Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dystopia Now

I picked a bad weekend to re-read 1984.

After hearing about the shooting at UC Santa Barbara/ Isla Vista along with the twisted ideology - and the even more twisted response - of what appears to be a shooting spree motivated by misogyny, the ever increasing about the power of the Ukip along with other election returns in the EU causing concern (I am not very knowledgeable in EU politics so I can't speak to a lot of what this article discusses. However, what I've heard via various news sources about Ukip and other various extremist parties in Europe is extremely frightening. The fact the Guardian describes several groups as "neo-fascist" and "neo-Nazi" makes me very, very worried), and a general fear felt at a more local level when discussing with my mother how Cub foods essentially has a supermarket monopoly in my hometown of Lakeville now (which led to a discussion of whether monopolies are gaining ground various parts of American consumerism in general), I'm a bit perturbed, to make a gross understatement. I was off the grid internet-wise for most of Memorial Day weekend, choosing to use the American holiday as a chance to hang out with my parents, relax, and recharge after some busy weeks. Now coming back to the news and the reactions to what's going on, I feel a bit like I woke up in a different version of events than the one I left it in.

Monday afternoon, admits all this turmoil, I was sitting on the deck at my parents' house, soaking up the sun and reading staging of 1984. Forgetting how troubling and unsettling I found the novel (which I'd begun to reread the day before), I was utterly enveloped in the story and realized that, while "critics may argue... about the particularly literary merits of 1984...none can deny its power, its hold on the imaginations of whole generations (Orwell 3)." Or so Walter Cronkite states in the introduction of my copy of the book. When we think of dystopias, this is one of the first books to come mind. Orwell's novel has greatly formed or informed our way of thinking about the downfall of our nation-states into turmoil and tragic governing structures. And so, being so immersed in other dystopic narratives - The Hunger Games, Divergent (which I haven't seen the film or read the books but many I know have), my perpetual meanderings over Coriolanus, and my own personal attachment to Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, reading one of the key players in dystopian books and hearing about the news events occurring while I am none the wiser makes me impulsively wonder if we are closer to a dystopian life than we might think.

Instinctively, I want to say no. I think about how fortunate I am and how much worse things could me. But that's my privileged talking; that's the part of me that has never had to starve, never been homeless, never have been really harshly judged based on where I or my relatives were from. There's a text post that circulates around Tumblr from time to time and I don't remember the exact wording but the gist of it is that dystopias in film and books exit only when things that have been happening to marginalized groups start to happen to white or privileged people. There is a lot of truth in that, and it's troubling.

But what would happen if we were to declare our present reality dystopic? In novels, it seems that there is always one overarching threat - either framed by the experiences of those at hand, or framed by those who are trying to keep power in place. In our reality, the threats are multitudinous and come from many places. There is no one "Big Brother" we are told to fear and love. There is no one single aspect of government, or society, or commerce that we can pull out and "fight." I believe I discussed in a previous post about The Hunger Games how I find the enemy that is marked so clearly and tangible to fight as a means of easing the fact that it isn't so easy to fight and resist the problems we face in our world (of course, for Katniss, it may not turn out to be so easy either).

At the same time, I want to challenge myself from saying that our threats are hard to parse out - because they aren't, not really. It isn't unclear at all - we know what the problems are, we just struggle to do anything about them (or as a favorite song of mine by the band Kansas states, "The answers are so simple, and we all know where to look, but it's easier just to avoid the question"). I've begun my summer project of reading Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism and she discuss briefly in the preface the issues of totalitarianism and evil, saying, "And if it is true that in the final stages of totalitarianism an absolute evil appears (absolute because it can no longer be deduced from humanly comprehensible motives), it is also true that without it we might never have known the truly radical nature of Evil" (Arendt ix). This is the second time in a week that I've seen discussion of evil versus Evil (it was also mentioned throughout Stephen King's Salem's Lot, interestingly enough) and it's one of those age-old issues that takes on a new light when dealing with problems of dystopia. At what point have you switched from serious problems (evil with a little "e") versus a different force, a greater Evil (with a big "e") that can no longer be recognized as something that is understood with human empathy? If we want to trace out our problems we face, without focusing so much on our foes and pointing them out everywhere (as totalitarianism does to separate and isolate), how do we not lose hope if we are faced with Evil and how do we work to balance our empathy versus what needs to be said?

