Last week I had the opportunity to write a blog for another website about dystopian fiction, so I wrote one and realized that it was way too big. I wrote a shorter one and sent it in, and you’ll see it soon, but here’s the first one in all it’s glory. (It’s actually not super long, but the other place was a short venue.)
I grew up in the Cold War, so I was surrounded by dystopian fearmongering for most of my formative years: stay vigilant, or the evil communists will get you and the world will turn into Animal Farm. We concocted, and continue to concoct, elaborate and terrifying scenarios of how horrible the world would be if the wrong people got into power, and how our freedoms would be curtailed and our rights would be stomped on, and we used those scenarios to develop a culture of fear. If you’re scared to death of The Enemy, you’ll never let The Enemy take control of you. And yet it doesn’t take a genius to jump on the Internet and see a million images and videos of curtailed freedoms and stomped-on rights, right here in our own allegedly non-dystopian country. What happened? How did these dystopian scenarios come true? Why didn’t our fear protect us?
Because fear breeds ignorance, and ignorance is the worst protection in the world.
My favorite dystopian novel is actually just a novella, practically a short story, by one of my favorite writers: The Children’s Story, by James Clavell. One day Clavell’s 6-year-old daughter came home from school to announce that she had memorized the entire Pledge of Allegiance–or as she called it (and as my children call it) “The Pledge Allegiance.” She parroted the entire thing from memory, pleased and punch, and then Clavell asked her what it meant…and she had no idea. The school had taught her what to say, but not why. Clavell walked around the rest of the day asking everyone he met about the Pledge of Allegiance, and all of them said it–usually with the same words slurred together in the same way–but none of them could tell him what it meant. Most of you can probably recite it as well, and odds are that you’re all pausing in the same places as you do so, but how many of you have ever really thought about the words themselves? How many 6-year-olds even know what “indivisible” means–or how many 30-year-olds, for that matter?
Based on this experience, Clavell wrote a novella about a generic American classroom in which the teacher is replaced by a New Teacher, a trained propagandist from what we assume is a conquering foreign power, though this is never explained in any detail. The story isn’t about who’s in charge or why, it’s about how easy it is to use words to create ideas, to change attitudes, and to form entire ways of thinking. Bit by bit, word by word, the New Teacher deconstructs the Pledge of Allegiance as a stream of nonsense: what does allegiance mean? Why would you show allegiance to a flag? Can a flag give you anything? Ask it for candy–did you get any? Now ask me for candy. See? Now you have candy. Isn’t this pledge thing kind of ridiculous? The New Teacher’s arguments are subtle and convincing and shot through with dramatic irony: a wise reader will see every ideological trap she sets for the children, and yet will also see exactly why and how those children will fall straight into them. We boo and hiss at the New Teacher for creating a new dystopia where children are told exactly what to think without knowing any of the reasoning behind it, or being given a chance to make up their own minds, and yet we can’t lay all the blame at her feet: the Old Teacher, the one they dismissed at the beginning of the story, did exactly the same thing. She told the children what to think and what to say without ever telling them why it was important. She failed to prepare them for the challenge they’re facing and the very important decisions they now have no idea how to make. The leadership has changed, but the dystopia of ignorance and miseducation was there all along.
Why is our society collapsing into a new dystopia? Because we’ve trained our children to fear a certain form of control, without ever teaching them how to recognize the real threat behind the form–the control itself, and the power that makes it possible. We’ve created a culture where ignorance is applauded, literacy is for losers, and being cool means not caring about anything. Somehow, despite all our fears and safeguards and precautions, we’ve stumbled backwards into a world that looks more and more like 1984, or Fahrenheit 451, or the rest of the dystopias that used to haunt our nightmares–and we’ve done it not because an evil overlord was creating such a world on purpose, but because we’ve been too lazy/short-sighted/misinformed/comfortable to either notice it or do anything about it.
You want dystopia? Look around. You want to do something about it? Read.