- 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
- 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is not just that it is out of date or a duplicate of other materials but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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun