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Dystopia Week

Welcome to Dystopia Week. Starting tomorrow, we’re going to run a series of stories and posts offering visions of how society might Go Wrong. Each author has a different lens through which that is understood.

Vikram Bath recently informed me that the word “dystopia” appears to have first been used in 1868, by John Stuart Mill, in a speech given to the British Parliament, with respect to land policy in Ireland. In contemporary scholarly usage, it usually refers to a form of social commentary by way of fiction illustrating a future which is undesirable, often to the point of being terrifying.

The most famous dystopia in literature is undoubtedly George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, written in 1948, which illustrated the reach of an overpowering totalitarian government waging global war and simultaneously concerning itself with controlling the internal psychology of its helpless protagonist Winston Smith. Nineteen Eighty Four was the first book I read that made me cry, in the scene where Winston offers up his lover Julia for torture, because it illustrated even love crushed under the wheels of oppression — something that all other fiction I’d read or viewed up until then had assured me was impossible.

For me, the most insidious and instructive literary dystopia was not Orwell’s, but Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The society in which the protagonist Guy Montag is employed as a “fireman,” only we quickly learn that Montag’s world perverts the job from one whose job it is to prevent property damage cause by fire to one whose job it is to burn and destroy caches of books, as books now represent a public danger. As we delve deeper into a world with chillingly accurate predictions of immersive entertainments serving as distractions from matters of importance, we also see sanitized and slanted news mindlessly consumed by uncritical viewers, and the elevation of sybaritic and consequence-free sensation over more meaningful interpersonal relationships of love, friendship, and mutual respect. Most frighteningly, we learn that the hostility of this society to books came not by way of governmental censorship, but rather from consumer preference: people chose to criminalize ownership of books and mandate their destruction, because they contained complex concepts that often “made people sad.”

More contemporary dystopias have become the subject of fiction that resembles adventure stories aimed at young adults and teenagers: The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, and Divergent are the most prominent examples. I think there is good to be extracted from offering cautionary tales of this nature to young people, at least potentially. Having interacted with a number of teenagers who have joyously consumed–in many cases, inhaled–these books, I fear that many of them bypass the elements of the stories that illustrate precisely how the societies the young protagonists fight against went wrong and are wrong, favoring the zest of the adventures and triumphs of the heroes with whom they identify. It’s fun to cheer Katniss on as she fights the power, but it’s worth taking a moment to meditate on just how much the gladiatorial spectacle of the Hunger Games is used as a tool of political control, how Caesar Flickerman is perhaps the most effective agent of Panem’s oppression–and whether Panem’s blend of social stratification, military violence, and mass media are uncomfortably close to life in their own contemporary world.

Dystopian visions are valuable for us to embrace precisely so we don’t wind up like the people in Fahrenheit 451. Like all cautionary tales, they illustrate what the results of too many bad choices made now could be. They also serve a similar purpose as do horror stories: by confronting what we fear, we can feel a measure of control over them. Many people have had exactly those sorts of apprehensions recently as the political winds in the western world seem to have shifted. Some of what we have to offer may seem darkly humorous, and some of it just plain dark, but what is intended is a modicum of consideration. Let us take these illustrations not as totems to elicit fear or unrest, but rather as inspirations to remember what we find important, to do what is within our power to enhance that which is good in our society, whether you welcome, fear, or are indifferent to current events.

Enjoy.

Image by haxney


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Pseudonymous. Practices Law. Lives in Southern California. Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. Homebrewer. Atheist. No Partisan Preference. Likes: respectful and intelligent dialogue, good wine, and puppies. Dislikes: mass-produced barley pop, magical thinking, and insincere people. Follow him on Twitter at @burtlikko, and on Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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46 thoughts on “Dystopia Week

  1. It is important to be able to recognize when you are in a dystopia.
    It is important to be able to recognize when you are entering a dystopia.
    It is important to be able to recognize when you have exited one dystopia only to enter into another dystopia.
    It is important to be able to recognize when you are no longer in a dystopia.

    Or so I imagine.

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    • It is important to be able to recognize when you are in a dystopia.

      Of course, one person’s dystopia may be another person’s perfectly fine situation. I know a number of people who believe I’m already living in a dystopia, out here in the soul-sucking isolation of the suburbs of an interior West city, sans access to any sort of culture, horribly dependent on an automobile, etc, etc.