I think of this in the context of something I saw about fictional Evil in regards to Marvel heroes and villains, from the blog joan-h-watson.tumblr.com. The blogger wrote:
I am so entirely sick of people ragging on characters that want/try to do the right thing. see: Captain America, see: Superman, see: Scott McCall
It’s always so utterly transparent too. Like I get it, these characters make you uncomfortable because you see them in all the most awful, horrible situations, the kind of rock and a hard place that would break anyone, only it doesn’t break them, it doesn’t force them into the darkness, it doesn’t keep them from being good and kind, and that freaks you the fuck out because you know, were you in that same place, if you had to make those same choices, you wouldn’t be good and kind, you would compromise. (and I include myself here, I’m no Captain America, none of us are really, but why should that mean we shouldn’t try to be? where did we all get this idea that it’s wrong to try to be good and can we pls get rid of it)
And for some of you, it just infuriates you, how dare someone challenge you or your beliefs, how dare they make you question your actions. You hear things like “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun” and your reaction is I don’t want to join you in the sun, I want to drag you down to earth and make you just as twisted and wretched as the rest of us because I can’t stand the idea that I could ever be wrong about things, that I could ever need to grow and change and become better.
And I’m just so sick of it. I’m sick of people being enamored with darkness and amorality. I’m sick of people glorifying characters that are absolutely horrible (yes some of the most interesting characters, and some of my favorites even, are not always good guys, but jfc they are not who we should aspire to be like) and trashing characters just for having the audacity to be good people. I’m sick of people acting like being a giant asshole or even legitimately terrible wrong person is ‘cool’ or ‘edgy’, it’s not, it’s really fucking not. Being good is cool. Doing the right thing is edgy (don’t believe me, try doing it for once and see how much push back you get, it’s not so easy being good). Being better then you were a year ago, a month ago, yesterday, that’s cool. Captain America and Superman and all the other characters that challenge us to do better, be better, they are fucking cool.
The first thing that comes to mind is the humanization and explaining of villains like Loki. I am certainly a large part of this, finding Loki a fascinating character. But the blogger is entirely right to say that while these characters may be fascinating and exciting, it's wrong to find them more redeemable than the heroes and to focus on their wrong-doings more than their rights. Now, ultimately they are fictional characters and regarding this way is perhaps less dangerous than doing this to wrong-doers in our world. And while I certainly support regarding people with empathy and understanding, but there comes a point - such as in the case of the shooter at UC Santa Barbara - that I simply fail. I cannot understand that and I'm not sure I want to. And those that do empathize with him do so in a way that is harmful and terrifying. And in this case, it seems real Evil wins some ground and causes the world to look more dystopic.

This is something I struggle with. Viewing my world as a dystopia of its own seems wrong to me. Perhaps I don't want to admit that things have been bad, have always been bad, may always be bad in some regards. Each period of history would seem to have its own dystopic elements (wide-spread plague - seriously dystopic; slavery - obviously so) but to declare human history as entirely dystopic is a position I can't take. Dystopia has always been a literary move, a way to highlight the problems of our own society in literature, not a term to define and describe the present state of our world. Dystopias always focus on one small corner of the world - the United States turned Panem, the United Kingdom turned Oceania, and does not account for what else is going one (because seriously, Canada, what were you doing during The Hunger Games? I must know). Calling our world dystopic would seem to overlook the good that is being done and the work that we do to resist and change the more problematic aspects, and to see things in a limited scope. We haven't been entirely censored, we haven't been forced entirely into strict castes of being, many of us still have the power and ability to do something. To say that we are dystopic and entirely powerless feels untrue and bit like throwing in the towel and saying, "Well, there's nothing left to do here. Either we raze it all and start anew or learn to love Big Brother/The Bomb/President Snow and his terrifying army of Peace Keepers." And we're not there. I'm not sure we'll ever be there. Because the world is too wide for that and as long as there are people resisting against it, we'll never be entirely dystopic.

I don't think I'm denying the darkness that is present in the world. I don't think I'm playing the fool. But amidst all of this darkness, there is a damn lot of light. Sometimes you just have to look at pictures of bunnies and listen to the Talking Heads too loudly and remind yourself that people want to change the way we use solar energy by making solar energy roads to see it. But this of course takes a certain time, ability, and privilege to do so. Maybe that's the reason superheroes get a lot of hate right now, as the blogger gestures to in the post mentioned above. Maybe it is because they have the ability to act and do something that we despise them, because we feel we can't. We side with the villain because it easy to see ourselves in such a vilified position, to know what it's like to have power taken from us, to know what it's like to want to fight for it back. But more and more I think I see heroes becoming sympathetic towards those aspects of villains, but knowing the difference between those who have had power taken away from them and those who think they have no power only because they want to horde all of it for themselves. Villains oppress in response to losing ground instead of breaking through oppression, as heroes work to do. And heroes in our world don't have superpowers and great differences - they're people more like Steve Rodgers before he was given the super serum. Heroes don't always stand out because they're just like the rest of us.

"With great power comes great responsibility," the old Spiderman quote goes. And a lot of that responsibility comes from recognizing that power is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be really good and be used for good. But to deny that those of us do have power by saying everything is dystopic is a wrong move; it overshadows just how complex the situation of our world is and that all hope is not lost. I'm not sure if I've at all cleared up anything in this post - I don't think I really can; I suppose this issue is more to provoke thought than clearly express answers and this is an issue that can be argued and debated for the rest of forever. Maybe this is partially an effort on my part to fight an ideological battle, the one that refuses to take a view on humanity that sees us as horrid and wicked and monstrous and grim and prefers to take on a more positive view of people. This isn't a denial of the wrongs in the world; rather it's a refusal to let fretting over them and fear-mongering about them win. Yes, the world is a troubled place. But I've seen the good that people can do and that can cut through that grimness sharper than anything else. We just need more of it. So, as I once saw written above the door in an Irish pub and have loved to utter ever since, "Don't let the bastards get you down." Don't let the problems of the world make you give up hope. Hope is tough to keep, but I believe in it fully. I have to bring in Sam Gamgee for my closing line here, because he says it exactly as I would like to:


Rock on, Samwise Gamgee. Rock on.

Citations from:
Hannah Arendt. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, 1976.

George Orwell, 1984, Commemorative Edition. Signet Classics, 1980.

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