by 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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