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      • Exactly this. So at this very moment Trump and the Congressional Republicans are busily making plans to enact measures that many of us consider dystopian in nature. Yet, the fact that they’re so gung-ho on this project strongly suggests that my dystopia is their perfectly fine state of affairs.

        I’m genuinely interested in what precisely some of our more conservative participants here would consider a dystopian nightmare given that most of the extant dystopian literature and film seems written from a broadly liberal perspective.

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        • I’m genuinely interested in what precisely some of our more conservative participants here would consider a dystopian nightmare given that most of the extant dystopian literature and film seems written from a broadly liberal perspective.

          I briefly thought about trying to pen a libertarian dystopia: a world with universal health care financed with taxes, universal employment, state provided education through college, environmental and health and safety regulations, etc. In essence something that looked like very much like today’s Sweden, but described through the eyes of a true “no social constructs” libertarian, after of some sort of cataclysmic event did away with the pre ort-of-Scandinavian societies.

          But I’m really crap at trying to pen fiction.

          And from this brief description I can see that it would essentially be Brave New World, with The Savage as the Libertarian character, recoiling in horror at the paternalism of my dystopia.

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          • @J_A

            If I were any good at fiction, I would have gone with a society choked by the regulatory state – there’s universal healthcare, but the government reserves the right to micromanage your life to save money, so forget about alcohol. Nearly every occupation is licenced, and since “character” is one reason to deny a licence, uttering an opinion that the Powers That Be consider improper can result in your life being destroyed.

            That goes for the media too of course – fake news and false balance are Irresponsible Journalism, and grounds for suspension of a media company’s licence, as well as the licenses of the journalists involved. Technological progress is functionally illegal as gaining government approval to do anything novel is prohibitively expensive.

            The combination of people being forced out of legitimate markets by having their licenses revoked and the abundance of black markets (tobacco, alcohol and sugar are all illegal for health reasons), leads to massive organised crime problem and a use of long-term Community Service sentences that amount to slave labour. This is tolerated because the victims are criminals and people think they deserve it. Basically its a shiny, happy future, so long as you stay in your box and do as you’re told. At least until healthcare costs and law enforcement blow the Budget and the entire economy collapses.

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        • We know what dystopia looks like for the Christian Evangelical set because they already believe that they are living in it or right about it constantly. Its a world where modern enlightenment liberalism is forced on everybody at gun point even though liberals are allegedly to wussy to real own guns, where people can’t practice their Christian faith or teach it to their children, and America is subjected to the United Nations in a one world government. Its basically like those Bible movies about Christian persecution in the Roman Empire but in modern times.

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            • Having been raised by actual atheists, but Jewish atheists that still did a lot of Jewish religious things because that’s how we roll, I’m really puzzled about how religious people perceive atheists. My parents didn’t really talk that much about their atheism unless it came up. They weren’t particularly libertine either.

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              • My best understanding (as an atheist in a family of religious folks) is that if you’re religious, religion takes up a good chunk of your brainspace. It’s a critical part of your mental world.

                I mean how big a chunk varies pretty wildly, but religion is a part of how they process the world and how they thing.

                So when faced with an atheist, sometimes you get just this straight swap — “All my God Thoughts” become “All their Not God thoughts” and it leads to a weird idea of how most atheists work.

                A worldview in which God and religion are “Things other people do, like watching NASCAR or knitting” can be really hard to grok because it’s very alien to how some religious folks view the world.

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              • Its not specific to the religious. Most people have terrible trouble understanding people who disagree with them, look at how liberals and libertarians talk about each other even on this site.

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            • What I think would be a challenging thing to write was a dystopia from the secular conservative standpoint. We know what a Christian Evangelical or Libertarian dystopia will look like but a secular conservative one is harder to determine.

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              • Depends on your brand of secular conservative. Your average neocon used to fret about the commie takeover and now they wet the bed over sharia. Your deficit hawk imagines (usually with panting eagerness) the implosion of the national fisc and the death of fiat currency. Your foreign policy hawk imagines (again with panting eagerness) some kind of military invasion and the resistance against same (Wolverines!)

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              • It would probably be something along the lines of social ossification (caste systems) and the backsliding of the countries economy (people earning less that their folks did, etc.) That is what they seem to talk about at least.

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  2. Modern YA dystopias really don’t work because of too much focus on the sexy resistance members rather than actual dystopian government. A proper dystopia novel needs a general feeling of overwhelmingly hopelessness or at least a false sense of hope for the resistance but the dystopian state, government, or theocracy is the one really in charge. 1984 or the Children of Men, the novel, works as dystopian novels because of the sheer amount of futility.

