Dystopias Are All the Rage

W.J. Astore

The historian Jill Lepore has an interesting article at The New Yorker on dystopic novels and their popularity today.  Dystopias are all the rage, which is not surprising given the politics of fear that rules us.

Consider the stark contrast between the Republican Party of today versus that of the 1980s.  Remember the sunny optimism projected by Ronald Reagan?  The idea it’s “morning again” in America?  Now we have the dystopia of Trump.  Mexicans are rapists!  Muslims are terrorists!  They’re coming to get us!  Build a wall!  Torture and kill them!

I’m not suggesting Reagan was a saint.  Reagan was, however, a gifted communicator and an inspiring symbol for many. There was substance there as well.  As a young man, he served as a lifeguard and helped to save lives.  I find it intriguing that he was somewhat of an introvert, somewhat of a dreamer.  He worked with the Soviets and Mikhail Gorbachev on the elimination of nuclear weapons, a dream that did not come to pass.  For all his flaws, there was a fundamental decency about him.

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Contrast Reagan to Trump.  With Trump, it’s all about him.  Trump’s favorite way of communicating is with insults, bluster, threats, and tweets.  Reagan dreamt of eliminating nuclear weapons; Trump insists America will remain “at the top of the [nuclear] pack,” at a cost of a trillion dollars over the next generation.

Reagan and his wife Nancy were quirky as well (astrology, anyone?), but seeing how they looked at each other and treated one another, no one could doubt their love.  Trump and Melania?  In public, at least, they come across as ill at ease, uncomfortable with each other.  Small potatoes, perhaps, but part of being the “First Family” is projecting harmony, or so it has been in the past.  Nowadays, such symbolism seems unimportant as Trump himself dominates the scene, his wife seemingly a bit player in his life.

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There’s a toxicity to Trump that’s consistent with the emergence of all these dystopic novels.  The Victorian author Samuel Smiles once wrote that a man should be what he seems or purposes to be.  By this Smiles meant that a man must demonstrate, by his behavior, uprightness of character.  A quaint expression, that.  When people think of Trump today, “uprightness of character” doesn’t exactly spring to mind.  Rather the reverse.

Though I wrote early on that Donald Trump had a serious chance at the presidency, by early November of last year I thought the negativity of his message – his bundle of hate – would not prove compelling enough to carry him to victory.  I was wrong, of course.  Trump, with his dystopic rhetoric as well as his actions, captured as well as amplified a prevailing mood.

It’s not morning again in America.  Under Trump, darkness and dystopia prevail.

Splinterlands: A Dystopic Novel for Our Trumpian Age

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W.J. Astore

Equal parts amusing and alarming, John Feffer’s dystopian novel, Splinterlands, begins with Hurricane Donald, which floods Washington DC only five years from now.  You may deny climate change, Feffer suggests, but Mother Nature will have the last word.  She will unleash catastrophes and chaos that, combined with political fragmentation driven by hyper-aggressive capitalism and myopic nationalism, lead to a truly New World (Dis)order, characterized by confessional wars, resource shortfalls, and, within two generations, the end of the world as we know it.

Can “prophets of disintegration” like Donald Trump, driven by “market authoritarianism” and their own hubris, remake the world in their own chaotic image?  Feffer makes a persuasive case that they can.  Instead of seeing “the end of history” as a triumph of liberal democracy and a beneficial global marketplace driven by efficiency and technology, Feffer sees the possibility of factionalism of all sorts, a rejection of tolerance and diversity and the embrace of intolerance, identity politics, and similar exclusionary constructs.

Coincidentally, a cautionary letter from the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film just crossed my desk; its words encapsulate what Feffer is warning us about.  The film directors denounced “the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the US and so many other countries.”  The letter goes on to say that:

“The fear generated by dividing us into genders, colors, religions and sexualities as a means to justify violence destroys the things that we depend on – not only as artists but as humans: the diversity of cultures, the chance to be enriched by something seemingly ‘foreign’ and the belief that human encounters can change us for the better. These divisive walls prevent people from experiencing something simple but fundamental: from discovering that we are all not so different.”

The problem, of course, is that many people prefer divisive walls, while finding meaning in fanaticism, nationalism, and the politics of difference.  We are now, Feffer writes, in a period of Great Polarization. His book is about what will happen if that polarization wins out.  He writes:

“The middle dropped out of the world.  Extremes of wealth and ideology flourished.  Political moderates became an endangered species and ‘compromise’ just another word for ‘appeasement.’  First came the disagreements over regulatory policy, then sharper political divides.  Finally, as the world quick-marched itself back through history, came the return of the war of all against all.  The EU, committed to the golden mean, had no way of surviving in such an environment without itself going to extremes.”

