The Children’s Story

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.

15 Responses to “The Children’s Story”

  1. Sharat B says:

    It’s odd that with all the access to information, skewed or not, that we have, we are one of the most callous populations when it comes to being informed abut our society. The Occupy movement seems to be changing that however. I wonder how we can keep that steam going.

  2. Robin Weeks says:

    I haven’t read that story, but I saw a video of it when I was in elementary school. It was powerful enough that I still think about it regularly. Thanks for your analysis–so much better than a simple “so make sure you always worship the flag.” ;)

    Reading is soooo important.

  3. Lee Falin says:

    “If you’re scared to death of The Enemy, you’ll never let The Enemy take control of you.”

    I think a good counter phrase to this line of thinking is that if you’re scared to death of The Enemy, The Enemy already controls you.

    Definitely in agreement about fear breeding ignorance. Though I think that the flip side to that is that complacency also breeds ignorance. There are plenty of people that are happy to remain ignorant of world events, assuming that all is well and that the government will take care of everything.

    The only real defense is Constant Vigilance. Constant Vigilance!

  4. Austin says:

    This kind of makes me think of The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenson Stewart. It’s about these children who have to infiltrate a school, and the teachers in the school are basically brainwashing children by feeding them somewhat nonsensical phrases, then associating pictures with them. That way, when someone heard a particular phrase, they would think and feel a certain way based on the images and imagery associated with the phrase.

  5. an avid reader says:

    I dont exactly know how to start… I just got finished reading the “i am not a serial killer” series and I made some connections to myself in both good and bad ways. I am the same age as John and think very similarly to him in ways that I didn’t even know i thought of. It was very enlightening and showed me so much about myself that I had buried years ago. I was hoping to send an e-mail directly to Mr. Wells,but this is the best I could find. I have some things that I think would interest you. I hope to hear back from whomever is close to Mr. Wells.

  6. Ginger says:

    @Austin, that reminds me of the analysis of ad campaigns that I ran into in a English course. Dow Chemical was showing young professionals working and a work baseball game and family picnicking with their various voice over of how great Dow was. The people working were young because in current US culture young=good. The dad in the baseball game fell down after hitting/missing the ball to create the feeling of undermining authority and being new rebellious. There were apples on the table because apples are connected (in the US) with home and American. At that point I decided that the only solid defense against add campaigns is avoid being exposed to them. Analyzing to find the trick helps, but it doesn’t actually modify feelings. And what, when one thinks about it, is “McDonalds” or “ATT” or etc if not a very short nonsense phrase.

  7. Ginger says:

    @Lee,

    I’m actually going to disagree with you. Constant Vigilance can just flood you with Too Much Information so that the important things are lost in the noise. Being distracted is just as dangerous (maybe more so in this day and age) than being ignorant. If my interaction isn’t needed or can’t effect the situation then a blow by blow account is TMI. It is then much more efficient to wait till the dust settles and see how it turned out.

    I can write my Senator, and I’ll be a data point for or against such and such to maybe partially persuade one vote. I can attend a local planning board meeting (with three of four other concerned people) and send a nearly finalized proposed ordinance back to the drawing board. The bill before the Senate might make national news. Might be discussed ad nauseam for months. The planning board announcements are posted in the City Hall and/or a small blurb in the local newspaper. Sometimes an actual article in the local paper when the board is really really trying to encourage input, or maybe even posted on the county’s web page.

    There is too much going on everywhere for me to be able to pay attention to all of it. I suggest finding out about and paying attention to the things you personally can affect and that you think matter. Admittedly, I advocate this method because being constantly vigilant on all fronts (especially political) would make me hate life and go insane.

  8. Wow. A lot of truth there. Though I think people are often focused on things they really have relatively little impact on. We moan and groan and complain about Congress but we as voter really have little control over which of them gets reelected because they’re not from our states. What we can impact is government where the rubber hits the road–local government. Which elections have the lowest voter turnout? Local elections.

    But how can you make people care enough to get informed, really informed? It’s not as exciting as the titillating TV shows or video games.

  9. Bryce says:

    Great post, Dan! I’ll have to check that story out. We teach our children a lot of things every day, but one of them is rarely to think for themselves. My wife is very excited that our two year old likes to question things and doesn’t always do what he’s told, and I think I am, too.

    School is an interesting thing in this country. We go there to learn things, but we don’t really get taught much about HOW to learn things. We’re also depending more and more on multiple choice questions, which are teaching us what the right answer is, but not necessarily WHY it’s the right answer. Crazy stuff.

  10. Nate Hatfield says:

    I think that labelling today’s society a dystopia is going too far. It has dystopic aspects, but also eutopic ones as well. My definition of a dystopia is a world where they make you spell labelling or travelling with only one L. Spellcheck: I defy you. And because I write the words and you’re just a red squiggly line, I feel pretty eu- right now.

    And that Pledge…I believe in God, and that He runs the show in His own inscrutable and mysterious way. But ever since I learned that Congress added “under God” after “one nation” in the 1950s to defy or protect us from the communists, I have always left that part out. I will not profess my belief in God because I am afraid of someone else who doesn’t believe. And for that matter I don’t want my government telling me what to believe. I kind of don’t like saying the Pledge for that reason. But I do proudly support our Republic, imperfect as it is.

  11. admin says:

    We’ve had this argument before, Nate, and I think the difference in our thinking is the way we define a dystopia. I don’t think “dystopia” implies that the entire society is irredeemably horrible; I think that all dystopias have elements of utopias inherent to them, because that’s why people are willing to put up with the crap. The world of 1984 had thought police and little to no privacy, but it also had excellent public safety, strong national security, and jobs for everyone. The world of Fahrenheit 451 made books illegal to control public opinion, but they also had a culture of luxury and excess, with quality entertainment and plenty of food and leisure for everyone. My favorite dystopia illustrates this even more clearly: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin. This is as close to perfect as a society can get, and LeGuin goes so far as to tell you, in narration, to fill in the details for yourself: you want rampant sex and drugs? Then that’s what it’s like. You want a peaceful puritan state? Then it can be like that instead. Omelas is specifically defined as “whatever you, the reader, think is the ideal society,” and then she throws in the dystopic element of a sacrificial child living in filth and abuse. The presence of good stuff doesn’t make them not dystopias, it makes them believable dystopias. It’s the classic Bread and Circuses mentality: we’ll give you all the X you want, but you have to give up Y.

    Or maybe I’m misunderstanding your position.

  12. D_Mock says:

    This illustrates perfectly what I have been feeling all along. That our educational system has failed miserably in that it teaches only outcomes and not methods. Teaching to a test is the worst form of dis-education possible. It is based only on the students’ ability to parrot the results back, not the ability to reason for themselves.
    Advertising has long exceeded its boundaries of the 30 or 60 seconds allotted to them. The product is now embedded in the show being supported. These shows now celebrate the awkward and embarrassing qualities in odd situations giving rise to thoughts they control, they support and they use to push us into the cattle chute.
    Words cannot describe the level of offense being visited upon us daily nor my sense of outrage. I love my country, fear my government and hate the dystopia into which we have descended with a passion that exceeds the fires of a thousand suns exploding.

  13. tony says:

    Of course, in your ridicule of anti-communists, it MIGHT be good to mention that the communists DID kill over 100 million of their own people…

  14. admin says:

    Tony, I’m not entirely certain you read the same post as everybody else. The only thing I ridiculed in this post was our educational system, and that only by inference.

  15. admin says:

    I approved the second one as proof that this dude is probably a bot.

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