George Orwell is dead and gone, and more than a half-century has passed since he wrote “1984,” but he would recognize America today. He was an Englishman (real name Eric Blair) who understood that no state is immune to human mischief.
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified,” he wrote in “1984,” his novel of Utopia despoiled, “every book rewritten, every picture repainted, every statue and street building renamed, every date altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has been stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
We’re almost there, and the Mob has replaced the Party as the intimidator of men who were once free. Once we cleansed the square of Robert E. Lee, whose memory is held by perfectly honorable men and women to be a hero of their past, all toil and trouble for the abused and mistreated among us would be avenged at last and forgotten forever. Weak men of cramped mind went along with the barbarians who wear ignorance as their only badge of distinction.
Now the Mob moves on, as the attentive and alert knew it would. The current scene of action is a small coastal town in California, where all things good and bad seem to originate. The town of Arcata’s distinctions are that it was the first American city to ban the sale of genetically modified food, the first to elect Green Party fanatics to a majority of its city council and the first — well, one of the first, but who bothers to count? — to allow potheads to grow marijuana when it was cool but not yet legal.
And now with one more distinction. Arcata is the first city to take down a monument to a president of the United States lest it stain the marble and bronze conscience of Arcata. The object of Arcata’s piety and ire is William McKinley, the 25th president, who served honorably and well at the turn of the 20th century, but who stands accused of something called “settler colonialism.” He is specifically blamed for “directing the slaughter of Native peoples in the United States and abroad.” Exactly what makes a “Native people” distinctive in Arcata is not quite clear, since we’re all native to somewhere. It might be the people who are native to one of the 100 federally recognized Indian tribes, many of whom call California home.
The Native 100 apparently does not include the Apache, the Comanche or the Cheyenne, who were not very nice and who were known more for their skill at torture and scalping than for the more compassionate characteristics that we all know and faithfully aspire to.
Chris Peters is the Arcatan who first went on the warpath for McKinley’s marble scalp. He’s the chief of Arcata-based Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous People (the latest preferred name for the people we called for centuries, with great respect, “Indians.”
“Put a rope around [McKinley’s marble neck],” he told a recent rally on the town square, “and pull it down.” When he finishes that job, he might get to the nation’s capital next to finish off Dan Snyder and the Washington Redskins.
The Redskins, OK. Losing nearly every time to the Cowboys brings no credit to redskins, and half of the millions of little boys who in an earlier time amused themselves playing “cowboys and Indians” will sympathize. The other half of the little boys, who played cowboys, are not spoken of unless absolutely necessary in Washington and its suburbs.
But William McKinley? He was not even a Confederate, but a worthy veteran of the Grand Army of the Republic. He enlisted in an Ohio regiment as a private and emerged at the end of the war as a brevet major. He was the last president who fought in the War Between the States and was the commander in chief of the Army that won the Spanish-American War, and with it the spoils, which for the good fortune of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines became prizes for the United States.
Other cities and states have joined the Mob seeking out offending monuments, and often not to Confederates. The town of Alcalde, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, are hot after a conquistador named Juan de Onate, suspected of having done bad things to somebody. Kalamazoo, Michigan, is taking down the statue of an anonymous pioneer to whom an Indian in a Calvin Coolidge headdress is kneeling, for a purpose not necessarily clear.
There is still much to do before we reach the Orwellian goal. But we must work, for the night is coming. Some fads last longer than others in America, but all fade. Does anyone remember the hula hoop?
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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