Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 2004 / 21 Elul 5764
Who controls the past? Zell Miller, memory and politics
Who controls the past, George Orwell wrote in "1984," controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past.
He was talking about thought control in a totalitarian state. A superstate with the power to rewrite history, or at least official history, in order to justify whatever it did in the past, does in the present, or will do in the future.
That's why the job of poor Winston Smith, Orwell's pseudo-historian in "1984," was to constantly update the past, so all good party members would know what, as orators at any party convention like to say, "History will show.."
History, of course, will show pretty much what the historian writing it wants it to. Which is why politics is at least one part historiography: a fight for man's memory between competing versions of past events.
The process of shaping that historical memory is a lot messier in free societies. For that matter, it isn't a snap in totalitarian states, either. Because their control of information isn't as total as the term Totalitarian would lead you to believe. See what happened in and to the happily late Soviet Union.
There is a factual core, an element of objective truth about the past that, no matter what the deconstructionists say, will out. Which is what poor Winston Smith believed, at least at the start of his interrogation. Before he was carted off to Room 101 to have his mind rearranged so he could love Big Brother.
But a 72-year-old great-grandfather like Zell Miller, whose Georgia vowels have the savor of good slow barbecue, has a memory of his own, turned and tempered over the years through many a fire. Else this old Democrat could not have delivered that rip-roarer of a keynote at the other party's convention this week. Because his memory and his party's no longer jibed. Not at all. And he was not happy about it. Which is why he was speaking at the other party's convention.
There was a slow-burning, visceral anger in his voice. It was the anger of someone who felt betrayed-not so much by his old party's beliefs but its version of reality.
Zell Miller wasn't just angry, he was mystified. He might have been a superannuated Winston Smith transported to a whole different era, country, society, and sent to the U.S. Senate from the state of Georgia. Only this Winston Smith was allowed to be mad as hell. Like a free man with a mind-and memory-of his own.
No wonder Zell Miller's words resonate with those of a certain generation-the one that can still recall among its early memories war bonds, Victory gardens, ration stamps, and various other historical artifacts, including a bipartisan foreign policy. Ol' Zell even mentioned Wendell Willkie's support of Franklin Roosevelt, another president accused of leading the nation into an unnecessary war. But the country had come together after December 7, 1941, and any doubts about that war would be expressed only warily from then on.
The question that baffles Zell Miller, and those of us who could feel and even share his fury, is why couldn't the country remain united after September 11, 2001? What happened to politics stopping at the water's edge? To a bipartisan foreign policy?
How can his party not see-and, more to the point, not feel-what Zell Miller does? Because there is another version of the past out there that shapes the present debate, and could determine the future. It is a past that emphasizes the defeat in Vietnam, and the arrogance and blindness of the Best and Brightest. It is a past in which evil could have been safely kept in its box, contained, or just ignored. It is a past that leads to a present in which September 11th didn't change everything. Or much at all.
With only the occasional attack on our embassies, ships, and skyscrapers, we managed to enjoy an economic boom for most of the Clinton Years. At least till the dot-com bubble burst. Why can't happy days be here again?
Remembering a different past, Zell Miller can't understand how someone who aspires to be commander-in-chief can vote for a war, and then oppose the appropriations to fund it at the moment of truth-no matter how John Kerry tries to explain away that vote as just a matter of parliamentary procedure, a misunderstanding because, after all, he voted for the appropriations before he voted against them.
Ol' Zell can't see how a responsible wartime leader could think, and vote, like that. Not when American troops are committed and in the field. Neither can I.
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