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    • This is likely because modern YA dystopian works aren’t really about dystopian futures. They just use dystopian setting as a stand-in for the overall feelings of confusion and alienation that come with being a teenager. Same goes for vampires and werewolves and zombies, et al.

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        • I think a lot of this happens is because one person’s killer argument is another person’s “What your point?”

          My biggest issue with libertarians is not that they believe government coercion is a serious issue but that they seem to think that government coercion is the only coercion worth doing something about. We really do seem to have different definitions of freedom. I think negative liberty is important but so is positive liberty. The problem with positive liberty is that it is harder and it requires effort.

          And a lot (but not all) of libertarians can easily fall into the trap of “I’m a heterosexual, nominally Christian, white dudeness” which makes them dense to the concerns of minorities like Veronica mentioned below and in Roland’s thread.

          On Jason K’s facebook feed, a libertarian tried to make a
          “killer” argument against the Civil Rights Act by calling it “reverse Jim Crow.” His point went over my head. Of course the Civil Rights Act is reverse Jim Crow, that is the point. If his point was that it is no better than Jim Crow, I don’t know what is solution to the problem of Jim Crow if it is all bad.

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          • If his point was that it is no better than Jim Crow, I don’t know what is solution to the problem of Jim Crow if it is all bad.

            Of course it is not really a problem for them. A libertarian disposition is very short on empathy. If they are not the ones being made to step of the sidewalk to let a white person walk by uninterrupted, they don’t see why they should care or interfere with the freedom of other people to impose these social constructs. I mean, if black people are supposed to be able to use the sidewalks, the market will take care of that.

            It’s like no reactionary than pines for hierarchies has ever said: ”I wish I was a Russian serf, so my Master can sell me to another farm, send my son to the army, take my daughter as a kitchen maid and wrench in his house, and let my wife die of hunger because she will have no one to care for her. God willing the world will change and all these dreams of mine will become true”. Quite the opposite, they are always at the top, benevolently, but firm’y, ruling the masses

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  3. He gazed up at the ridiculous hair. Four years it had taken him to learn what kind of soul was hidden behind the petty corruption and infantile tweets. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! He swallowed three oxycontins as two beer-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He wanted to build the wall and make America great again.

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    • He wanted to build the wall and make America great again.

      Disorganization, confusing architectural plans and drunk engineers dominated the first phase of construction, but soon the desert heat took its toll as well on the huge temporary cities housing construction workers. Underpaid illegal workers brought in from across the border survived but the white working class took a beating, dropping like flies in the face of the desert sun, sometimes firing pistols in fits of delusional hallucinations. Soon, summer turned to fall, which brought rainstorms and malaria infected mosquitoes. Zika was rampant. Oxen were swallowed by sink holes and flash floods ravaged crops. Later that year cold arctic blasts destroyed the remaining food supplies, killing all the camels and burros. Currency markets were unstable, international credit destroyed, and whole coastal cities tumbled into the ocean. Without realizing it, we had passed the frontier of a brave new world.

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  4. To elaborate on my first comment above, I’ve been noodling around for the last couple of years constructing my New, Improved, Genuine, and Compleat Map of the political spectrum. I won’t go into great detail here in this combox — a proper treatment would be at least a full post — but I posit six primary political orientations. These are arranged in a circle, like a clock face.

    Starting at the noon position you have the classical liberal or libertarian. At 2 o’clock, the right liberal or objectivist, think Paul Ryan. At 4 o’clock, the right conservative. These are your socons and Trumpers. At 6 o’clock, the classical conservatives. These are your Church and Crown folks, literal theocratic monarchists. At 8 o’clock, the left conservatives or democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders. Finally, at 10 o’clock, your left liberals or neo-liberals — Obama and Clinton.

    In this taxonomy, liberal and conservative are taken in their dictionary sense of permissive or authoritarian while left and right concern egalitarianism vs hierarchy. Sort of. Like I said it would take at least a full post to really lay this all out.

    Anyway, each orientation has within it a vision, perhaps implicit, of an ideal society — a utopia. Adherents to that vision will typically, being human, tend to focus on the positive aspects while ignoring, downplaying, or failing to recognize the actual or potential downsides. Conversely, folks on the opposite side of this circle will tend, again, being human, to see only the downside and that becomes their dystopia.

