More than any other dystopia, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four concentrates on its hero’s psychological state and his efforts to reveal the truth of the superstate in which he lives. Orwell’s meticulous attention to the engineering of reality and the digesting of the individual into the political entity makes this the definitive dystopia of post-Stalinist authoritarian power. The novel is divided into three books that cover, respectively, Winston Smith’s rebellion under the grind of daily life in Oceania, his love affair with Julia, and his incarceration, torture and erasure. The story is basically a struggle for truth, love and liberty where these are criminal. Gradually, through reflection, experience, and a “successful love affair,” Winston discovers the nature of his oppressor and briefly steals the freedoms that make life worth living, acknowledging from his first crime against the state, writing in a journal, that he is a “dead man.”
Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
Sinclair Lewis wrote this political satire of American exceptionalism in the early 1930s, when one in four Americans were out of work and the complacent assumptions he’d ridiculed in Babbitt were rasped away by real poverty. What most Americans assumed couldn’t happen on the economic front had happened, and even more had happened in Germany, Italy and Russia, with the rise of nationalist totalitarian regimes. So Lewis aimed his satire at the smug assumption of the American politician and parochial patriot that a despotic, militant, nationalist tyrant and, consequently, organized atrocity, were foreign, or only possible elsewhere.
H.G. Wells originally published When the Sleeper Awakes in 1898 as a serial in The Graphic, an illustrated London newspaper. In his preface to the 1910 edition, The Sleeper Awakes, he expressed disappointment with the book, claiming that it was hastily composed and overwrought and that he was badly in need of a vacation at the time. He also claimed that in editing the original he did not rewrite it, as what concerned him at the age of thirty-one no longer did at forty-three. So he cut out some of the fat and reworked the latter part of the book to give it more thoroughness and depth. What has come down to us in this 2003 Modern Library edition, When the Sleeper Wakes, is not one of Wells’ better novels but a template dystopia containing both accurate and inaccurate forecasts, as well as the fundamental dystopian elements of class war and awakening consciousness under authoritarian rule.
Checking the news sites this morning, I couldn’t help but notice that the lead story on Reuters anticipated the Labor Department’s employment report, due out later today. What struck me was not the expected increase in jobs and decrease in unemployment but a factoid that the service sector now accounts for 80% percent of US labor. If true, it confirms my long-held suspicion that the U.S. economy would eventually become a service economy.
Jack London’s political dystopia, The Iron Heel, published in 1905, is not so fantastic as it is relevant, not so prophetic as it is cogent. The question the novel leaves you with, in this age of unprecedented income inequality, conservative-libertarian populism, corporate propaganda fronts and political puppetry, is why the country has not gone down the path that London took it almost a hundred years ago. Why, with our increasingly vast poverty, waning middle class, wealth stratification beyond levels since those seen before the Great Depression and legislators thrall to powerful corporate and industrial interests, hasn’t the republic degenerated into the modern oligarchy as portrayed in this book?
A few years back, when Dubya was ridin’ his wooden horse hard, I was in a bar talking to a gal who at some point proclaimed, or admitted, that she was a republican. I asked what made her a republican, and she testified to her belief that the government should do nothing with regard to the environment, poverty, crime, discrimination, pollution, disease, illiteracy, stupidity and every other social ill since the age of Cain. Her point wasn’t a stumper: government solutions to social problems don’t work. I asked if public service and governance weren’t essentially social—if these weren’t designed to address the conditions of civilization. To that I got more of the same: social programs are unnecessary because the problems they failingly address would otherwise fix themselves and everything works best on its own in accordance with the natural, self-regulating way of things. So it’s all up to the individual? I asked. To which she answered with an unequivocal yes. In a flash I saw the genius of republicanism: an abdication of the necessity of improving society, thus narrowing the job of governance down to eliminating the public sector and putting public money in private hands.
