David Frum

02.26.13

Hagel's Orwell Moment on India

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In one of George Orwell's essays, he recalls this schoolboy incident:

THE other day I had occasion to write something about the teaching of history in private schools, and the following scene, which was only rather loosely connected with what I was writing, floated into my memory. It was less than fifteen years ago that I witnessed it.

‘Jones!’

‘Yessir!’

‘Causes of the French Revolution.’

‘Please, sir, the French Revolution was due to three causes, the teachings of Voltaire and Rousseau, the oppression of the nobles by the people and —’

At this moment a faint chill, like the first premonitory symptom of an illness, falls upon Jones. Is it possible that he has gone wrong somewhere? The master’s face is inscrutable. Swiftly Jones casts his mind back to the unappetizing little book, with the gritty brown cover, a page of which is memorized daily. He could have sworn he had the whole thing right. But at this moment Jones discovers for the first time the deceptiveness of visual memory. The whole page is clear in his mind, the shape of every paragraph accurately recorded, but the trouble is that there is no saying which way round the words go. He had made sure it was the oppression of the nobles by the people; but then it might have been the oppression of the people by the nobles. It is a toss-up. Desperately he takes his decision—better to stick to his first version. He gabbles on:

‘The oppression of the nobles by the people and —’

‘JONES!’

Is that kind of thing still going on, I wonder?

I thought of that story when I read that SecDef nominee Chuck Hagel has accused India of financing terrorism against Pakistan.

You have to believe he meant it the other way around. But Hagel too is sticking to his first version.