Wind Sprints: Choose your own dystopia (Summit Daily News editor column)
Since it appears every last copy of George Orwell’s “1984” has been bought up following Trump’s inauguration, let me suggest some other good reads for passing the time at the end of the world: Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World:” and Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.”
You’ve no doubt heard of Huxley’s dystopian fantasia, but I’d wager relatively few know Postman’s book. The late, great media critic persuasively argued that the world we live in now bears a closer resemblance to “Brave New World” than “1984.” Here’s what Postman wrote in the preface to his 1985 book:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture… As Huxley remarked in ‘Brave New World Revisited,’ the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’”
Like Huxley, Postman was deeply worried about the infantilizing effect consumerism and information overload would have on our democracy. He died in 2003, but he would not have been the least bit surprised to see that our current president is a billionaire television entertainer who shamelessly hocked steaks and golf courses on the campaign trail. Postman and Huxley would likely argue that we deserved such a leader.
But what dystopia does Trump belong to? Orwell’s or Huxley’s?
Trump is both a master of, and a slave to, distraction — a man who peddles his own dark fictions about “American carnage,” obsesses over crowd size and Twitter-whips companies he doesn’t like. He appears to experience reality through daily mega-doses of cable news. Big Brother is watching, but mainly episodes of “Saturday Night Live.” So maybe mark him down for Team Brave New World?
I’m not so sure. For all his erratic outbursts, Trump is a master storyteller who has consistently tapped into the twitchiest of American nerves — that things aren’t the way they used to be. As Orwell taught us, an unswerving devotion to an over-arching narrative is a key lever of authoritarian power.
“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”
Our presidents have always told stories. Reagan assured us that it was morning in America. Roosevelt said we had nothing to fear but fear itself.
And our country’s news media have always considered it a duty to challenge those narratives in the light of the facts. (Fact: Millions of Americans didn’t vote illegally for Hillary Clinton, as Trump asserted.)
The difference now is that we live in a time of alternative facts, fake news, “dishonest” media and truthiness. We’ve never had more access to information, but we’ve also never been more alienated from a defining and unifying narrative that imbues the world with meaning and order. What we’re left with is a kind of therapeutic skepticism — reject that which makes us feel bad. We now distrust our traditional gatekeepers, whether they’re journalists, priests, politicians or scientists, if their claims to truth interfere with our personal vision of reality.
That’s perhaps why a figure like Trump has been so effective, particularly with the white working class.
Our president peddles a simple Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained story. He tells us we’ve been cast out of the garden and now live in a graveyard of rusted factories. Our industrial Eden must be restored, but don’t forget to build a wall around it first.
So, what is he — Big Brother or a game of centrifugal bumblepuppy?
Ultimately, it’s the wrong question. Who are we? Haven’t we always gotten the dystopia we deserve?
Ben Trollinger is the editor of the Summit Daily News. Email him at email@example.com.
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