Give Me Liberty Or Get Me Rewrite!

In the novel 1984, the protagonist, Winston Smith, works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue. His job? Alter news articles to reflect current Party policy. Meanwhile, Smith’s illicit lover, Julia, works in Minitrue’s Fiction Department, working on a novel writing machine, helping to churn out fiction supporting the Party line. Any fact, any sentence, any historical reference that might threaten Big Brother or the all-encompassing ideology of “Ingsoc” (English Socialism) had to be expunged. As an early Soviet historian said, “History is politics projected into the past.”

 Under Stalin—and Big Brother—it was. Even in theU.S., many, perhaps most, history texts appear to be influenced by ideology. But it’s unthinkable that actual historical documents or works of art should be changed for ideological reasons here, in theU.S.That should give even most leftists pause.

 Yet, as I watched the classic film The Bridge on the River Kwai the other night, I found that the Fiction Department had been busily at work. As you probably know, this film concerns the construction of a railway bridge by British POWs, working under their Japanese captors—except that the commander of the British troops ends up running the show, thereby collaborating with the enemy in the name of British prestige. When planning the bridge, the commander, Lt. Col. Nicholson, tells his officers “We can teach these barbarians [referring to the Japanese camp guards] a lesson in Western methods and efficiency.” Except what I heard was: “We can teach these…a lesson in Western methods and efficiency.” I played it again and heard only an unintelligible murmur. The word “barbarians” was missing, replaced by the sound of water splashing.

 I then went online, and found others had noted the same phenomenon on their DVD copies—the word “barbarians” was missing. When some had looked at the subtitled versions, they found that “them” had been substituted for “these barbarians.” Some postulated politically correct government interference, others noted that Sony, a Japanese company, now owned the work and probably deleted it because they found it offensive. Regardless, a work of art had been altered to suit contemporary sensibilities. And that is very frightening.

 The specific instance is not important in itself, but it represents a larger principle: an artist’s work is a statement of the artist’s thought. You can criticize it, you can defend it, you can ignore it, but you cannot alter it to change the content. Now theatrical movies on TV are often edited. However this is done either to allow a film to fit in a small screen or to allow it to be viewed by children, who were not the intended audience for the original picture. There is also always a notice posted that some editing has been done. And, of course, there are adaptations for different media, such as when a book or play becomes a film, and there are translations of varying quality for different languages. But sneaky alterations such as the deletion of a single word are not announced in advance, not expected, and not required so that a new audience may have access to it.

 Sadly, this is not the only instance of such alteration. There is a black and white sequence filmed in Nazi Germany during a parade in which Hitler is greeted by cheering throngs. One woman’s face stands out—perhaps you recall it. The look of ecstasy on her face is arresting—she almost looks drugged. I saw that same face in another documentary—about Ronald Reagan. The Nazi footage was spliced into 1980s footage, formerly in color, but rendered in black and white. I can’t think of any reason to do this other than to subtly suggest equivalence between the two leaders. And I noticed this only because I had seen the original Nazi footage only a few days prior to the Reagan documentary.

 Then there’s the 2011 edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

 Mark Twain’s original work made liberal use of the “n-word.” It appears 219 times, according to the editor. And in every case, he has replaced it with the much milder “slave.” Never mind that Twain penned the book in  large part to reveal the evils of racism, and his use of such an offensive term was meant to highlight and critique racist attitudes. Tone deaf to that fact, many school districts banned the book. Indeed, the editor has claimed that his rewrite was in response to that government censorship. He did it, he says, so that schoolchildren in those districts would be able to read Huck Finn. In other words, a work of art was changed to conform to government policy.

 In a dictatorship, this sort of editing for political purposes serves to rob people of any intellectual resource that challenges the state, and makes the state the arbiter of the truth. It’s an essential prop for any totalitarian system. In a democracy, it is the opposite. If the electorate is given lies, it will make decisions that favor the interests of the liar. If works of art can be changed to serve political agendas, the message of the artist is set aside in favor of the message the censors want to tell. In some cases, they become propaganda, rather than art—witness the Nazi regime’s “dejewification” of the Bible. With the apparent demise of printed books in favor of e-books, such “updating” becomes all too easy. Fortunately, we have Orwell’s classic work to remind us of the dangers of tampering with artistic creations and historical documents.

 That is, until someone decides to rewrite it.