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    • I have a problem with someone called “classical liberal or libertarian” which to me are two completely separate animals.

      But then, my ideas of what classical liberal means are very XVIII century, and my ideas of what a libertarian is are very Disney fantasy (sorry, libertarian friends)

      But I’m sure it will be clearer in your post

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      • Political nomenclature carries an unreasonable and unhelpful amount of baggage that is most strongly determined by contemporary usage. Well, that’s pretty much just how language works, so no surprise there. But ideally I would ditch the familiar labels of liberal, conservative, libertarian and such simply because they really perform poorly as accurate pointers to their intended referents.

        They’re more like dogs than wolves.

        Consider: If you hear the word “wolf” it will evoke an image of a particular animal that is likely very close to the reality. The label accurately evokes the referent. But the word “dog” refers equally to a Great Dane, a Chihuahua, and a Poodle. And if you didn’t already know better you could be excused for assuming that those breeds are actually different species of animal.

        Now perhaps that’s not the best analogy since those breeds are actually members of the same species, but the point I’m trying to make is that is that when you hear the word “dog” it’s likely that an image of a particular breed will come to mind, perhaps a beloved pet, that possesses particular characteristics not shared with other breeds. You can’t accurately infer from your knowledge of that breed you have in mind the characteristics of the animal the speaker may be thinking of.

        Anyway, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent. I use the term “classical liberal” to refer to libertarians mostly as a gesture of respect since that’s a way they refer to themselves and as a distinction from “high liberal” which is the term many political philosophers use to describe what you likely think of as “Liberal” in the contemporary political nomenclature.

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      • Seconded! I think that sounds like a very useful and workable taxonomy. It seems, from what you present here, pretty well thought out and fair.

        Please write it up !

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        • Well, okay then. Be careful what you ask for, LOL. But I guess when two people I have a lot of respect for tell me to write it up I should probably write it up.

          And I have tried to fair. Part of my ruminations has been to identify the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of each orientation. And it’s really hard to set aside your own biases in doing so, to see the good in philosophies you disagree with and engage in the kind of introspection required to see the ugly in your own.

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  5. I’m gonna try to write on parenting. Does it count as a dystopia if the madness is socially enforced as opposed to rule-of-law?

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  6. We know that there have been real world dystopias and really horrible totalitarian regimes. The Nazis, Stalin’s Russia, and North Korea come to mind the easiest.

    But based on the article I put in linkage, we know that a loft of countries can be soft authoritarian and quasi-democratic and be boring and tolerable and sometimes even pleasant to live in.

    I think the issue I have with a lot of dystopia fiction especially of the YA Hunger Games type is that it goes over the top because over the top is easy. Coming up with the subtle kind of dystopia is hard. I tried and failed.

    On LGM you see a lot of hyperbole about what the Trump admin is going to be and I end up rolling my eyes at some of it because a lot of the fears would require massive resources like enough armed troops to occupy every blue state and city to enforce bans against birth control and other Christian right-wing desires. I don’t see that happening. I don’t even see Trump getting 5 votes to overturn Griswold. He might not even get Cert.

    To me a more realistic dystopia is one where people just get used to things taking longer because infrastructure has broken down because of gutted funding and maybe some light bribery is needed to push things along.

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    • — The danger of Trump is that he will halt progress for people who very much need progress. Likewise he will do small, petty things to hurt vulnerable people.

      For example, Clinton, during her term as secretary of state, changed certain rules that allowed me to change the gender marker on my passport. I did that. My passport reads that I am female. This is good, because I look (roughly) female, and I don’t feel like explaining to the various customs agents (or whatever) who I encounter while traveling why my passport is weird.

      Whoever Trump appoints could reverse that with one signature. They could recall my passport, which would be seized on re-entering the country. They could certainly block new issues, which would fuck over my friends whose timing on documents lagged mine.

      This seems small to you. It seems big to me.

      We’d fight it in court. Would we win?

      And so it goes. Middle class white men have little to fear from Trump, other than he might be an incompetent boob who fucks up the economy. But even a good president can get caught on the wrong side of the business cycles.

      That said, do you care about other people? Trump’s dystopia will be crass, petty, and incompetent, but it will hurt people. That said, It will be easy to not notice this should you not want to notice this. Power hides itself.

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      • You really need to read the threads that Saul is referring to. It goes way over the not being able to put the gender of your choice in your passport. They really are at the army will occupy Democratic voting cities and enforce Protestant morality.

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