The result?  By the 2020s, the EU “evaporated like so much steam.” With Brexit ongoing, with the EU under increasing stress daily, Feffer’s scenario of an evaporating EU seems more than plausible.

Meanwhile, another breaking news item just crossed my desk: President Trump is seeking a $54 billion increase to America’s defense budget, to be funded by deep cuts to other federal agencies such as the EPA and Education.  Trump and his team see the world as a dangerous place, and the military as the best and only means to “protect” America, as in “America first.”  But by its nature the U.S. military is a global force, and more money for it means more military adventurism, driving further warfare, fragmentation, and chaos, consistent with Feffer’s vision of a future “splinterlands.”

As one of Feffer’s characters says, “There’s always been enormous profits in large-scale suffering.”  Feffer’s dystopic novel — like our real world today — features plenty of that. People suffer because of climate change.  Energy shortages.  Wars.  Water shortages.  Even technology serves to divide rather than to unite people, as many increasingly retreat into virtual “realities” that are far more pleasant than the real world that surrounds them.

Feffer’s book, in short, is provocative in the best sense.  But will it provoke us to make wiser, more inclusive, more compassionate, more humane choices?  That may be too much to ask of any book, but it’s not too much to ask of ourselves and our leaders.  The dystopic alternative, illustrated so powerfully in Feffer’s Splinterlands, provides us with powerful motivation to shape a better, less splintered, future.

 

This Modern and Dystopic World

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My copy of Orwell’s 1984

W.J. Astore

The modern world is a kluge of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with screens everywhere in which people submerge themselves, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with “soma” of all sorts to keep us drugged and happy, and of course George Orwell’s 1984 with constant surveillance and the “two minutes of hate,” directed mainly at “the enemy,” especially the enemy within, known in 1984 as Goldstein (for some Americans today, “Goldstein” is Donald Trump; for others, it’s Hillary Clinton; for a few, it’s Ted Cruz or perhaps all of the above).

Dystopic elements characterize our American moment, hence the appropriateness of dystopic science fiction novels.  Bradbury was especially good at poking holes in the idea technology was in essence a liberating force.  He captured the way people might submerge their identities within screens, neglecting the real people around them, even those closest to them, for the “virtual reality” of infotainment.  Huxley was keen to debunk mass production as a liberating force, but his invention of “soma,” a mood-enhancing drug that leads to detachment and inaction, captured our overly medicated ways.  (I can’t watch network news without being bombarded by drug ads that promise me release from pain or acne or other nuisances and hence a better life, as long as I take this pill or use this inhaler.)  Finally, Orwell captured the total surveillance state, one driven by fear, obsessed by enemies created by the state to cow the masses.  Perhaps the darkest of the three, Orwell left little hope for the “little man” oppressed under the jackboot of a militaristic and totalitarian state.

The times are not quite that dark in America today, but these three classic novels offer warnings we’d do well to heed.  An aspect of these dystopias we most definitely see in America today is the degeneration of news, of information, of knowledge.  As a society, America is arguably less fact-based today than at any point in its history.  Even as we’re immersed in information via the Internet, the news itself has become shallower, or trivial, or frivolous, when it’s not out-and-out propaganda.

I grew up watching the news.  Before going to school, I used to watch the “Today” show in the morning in the 1970s.  It was a decent show.  Some real and serious news made the cut.  Now it’s largely a laugh-fest featuring celebrities making sales-pitches.  The news as soap opera; the news as vanity.

To state the obvious: The network “news” has been dumbed down.  Image is nearly everything.  Stories are far shorter and without context.  Designed for people with limited attention spans, they’re also designed to keep people watching, so they feature sensationalism and “quick hits” — nothing too taxing or disturbing.

Of course, the real news is still out there, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest probing article at TomDispatch.com.  It’s just much harder to find on the network “news”:

What’s left out?  Well, more or less everything that truly matters much of the time: any large, generally unphotogenic process, for instance, like the crumbling of America’s infrastructure (unless cameras can fortuitously zoom in on a bridge collapsing or a natural gas pipeline in the process of blowing up in a neighborhood — all so much more likely in an age in which no imaginable situation lacks its amateur video); poverty (who the hell cares?); the growing inequality gap locally or globally (a no-interest barrier the WikiLeaks-style Panama Papers recently managed to break through); almost anything that happens in the places where most of the people on this planet actually live (Asia and Africa); the rise of the national security state and of militarism in an era of permanent war and permanent (in)security in the “homeland”; and don’t even get me started on climate change…

Coming to grips with the real news would require thought and necessitate action – changes, radical ones, to the status quo.  And what powerbroker wants that?

Focus instead, America, on your screens.  Take your soma.  Hate your Goldstein.  That’s the method driving our madness.  Dystopia, anyone?