Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

Choose Your Own Dystopian Adventure

Our modern society sometimes actually does resemble science fiction. But not always for the reasons we think.
May 31, 2019
Featured Image
(gettyimages)

Dystopia is all the rage these days.

So many great writers of the 20th century envisioned bleak futures for the human race. Many of them had seen the horrors of World War II and were convinced that a nuclear war was inevitable and that a totalitarian state would rise as a result. While we haven’t suffered haven’t suffered a biological plague or planet-threatening biological disaster, the state of our political discourse has some people believing we’re in near-apocalyptic times.

Maybe you’ve even seen the popular meme touching on this: It is a Venn diagram showing various works of dystopian fiction overlapping in the middle with the designation “We are here.”

But if we’re really living in a dystopian future, which one(s) are we living in?

Is it Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? The television adaptation debuted soon after Donald Trump’s victory, and the same pink-hatted women who marched in protest found parallels to our modern society. In the novel, religious zealots have overthrown the American government and forced all women into either physical or sexual servitude. This is just a tad overwrought. Yes, some states have passed restrictive abortion laws (while some states have passed more permissive laws), but just this week the Supreme Court hinted that it was skittish about taking up a challenge to Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, my boss hasn’t announced that she was forced by the government to terminate me from my job. My checking account is still open (although seriously depleted). I can still drive my car. I haven’t been forced into a creepy three-way with a high government official and his repressed wife. So no, we are not living in the Republic of Gilead.

And yet, that sounds a lot like what the Taliban did when they took over Afghanistan. Or what the mullahs implemented after the Iranian revolution. Previously educated women were forced to quit their jobs and retreat to their homes. They wear burkas instead of red dresses with white hoods. In Africa, , Boko Haram terrorists have kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria, forcing many of them into marriages. Rape has been used as a tool of war in the Congo, Rwanda and elsewhere.

The only close parallel in the United States is one that people don’t talk about. In the novel, the panic over reproduction results from an environmental crisis thatleaves most of the population infertile,. We haven’t reached a fertility crisis yet, but America just hit its lowest record of births in 32 years. If that trend continues, what will our reaction be?

Are we in George Orwell’s 1984? The concept of an all-seeing government spying on everyone was complete science fiction when it was written in 1949. Orwell’s world was set 35 years in the future, and 35 years have passed since the actual 1984. And now the technology is here. But the government didn’t put a camera in my living room to spy on my activities. I put it there myself to keep watch over my big TV, the same TV that is able to collect data on me.. I purchased the cell phone that can track my every move. Every day Americans order items from Amazon or let their refrigerators write their grocery lists, or let their watches monitor their physical activity.

 

We worry about our privacy while simultaneously posting our every flitting thought on Facebook and answering quizzes about “Which Disney Princess Are You?” Apparently, we don’t actually want privacy.

Our voluntary submission to constant surveillance is the most notable parallel to our current world, but there are other similarities: Marriage, sex, and human contact have declined. The past is methodically erased and rewritten. The same pundits who insisted Eurasia was the enemy now insist that we have always been at war with Eastasia.

Instead of one all-powerful government controlling the media, we have two sides locked in perpetual battle with each other. We don’t have 2 Minute Hates where we rage against the unseen enemy. We have cable news spewing out fear and hatred 24/7. Each side has its own TV channel, its own newspapers, its own heroes and villains.

And why does each side spread disinformation against the other? For money. And the grifters of the system profit. The more outrageous the story, the more profit. Rick Wilson coined the term the “Click-servative media.” I can’t think of a better term for it. Neither side gains by promoting reasoned dialogue.

Or maybe it’s Farenheit 451.  The government in this one is also preoccupied with spying and censoring. And just like our current society, these people not only allowed it, they DEMANDED IT. Ironically, our college campuses, where people are supposed to be seeking exposure to new ideas are the front lines of censorship of thoughts and speech. And people on both sides of the aisle are demanding regulation:liberals to stop the offensive ideas and the “fake news” and conservatives because Twitter is being mean to them and “randomly” suspending their accounts.

Ray Bradbury did a pretty good job of predicting future technology. From the ginormous TV’s adorning every wall and the occupants’ obsession with fictional lives over their real ones to the robot tellers keeping the banks open all night. But neither he nor Orwell envisioned the internet or social media. The HBO movie version of the book (starring the incredible Michael B. Jordan) modernized the story with the government censoring the internet and blocking access to anything it deemed perverse. In real world 2019, a quarter of our population hasn’t read a book in the last 12 months. And the biggest threat to physical books is Marie Kondo gleefully advising people to toss them all out in the name of “decluttering.”

Which brings us to Idiocracy. It has been said that Idiocracy is the “only movie that started out as a comedy and is turning into a documentary.” Screenwriter Ethan Cohen stated in an interview that it was “scary” how accurate his movie had become. Unlike all of these other scenarios, the fictional society did not suffer a cataclysmic event. There was no nuclear war, no plague or famine. Certainly no loss of fertility! Just an entire society of people who made the willful decision to remain ignorant, generation after generation until they grew too stupid to function. Sound familiar?  No, we haven’t started a new dust bowl by watering crops with “Brawndo,” and our garbage hasn’t reached skyscraper level (again, I keep writing “yet.”) But the population decline? Right on the money. The more education a woman receives, the fewer children she has. IQ scores are declining. Advertising has become inescapable. Our television and movies have become dumb, vile and offensive while our political process has become the new reality show. Is it really a stretch to imagine a future election being settled gladiator style or a nation overrun with complete morons? Pass me the big-ass fries.

There are of course, many others. Some already picture us living in a Hunger Games society where the masses serve the elites in the Capitol. Or, maybe we’ll get lucky and live out the future on a space cruise ship floating around on mechanical recliners while Wall-E cleans up a polluted earth. Elon Musk is already working on that one.

So, which dystopian future are we living in? None of them. But parts of all of them. The warning signs are there. It’s not that one party or the other is leading us to a specific ruin. It’s not even that much of a politics problem. We have voluntary submitted to surveillance and censorship. We face potential catastrophe from climate change, declining fertility, and the return of diseases we had all but eradicated in the last century. Worst of all, we’ve become an incurious people clinging to our own ignorance, alienated from one another and either unable or unwilling to work together to solve all of these problems. It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not too late to do better.

Maybe start by reading a damn book.

Merrie Soltis

Merrie Soltis is a writer who lives outside of Atlanta. Follow her on Twitter @ConservaCatGal.