Are We Living In a Dystopian Novel?
Literary scholars (of which I am definitely not one) have long debated what the first dystopian novel was. Some claim it was Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726); others say the honor belongs to either French writer Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century (1863) or British author H.G. Welles' The Time Machine (1895); then there are those who swear the honor belongs to one of two American novel: either Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column (1890) or Jack London's The Iron Heel (1908). It is likely that some readers of The K.F. Stone Weekly have not yet read - nor heard of - several of these classic works, and as such, are likely unable to define the term "dystopian." However a brief rendering of some of the most famous novels in the genre - Kafka's The Trial, Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games - should give at least a hint as to the definition of dystopia. Simply stated, dystopian novels, stories or movie adaptations deal with an imagined future time, place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad - typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. In other words, "dystopia" is the bipolar opposite of "utopia."
In light of the many changes that have radically altered civil society over the past generation or two - and especially since the advent of the Internet - and a populace conditioned to view reality through the lens of "optics" -many of the most dire and frightening predictions of great dystopian novels have come chillingly true. Consider, if you will, brief summaries of a handful of dystopian novels; the pictures they paint are haunting:
- The Iron Heel (1908): Focusing on the breakdown of politics in a future American society, Jack London imagines the rise of an oligarchic tyranny which bankrupts the middle classes and rules over its poor subjects with a crass, uncaring iron heel;
- 1984 (1949): George Orwell creates a highly disturbing future world of "Newspeak," and "Big Brother," in which 2+2=5; hot is cold, up is down, constant surveillance and a government-controlled media;
- Fahrenheit 451 (1953): America has become a society in which books are burned and intellectual thought is illegal. Ironically, when first published, Bradbury's book was itself banned for containing "questionable themes";
- The Drowned World (1962): A vivid picture of a world irreversibly changed by global warming; the cities of Europe and America lie submerged in tropical lagoons, while a biologist cataloging flora and fauna is beset with strange dreams.
- The Handmaid's Tale (1998): Set in a totalitarian, post-nuclear world, Christian theocracy has overthrown the US government. Women are forbidden to read, and the few capable of having children are subjugated and forced to serve the wider needs of society by becoming breeding machines.
What makes these - and many, many other - dystopian novels so chillingly, mind-numbing is how closely they approximate the direction American society has been taking over the past several decades. The rise of cyber reality, untrammeled, self-centered consumerism, instantaneous hand-held communications, creeping authoritarianism, a rising tide of religious and ethnic intolerance, a growing distrust of science, and a penchant for accepting the most outlandish conspiracy theories as reality, has changed society a thousand times over. Today, as in dystopian novels, there exists a sizable plurality which disdains those they view as effete intellectuals, derides those who hold different opinions on matters of race, politics or sexual orientation, and despises those who will not walk in lockstep with their anointed leaders. These are people who have been conditioned to turning a blind eye toward provable facts, all the while claiming that these facts are nothing more than lies promulgated by elitist elements for their own purposes.
Of all the many disabilities and outright lies '45, Bannon, Limbaugh, Fox News, conspiracists like Alex Jones and white supremacists like Richard Spencer and David Duke have foisted upon American society, perhaps none is quite so diabolic - or brilliant - as that of "Fake News." For over the past several years, they have trained and conditioned their Pavlovian followers into believing that anything in print, on the Internet or broadcast over the airwaves which does not jibe with their preconceived notions of reality is a big fat lie; a lie spread by the Fake Media. This is utterly brilliant. All '45 or his lieutenants have to do to negate something in the news which questions their facts or veracity is to proclaim that they are part and parcel of the "Fake News" conspiracy.
Sometimes the Fake News angle goes beyond belief. Take General Jon Kelly's press conference the other day in which he denounced Florida Congressional Representative Fredrecka Wilson for having given herself credit for the construction of a new FBI building in Miami. Turns out that a video taken of that event by the Ft. Lauderdale News Sun Sentinel proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Rep. Wilson never said any thing of the sort. Turns out, that according to General Kelly and presidential press secretary Sarah Sanders, the Sun Sentinel video was a hoax; just another example of Fake News being perpetrated by the liberal mainstream media.
Other examples abound - going back to that which got the future '45 his first political notice: "birtherism." Polling done during the 2016 election showed that two-thirds of the Trump supporters knew for a fact that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, is to this day a practicing Muslim, and was sent here as a child for the purpose of eventually turning America into an Islamic nation. Then too, '45's rabid base still "knows" that he scored the "biggest victory" in the history of presidential elections, and had more people attend his inauguration than any president in the modern era. And how do they know these things when facts, photos and statistics prove them wrong? Why their fearless leader told them so!
And while one can easily respond with "Don't lose too much sleep over it; these crazy people represent far less than a majority," I say this: members of this "crazy plurality" represent some of the most heavily armed people in America. Whether '45 knows it or not, the people who consciously created this Republican base (the very base which '45 and most of the cowards in Congress spoon feed) have their own frightening, dystopian agenda: to create a Civil War; a conflict which will pit the followers and descendants of the Old South, Joe McCarthy, Charles "America First!" Lindburgh and the Koch Brothers against the descendants of FDR, Kennedy, King and Obama . . . not to mention Richard Hofstadter who, while not a dystopian novelist, did, back in November, 1964, write one of the most important dystopian essays of all time: The Paranoid Style in American Politics.
I for one do not wish to live within the pages of 1984. The Chrysalids or The Running Man. My choices tend towards George Eliot's Middlemarch and Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward where at least idealism still has a chance.
264 days down, 1082 to go.
Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone