everywhere: "WAR IS PEACE," "FREEDOM IS SLAVERY," "IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH." A depressing and cautionary novel, 1984 has an enduring appeal that has been confirmed by actions taken in the past year by the U.S. Education Department; 1984 is just as relevant now as it has ever been.
A May 31, 2002 internal memo from the Education Department, "Criterion and Process for Removing Old Content from www.ed.gov," the department's Web site, is strangely akin to what occurs in 1984.
According to the memo, a justification for removing content is not just that it is out of date or a duplicate of other materials but that it "runs counter to current administration priorities ... [and] does not reflect the priorities, philosophies or goals of the present administration."
According to this memo, items on www.ed.gov will be deleted unless they meet five criteria, two of which specifically involve support for administration priorities and initiatives and consistency with administration philosophy.
It has been estimated that, using these criteria, up to 13,000 documents of the total 50,000 will be removed.
In addition, this ideological purging is also being done on the Department of Health and Human Services Web site, where scientific information is being deleted if it does not adhere to the administration's stands on issues such as abortion, risky behavior in youth and contraception.
In 1984, the government controls all of its citizens in their daily activities and, ultimately, in their thoughts. Part of the work of Winston Smith, 1984's main character, is his job with the ironically named Ministry of Truth.
In the ministry's Records Department, Mr. Smith routinely either destroys or alters printed information so that whatever stand the government has taken or is taking is always consistent with all printed information. The government's head, Big Brother, is prone to making errors in his pronouncements, and official policy is ever changing.
But in the Ministry of Truth, Mr. Smith cleans up the facts, altering and destroying "every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance."
And when Mr. Smith can no longer stomach his job, he begins secret acts of rebellion that ultimately end in his arrest, torture and destruction.
In this country, students are routinely assigned 1984, and teachers lead discussions of the novel, most often contrasting the outlines of Mr. Orwell's repressive society to our own freedoms in America, represented notably by our Bill of Rights. Ironically, today our government's actions regarding www.ed.gov make 1984 relevant for less-flattering comparisons.
It is sobering to think that documents quietly are being removed from a crucial government Web site largely because of ideological incompatibility. 1984 becomes even more sadly prophetic; as philosopher Erich Fromm wrote years ago, Mr. Orwell's message is that "it means us, too."
While the administration may appear to have forgotten the lessons of 1984, contemporary readers will continue to absorb Mr. Orwell's terrifying - and today strangely pertinent - vision of a totalitarian society. We indeed do well to remember Big Brother's slogan "IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH." It is as false then as it is now, and it is hoped that concerned citizens will demand that the purging of documents on www.ed.gov cease immediately.
Leila Christenbury is past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and professor of English education at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
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