Dystopia and Liberalism

TheGiverby Timothy Lane   8/10/14
The August 11 issue of National Review has an article on a dystopian novel (soon to be a movie), The Giver by Lois Lowry. It discusses several earlier dystopias, starting with We by Evgeny Zamyatin and continuing through Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron”. I will discuss these dystopias in terms of their relationship to modern liberalism, and add Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day as well.

Zamyatin naturally presented a dystopia based on Bolshevik Russia as world ruler. The main character is a scientist working on an interplanetary rocket, and a small group of rebels seeks to recruit him for their purposes. This leads to growing civil disorder, which the state eventually diagnoses as caused by “Fancy” – and mandates a brain surgery to get rid of the problem. The narrator, looking at what he wrote before the operation, cannot imagine having written it. When he woman who recruited him is executed, he no longer recognizes her – so evidently memory is affected as well. An interesting aspect of this is that the main authority is known as the Well-Doer, which is why I refer to the ostentatiously well-intentioned (or so they say) elites as “goodthinkful well-doers” – a combination of Zamyatin and Orwell. Also of interest is that when the rebels vote against the re-election of the Well-Doer, their action is ignored and he is reported as being (as usual) unanimously re-elected. I imagine most readers will recognize a similarly dismissive attitude toward dissenters among liberals today.

There’s little need to discuss the next 2 choices, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell, in detail. Anyone reading this probably already knows enough about them. Suffice to say that modern liberalism tends to use Orwell’s methods to create something very much like Huxley’s nightmare – with its extreme elitism, its rejection of history and family, and its reliance on personal self-indulgence.

The next item on the list is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The basic concern of the book – the loss of literature in a modernized world – was obviously a serious concern for Bradbury, who addressed the topic in at least 4 additional stories (and I’m nowhere near having read all of Bradbury). It’s a bland world where there’s no intellectually stimulating entertainment (which is why books are eliminated) due to what amounts to an entitlement not to be upset: “Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it.” He even mentions concerns about tobacco, though in this case it’s tobacconists who don’t like anything that reflects badly on their habit. Bradbury was clever in perhaps being the first writer to predict political correctness, but he wasn’t perfect.

Another interesting aspect is that when Montag, at the end, finds himself rescued by those who maintain their love of literature, he finds that the chase for him is ending “successfully” anyway – the public would have no patience for a prolonged chase. Eloi-hood, here we come. And what has he memorized (though he’s afraid that he may have forgotten it)? Biblical text – “part of the Book of Ecclesiastes and maybe a little of Revelation”.

Next on the list was A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. There are several interesting aspects of this in modern times – there have certainly been times when such wildness was common among youths (we even have such terms as “wilding” for it). One might also note the heavily Slavic nature of the thugs’ argot, much as so many young people today are fascinated by jihadism (and some even go to join it, inspired by the cleverly bloodthirsty propaganda of ISIS). Still, we can say that no one wants to see this dystopia, even though liberal relativism has done so much to create it.

Vonnegut presented an America in which equality has become total. People are handicapped by law – mechanical speech impediments for those who speak well, mild disfigurements (such as a rubber ball over the nose) for those too good-looking, heavy weights for those who are too strong, and earphones sending periodic signals to break up the thoughts of those too smart. No doubt there are others. All are equal, but of course at the lowest level of ability. It’s an excellent combination of modern liberalism (equality of result, no matter what) and socialism (equality by bringing down the top rather than raising the bottom).

Levin’s dystopia is interesting in that it looks good at first sight. People are happy, with nobody suffering the various pains. Of course, there’s a price – for example, people don’t live quite as long, which is a great way to reduce the strain on resources. Everyone is “humble and good”, as a childhood nursery rhyme has it, and one suspects they all are – or else.

Lowry’s book, judging from their description (I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll probably look for it) has aspects much like many of these stories. It has the superficially pleasant feel of This Perfect Day, with the loss of history that we see (in slightly different forms) in both Huxley and Orwell and some of the same equality we see in “Harrison Bergeron” – everyone is completely color-blind. And along with all the ills they’ve eliminated are such things as music and independent thought – this culture celebrates “sameness”. (One might consider an additional item for our list: the final season Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You”, in which individuality has been eliminated in return for a superficially pleasant life).