Awhile ago I was flipping through the New Yorker and saw an interesting cartoon: two men in uniform, guns trained on a pedestrian, behind them a van with “Fashion Security” on the side. The caption read, “Sir! Sir! Kindly remove the bolo tie and set it on the ground—nice and slow!” I find this significant on a couple of levels. First, it has political resonance at a time when civil and personal liberties are threatened by the most incompetent demagogues ever to hold power in Empirica. Second, it takes a personal idea of bad taste and makes it a public danger, thereby exaggerating a fact about taste—that it has less to do with personal liberty than public authority.
On the October 14, 2005 Diane Rehm Show “Friday News Roundup,” David Corn of The Nation complained that the Administration’s policy to rebuild New Orleans as a tourist town would permanently exclude many of the locals. Policy Review editor and Hoover Institution fellow Todd Lindberg rebutted, “Most of those people are the product of a failed social policy anyway.” This comment had an odd effect on me. It tweaked into focus the conservative republican attitude toward the poor. Certain prejudices and preconceptions—not the least specious of which is that people are products of policy—at once took on clarity. So I went to my desk and jotted down the primary ideas contained in the comment: (1) the displaced New Orleans locals are the product of a failure, (2) the failure was one of policy, (3) the policy was “social,” and (4), as suggested by his dismissive anyway, they don’t matter. Delivered in a tone of smug disregard, it boiled down to this: “Quit whining about the poor and put ‘em out with the trash—they’re just more damaged liberal-policy goods.”
It is the inalienable right of the individual to publicly demonstrate a feeling. No authority can prohibit it, no civil institution can enforce it. It’s simply a right we all have and exercise as a matter of personal choice. While infants, dogs and lunatics exercise this right in the form of enthusiasm, affection, amusement, frustration and anger, the well-adjusted adult exercises it in the form of idealism, mawkishness, patriotism and belligerence. However, unlike infants, dogs, lunatics and those otherwise mentally and emotionally compromised, the well-adjusted adult does not have the excuse of naiveté, ignorance or disease. He has morality and religion, and with these, the embarrassed witness is left to judge the worth of the particular display of emotion.
If anything in this essay reflects badly on Empirican white-collar culture, I do not absolve myself of hypocrisy. On the contrary, I admit that I have practically benefited from that culture and, rightly or wrongly, feel no gratitude. After all, should a work of cultural criticism, which intends neither to eulogize nor instruct, be apologetic and polite? Is there some kind of debt to be honored? Nah. I’ve paid my dues and I’m no longer beholden to the walking turds I worked with. Aside from an admitted proclivity to piss on, rather than hump, the boss’s leg, I’m objective enough to consider most of what I have to say to be true. So on with it.
Activism is now like poetry or philosophy. Few people take it seriously. These days the activist, like the poet or philosopher, has no public. And as the poet and philosopher have lost their power to engage, educate and entertain, so has the activist lost the power to effect progressive change—assuming progressive change is the objective of the activist. Somehow all public protest of this corrupt and intransigent government appears futile. Mainstream American culture regards such activity as self-indulgent and effete. The present cultural context of activism is now the absence of a cultural context. The only reason to proclaim that one is an activist at all would be to gratify a sentimental delusion that such a role might still exist—a proclamation that would ring as ridiculous as that of being a poet or philosopher. Nevertheless, there are those who visibly assume the role. And it’s embarrassing to watch them as they go public with their naked need for attention. Like impoverished street musicians, they’re mocked and ignored. Folks pass by, wisecracking in hushed tones or feigning distraction to bypass the unpleasantness of being embarrassed for them. Fortunately, most poets, philosophers and activists do not go public. They gratify their vanities in supportive, obscure subcultures, or in universities where they ply their passions on the young, gullible and whimsical. Some survive outside of these safe havens, but only by hiding from coworkers and acquaintances the obscene futility in which they daily engage, closeting their perverse leanings toward intellectual inquiry, esthetic perfection and social betterment. They hide the outrage evoked by a political climate that abets and exploits mass stupidity, shuffling obsequiously from office to market, suppressing an urge to take dramatic action against this pervasive chicanery like a flasher suppressing an urge to show his penis to the checker.