Saturday, June 02, 2007


Are We On the Brink of Dystopia?

If you're a fan of literature like me, you are no doubt familiar with the term dystopia. Simply put, it is the opposite of utopia and it provides the setting for some of the great stories of twentieth century literature - stories such as Orwell's 1984, Huxley's A Brave New World, and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, to name a few. Read by themselves, these novels provide great, if not somewhat disturbing, entertainment. But when gathered together as a whole, novels such as these appear to be frighteningly prescient. Granted, we've all heard the term Orwellian applied to the current administration, but I believethere's more to things than that. On closer examination, I'm left asking the question I've posed in the title - Are we on the brink of dystopia?

In dystopian novels, there is always a cataclysmic event such as a war, an attack, or a natural disaster that sets things in motion. This event causes great despair amongst the citizens forcing them to look to the government for help or protection. Under the guise of leadership, the government convinces the citizenship that they can't go on living as they do. It is dangerous to believe everything they see and hear as it is most likely controlled by the enemy. Anyone espousing such filth must be in league with the opposition. To combat the enemy, the government seizes control of media outlets and begins a propaganda campaign to ensure that all citizens are sufficiently frightened and are willing to rally to whatever cause the government wishes to pursue. To accomplish this, the opposition is painted as purely evil and it is only through the government that society can be protected. A certain amount of freedom and rights will have to be forfeited, but when it comes to protection it seems like a small price to pay so everyone acquiesces. In fact, it's not uncommon, as evidenced in 1984 for the government to spy on its citizens to ensure that the enemy doesn't infiltrate the population. (Sound familiar yet?)

Another aspect of dystopian society is the importance of social class. In Huxley's A Brave New World, society is divided into Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon classes with each capable of further division such as plus and minus (ie. - Alpha Plus, Gamma Minus). Often these social classes are determined at birth and there is little opportunity for ascension to a higher strata. As we see the rich in America continuing to distance themselves from the middle class and more and more Americans sinking into poverty, the privileges social class in our country can not be denied. Basically, if you're born rich you'll stay rich and have all the opportunity you care to pursue. Yet if you're born poor... well, that's another story. (I'm reminded of John Edwards' concept of "Two Americas.")

Dystopian societies flourish by not allowing people to excel. Keeping the citizens sufficiently uneducated, it's easy to convince them that the government is looking out for their best interests. This is one of the main concepts of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: books cause people to think and to ask questions so the government bans them. When the main character Guy Montag wants to know why books are bad, Captain Beatty explains it by saying:
You can't build a house without nails and wood. If you don't want a house built, hide the nails and wood.

So to keep a dystopian society in tact, the government must put in place a system that will keep individuals from advancing. Some sort of requirement that sounds helpful but is really meant to squash intellectualism. In F451 it's the banning of books because they foment thought and dissention which ultimately leads to unhappiness and unhappiness is what society abhors. So to keep the society happy, books are banned and the public is fed a steady stream of good news through their televisions and ear radios. All the while they are kept at a mediocre level of intelligence and are only taught what the government feels they need to know. (Sort of like NCLB, if you ask me. Not only are children (supposedly) not being left behind, neither are they allowed to get ahead. But that's whole other diary.)

Another feature of a dystopian society is the preoccupation with the sexual habits of the populace. In A Brave New World members of society were encouraged to be promiscuous - to enjoy the pleasures of sex. In 1984 however, sex was discouraged among the citizenry and groups such as the junior anti-sex league were formed to help reinforce this position. In George W. Bush's America, sex has become an area of increasing scrutiny. Abstinence-only education is pushed and same-sex coupling is strongly discouraged. Suddenly what happens in the bedroom between anyone but a man and a woman who are legally married in the eyes of the church and state is of serious importance. Certainly this is not exclusive to this administration, but the focus of the sexual microscope has indeed become more intense.

Many of literature's dystopian societies also feature economic models that are controlled by the government. Privatization is a frequent characteristic of a dystopian economy as much of the wealth is directed to and controlled by corporations with governmental ties. The economic policies are set to ensure that social stratification is kept in tact and that only the wealthiest can enjoy the benefits. (I'll let you all draw your own comparisons to this point.)

Certainly there are many more characteristics of a dystopian society that could be examined such as the push for a single religious focus or the use of technolgy to control the populace, but I think you see my point. I'm not asserting that there is any grand conspiracy underway to purposely create a state of dystopia in America. As I've done before, I'm simply pointing out the similarities between some of the great literary works of our time and modern day society. But I have to ask the question once again: Are we on the brink of dystopia? Could we be unknowingly headed for our own brave new world?

Sidenote - Yes, I'm still around. It's been two months since I last posted and if I have any readers left I'll be amazed. Lately, I've been trying to finish up school plus my grad classes. Both are done now and I'm free for the summer. Hopefully, I'll be able to start posting again.

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