There have been other dystopias over the years, but one thing that becomes clear is that modern liberalism is a distillation of all these societies. Even the “good” ones inevitably are stagnant. After all, their goal is eutopia, and such a society must stay the same once it achieves “perfection” because any change makes it less “perfect”. (I will also mention Mike Resnick’s Kirinyage stories, about a Kikuyu utopia on a designated asteroid, which deals with the same basic problems and ultimately breaks down through its own internal contradictions.)

Imperfect humans (but then, liberals refuse to accept that humans – or at least the liberal elites –- really are imperfect) can never achieve perfection. But their quest for it can become so fanatical that it leads to the opposite – an Orwellian horror created in the name of an ideal society (though the Inner Party in IngSoc in fact have no interest in anything other than their own power – a pattern also evident in today’s liberal elites). But dystopias do give us some idea of what dangers may lie ahead.


Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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8 Responses to Dystopia and Liberalism

  1. Anniel says:

    Timothy, “The Giver” is one of those books I try to read at least once a year. It is nominally a children’s book but very adult also. I heard a radio program where Lois Lowry was asked where she had gotten the idea for the book. She said she was on a tour signing her Holocaust book “Number the Stars” when a woman came to her and said she would not buy her books anymore. The woman said she was tired of hearing about the Holocaust and didn’t understand why Lowry would “waste” her time with such a depressing subject, especially for children and “we just needed to forget it. ” Lowry said she was stunned and sat there for awhile considering what life would be like if memories were wiped out. She said that the “The Giver” popped whole into her mind and she was able to write it very rapidly thereafter.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Speaking of dystopian writers, I am sure you will be pleased that there are plans to open the first Orwell museum in the world, in India.

    The plan is to open it in the house in which Eric Blair was born.

    http://www.faz.net/aktuell/gesellschaft/indien-baut-museum-fuer-george-orwell-13094036.html

    I find it somehow typical that I had to find out about this in a German newspaper.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I hadn’t realized that he was actually born in India. He certainly went to school in Britain (at Eton, which he discussed in one his essays) before going to Burma as an imperial policeman.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I hadn’t known he was born in India either. I did know he had worked in Burma for the police service, which I don’t think he enjoyed. I like his novel “Burmese Days” which gave a pretty negative portrayal of the British in Burma, but not for that reason.

        The article says he and his mother left this town when he was one year old and returned to Britain. Apparently, his father was in charge of something to do with the supervision of opium grown in the area for sale to China.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Considering that the British fought to force the Chinese to import opium (the basic concern on both sides was that it caused the balance of trade to favor the British rather than the Chinese), I can see where that background might have helped sour young Eric Blair on British imperialism.

  3. Anniel says:

    Timothy, I saw a film interview with the head of Walden Media, the producers of “The Giver”, and what I heard was so jumbled I wondered if he was talking about the same book I read. He never once referred to the loss of historical memory which is the main context of the book. I thought that if he couldn’t deal with what Lowry was saying, the film might not come across well. I even told my husband that I no longer wanted to see it. There is a rather scathing review of the film today on AT, and only one person in the comments said they had read the book. I’m not sure how good the review is.

    My introduction to the book came about twenty years ago when I was volunteering at an elementary school library. Lois Lowry was hands down the favorite author of all the kids, so when “The Giver” came out in 1993 and was checked out all the time I began questioning them about the book. The main reason they liked the book seemed to be that it showed what truth was like and how we have to want what is true. One girl told me that the book was about “bleeding the color out of life.” I bought my own copy and read it to my youngest son (13) and daughter (8), and we talked for hours and days about what it meant. They felt it was one of the most “religious” books they had ever read.

    I hope someone who likes the movie will do a review so we can tell more about it.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      There’s also a review of the movie over at American Thinker by Marion DS Dreyfus. She is not pleased.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I haven’t seen the movie, but I did finish reading the book tonight (I bought it at Books-A-Million Friday). I noticed that Lowry was unrealistic in some ways — if the birthmothers can only produce 3 children each, then most women would have to be birthmothers. And if family units can only parent 2 children each, then everyone would have to be in a family unit. So the community in reality would be shrinking in population. The ending is also a bit unrealistic (unless one thinks of it as a dying fantasy by Jonas, much akin to the ending of the movie Brazil).

      But it was entertaining overall, and fit in very well with the long history of modern dystopias. I think the key point really is that everything comes at a price. The community had a stable, peaceful, prosperous society — but it had no culture, no history, no individuality. It reminded me of the final episode of The Man From UNCLE, with Jonas making the same choice that Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin made.

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