“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” – George Orwell, “1984”
When I saw people painting over the mural of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo last week, I felt a lot of different emotions. Anger, mostly, at the destruction of a tribute to a man who, although imperfect, devoted his life to the city of his birth. A man who integrated the police force. Who was beloved of many in the black communities he helped keep safe from the drug scourge. A man who made enemies, and friends who’d take a bullet for him.
The anger was accompanied by bemusement at the foolishness of the act, one that was as unnecessary as it was futile. Erasing Rizzo’s face, or tearing down his massive metal effigy, will not remove him from our collective institutional memory. To tell us not to remember, to look away, is a guarantee that we will seek out that memory in defiance.
But the most visceral emotion was fear, tied to the increasingly successful efforts to turn George Orwell’s prophecy into our current reality.
People on the left have been quite busy these days downplaying the significance of what is happening. To them, fascism can only be experienced on the right, and takes the shape and form of a president who fires tear gas into a crowd of “peaceful protesters.”
But as Orwell expressed so well, fascism is not a partisan phenomenon, and can exist wherever and whenever a society decides to exert dominion over its citizens by usurping the one true thing that sets them apart as human: their independent minds.
Taking hold of a man’s mind by denying him access to the truth can turn him into something less than human. It makes him into an unthinking, unquestioning half-creature that might breathe and eat and walk and work and even love, but who is a simple cog in the wheel of the state machine.
When I saw the aftermath of the Rizzo mural’s destruction, a chill took over me. There was a blank place where there used to be color, where there was life and history. Drained from that wall was the figure of a man who represented not only himself, but generations of Italians and their pride. That empty space was more upsetting than the graffiti on the Rizzo statue, because it was a first successful result of what I call the Crusade to Erase.
The irony is that the mural was on private property, and I’ve been told that the owner would have left it up but for the threats he started receiving. Other businesses in the neighborhood demonstrated their cowardice by signing a letter agreeing to have the mural destroyed. But in good Orwellian style, they will insist it was an effort to honor black lives. This will be the new normal: Honor one culture by insulting another.
Now they say they are coming for Christopher Columbus, who has been caricatured as the great genocidal Satan. They are trying to teach our children that he was an evil man, crushing context, creating facts, conning the naive. Orwell knew the playbook and blueprint intimately, and wrote it down for us.
I have represented asylees and refugees from totalitarian states. They understand what it is to live in countries where society, either directly through the government or by the intimidation of special interest groups, tells you what to think. They fled their own private dark places to escape, to find freedom.
I am horrified to have them see those tragic histories repeat themselves here.
And so, I will not say the appropriate things. I will not apologize for a guilt I do not bear. I will not engage in pithy, socially woke slogans. I will not grovel, bend the knee or worry that my words might get me ostracized, unemployed or even killed.
I choose to follow Orwell’s warning. I hope I’ll have company.