Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Drowning in a Dystopian Sea


Back in July of 2012, I posted an essay on OpEd News entitled Buzz Windrip is Alive and Well. Those who are fans of Sinclair Lewis, will recall that Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip was the character who bullied his way into the White House in Lewis’ 1935 dystopian satire It Can’t Happen Here - a novel about a demagogue (loosely based on Louisiana Governor Huey Long) who defeats FDR by, among other things, promising to restore American values and giving $5,000.00 to every family in America. Once president, Buzz, -guided by his diabolic Trilby, a p.r. man named Lee Sarason - turns America into a corporate state replete with concentration camps, government-run newspapers and a personal army of “Minute Men” called “Corpos.” As haunting as Lewis’ novel was in 1935, it was even more so when I wrote the essay in July 2012, in the midst of the presidential election. As one might well imagine, the rise of Donald Trump from celebrity TV show host to POTUS has put the now 83 year old novel back on many bestseller lists. It is a novel which should be read by all . . . now more than ever.

Of course, Lewis’ classic is by no means the first - or best - dystopian novel ever written. Jack London’s 1908 best-seller, The Iron Heel, is the granddaddy of ‘em all. Part science fiction, part dystopian fantasy, part radical socialist tract, The Iron Heel offers a grim depiction of warfare between the classes in America and around the globe. Originally published more than a hundred years ago, it anticipated many features of the past century, including the rise of fascism, the emergence of domestic terrorism, and the growth of centralized government surveillance and authority. A difficult though engrossing read, The Iron Heel begins as a war of words and ends in scenes of harrowing violence as the state oligarchy, known as “the Iron Heel,” moves to crush all opposition to its power. This too, is a must read.

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The one dystopian novel which to me is most haunting of all, is Kafka’s The Trial, in which an unassuming office worker named Josef K. is arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime revealed neither to him nor to the reader. In the middle of chapter one, Josef K, speaking about the policemen who have come to arrest him, utters a remark which, in this age of Trump, the growing autocracy and his core fanatics - those who gladly accept his stunning egotism, his constant lies and tactless, embarrassing demeanor - shakes me to my very core: “ . . . do I really have to carry on getting tangled up with the chattering of base functionaries like this? — and they admit themselves that they are of the lowest position. They're talking about things of which they don't have the slightest understanding, anyway. It's only because of their stupidity that they're able to be so sure of themselves. I just need few words with someone of the same social standing as myself and everything will be incomparably clearer. . .”

The one thing most dystopian novels - including Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale have in common is that they don’t suggest how to turn dystopia into sanity - let alone utopia. But then again, these novels - plus oh so many others - are literature attempting to portray a dismal reality . . . not prescriptions for saving society from itself. About the best dystopian literature can do is wage all-out war - literally - against the autocrats and purveyors of mass insanity. Although understandable, it is, indeed, unfortunate.

In the situation we find ourselves here in the United States - and increasingly in many developed countries - the “solution” to what ails us . . . to what is splitting our social compact apart . . . is both discoverable and ultimately doable. First and foremost, the enablers must get up off their knees, stand straight and tall, and start doing the job(s) for which they were elected. Medicine’s first principle is the Hippocratic Oath: primum non nocere, namely, “First, do no harm.” In politics and civic engagement the primary oath is to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” To my way of thinking, it should have primum non nocere appended . . . “First, do no harm.” For the past two years plus, too many elected officials have acted in contravention to this primary oath; they have, by refusing to speak truth to power, enabled the nation’s leader to put ego before ethics and use his office for his personal profit. They have stood mutely by while he has bad-mouthed and foully nicknamed anyone who challenges him, disparaged and insulted the heroic, while making friends of tyrants and enemies out of allies. Through their silence and inaction, they have seemingly made primary oath “First, get yourself reelected’; and second, “Do nothing to tick off your financial supporters or political base.”

By hitching their fate and future to the wagon of a man and a movement which cares little if anything for the common clay - Buzz Windrip’s “forgotten man” - they have suffered a whooping at the polls and the very real prospect of destroying a political party whose very history begins with Abraham Lincoln. Why didn’t a single Republican take Donald Trump to task when he said that the late john McCain was “not a hero?” Where were the admonishing voices when, just the other day, the POTUS labeled retired Navy admiral William H. McRaven - the Navy Seal who oversaw the capture and assassination of Osama bin Laden - “a Hillary Clinton fan” and “an Obama backer” and actually suggested that he should have captured bin Laden sooner. Why would the Commander-in-Chief say something as outrageous as this? Simple. Because last year, Admiral McRaven called the president’s description of the news media as the “enemy of the people” the “greatest threat” to American democracy he had ever seen. And while several of the admiral’s military and intelligence colleagues found the president’s charges outrageous, not a single enabler in his Cabinet or on Capitol Hill uttered a word.

And by the way, referring to Representative Adam Schiff – the incoming Chair of the House Select Committee on Intelligence as “Little Adam Schitt” is likely going to come back and bite ’45 in the rear.  Adam Schiff is simply not the kind of man you want to toy with: he has more brains and better political instincts than the president can even begin to comprehend. And, Mr. Schiff is greatly admired and respected by the media and virtually everyone on Capitol Hill. Why? Because he is brilliant, even-tempered and knows what he’s talking about . . .

If we as a nation are not to drown in this dystopian sea, we must demand that the president’s cowardly enablers unloosen their shackles, don their life vests and start acting like leaders. Do not fear that standing up for what is right might get you into the president’s cross hairs or that he might call you a bad name; the recent midterm elections show that, like the Wizard of Oz, the curtain has been pulled back, revealing a rudderless leader who is only capable of leading us to the bottom of the sea.

Remember: there are only 714 days until America goes back to the polls and finishes the job we began two weeks ago . . .

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone