Though I tend to shy away from a direct examination of current politics, let’s dip our toes in another troubling month in this country and take a look at present day America as a worldbuilding exercise. This could be considered a sequel to my March 17, 2015 post “An Evil Empire, Bent on World Domination (But Why?),” which was itself a “sequel” to “An Evil Genius, Bent on World Domination (But Why?)” from August 7, 2012. The former ended with this conclusion:
And just as with villains, it’s not nearly enough to just say that an empire is “evil.” If a villain is someone whose motivations we understand but whose methods we find abhorrent, that same criteria should be applied to an evil empire.
We live in a country where the daycare center in which my wife works just went through an “active shooter drill.” This might seem like an over-abundance of caution, except that we have actually managed to create for ourselves a nation in which people go into public places and start shooting—and doing that, now, with startling regularity.
What follows each incident is the inevitable rise in talk about gun control, with the voice of a lame duck president added to the chorus, but the fully bought-and-paid-for legislative branch just says some version of, “Nope, we like it this way.” Then we grumble and get on with our lives, content in our own positions and free of any responsibility.
One of the founding principles of the United States of America was a separation of church and state, but what’s happened over the course of our history, and what seems to be coming to a head right now, is the separation of people and state. We might show up to vote, but most likely not. We’ll watch the live feed of this week’s active shooter situation and shake our heads. But then we go back to work. Most of us just don’t have time to try to figure out how to affect positive change—we’re too busy just trying to pay the mortgage and/or the student loans and/or the car payment and/or the credit card bills, etc.
It’s not my fault. I don’t have any guns. I’m not going to shoot anyone. I was as far away from Orlando, Florida as you can be and still be in the continental United States, but if I lived there, I would have voted for the other guy—the guy who would have taken that shooter’s assault rifle away years ago . . . if there was actually any such guy on the ballot. Run for office myself? Not a chance in hell, thanks.
People can be citizens of an evil empire and simply not recognize it.
We’re too busy, too disconnected, unable to trust but unwilling to engage, so whatever happens, it wasn’t my fault, and meanwhile we have our own to do lists to complete, our own children to feed.
So where does that leave me? Where does that leave all of us?
First of all, let’s ask the essential question: Do we actually live in an evil empire, bent on world domination? Or is it an evil empire bent on self-destruction?
Looking back at a particularly strange indie science fiction film of the early 1980s in his Omni essay “Liquid Sky and You, We, I” Jean-Pierre Fenyo wrote:
The 80s were the last decade of The Cold War, and the beginning of The AIDS Epidemic which has had a very negative impact on Liberal Social values, including Tolerance of Tolerant Others, and has helped give rise to irrational reactionary extremism in politics and society. And with the dramatic transformation of our societies as a result of excessive fear of otherness; Fascisms have gained traction. It can be said that with the False Victory of The West against The Soviet Union inadvertently a dangerously unstable unipolar World arose; in which the USA under George H.W. Bush began to tamper with the delicate balance of power in The Middle East, and the horrific attacks of 9/11/2001 could happen, the aftermath of which has given rise to Ultra-Nationalism, Xenophobia, Anti-Semitism, and Plutocratic Fascism, which are once more threatening all Humanity!
Though I’m not sure Mr. Fenyo has got all this precisely right, I do think you’d have to be particularly dense to think that everything is fine here in “the greatest country on Earth.” But does that mean we’re all tools of an evil empire?
Don’t assume someone is acting out of evil intent when mere incompetence, ignorance, and stupidity are equally valid explanations. Our leaders are human, and thus full of human flaws like greed and fear. The United States government is no more intellectually capable of creating a New World Order based on race hatred and greed than it is of creating a New World Order based on empathy and compassion. They have today’s money to make. Tomorrow is another day.
And then we were all suddenly dropped into the Internet Age, having no idea what to actually do with that thing, and so now every weird fringe belief is given full throated voice. As easy as it is to “fact check” some blog post (including this one) or internet meme that comes along, it’s easier to just click “share,” wallow in it for a minute or two, and move on to the next possibly societal-damning proto-idea.
In his novel Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote:
“But man is so addicted to systems and to abstract conclusions that he is prepared deliberately to distort the truth, to close his eyes and ears, but justify his logic at all cost.”
This means that logic will fail us when it comes to the gun lobby’s hyper-entrenched bullshit cowboy power fantasy, which, like all delusions, eventually becomes self-perpetuating: I’m arming myself against “tyranny,” and I define “tyranny” as anyone who tries to take my guns away. For what it’s worth I’d be more than happy to leave them on that particular hamster wheel, except that every once in a while, and at an accelerating rate, one of the weaker ones falls off the wheel, with disastrous results.
Conservatism is the politics of fear, hatred, and suspicion, and when you approach people with those emotions in mind, the likely response will be the same, so we end up with precisely the sort of self-perpetuating eternal state of war that George Orwell warned us about in 1984.
When all fringe superstitions from bible literalists to anti-vaxxers are given full voice, no argument to the contrary can possibly penetrate. Even government’s principle raison d’être, control of information, somehow manages to cling to life even when all their nonsense is revealed. Everyone pretty much shrugs it off. The NSA is spying on me? Shrug. What would Orwell think of a totalitarian oligarchy that’s revealed in its full face to all of its people and the people respond by pondering it for a minute or two then they just ignore it.
Honestly, I think science fiction authors looking to create a future dystopia really have their work cut out for them. As long as everyone’s well fed and have access to pop culture, you can literally do anything as a government and get away with it, up to and including occasionally tanking the global economy, leaving assault rifles in the hands of the mentally ill, and forcing people to choose between medicine and shelter.
J.M. McDermott, in “Villains Make No Sense,” a sort of review of Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, captured this perfectly:
Isn’t it easier just to engage in hostile takeovers of other companies, and gut them for parts? Isn’t it easier to kick all the wealth currently earned into an Index fund and let the stable world generate all the revenue an evil asshole needs to punch his manservants for a lifetime? What use all the extra wealth? His motivation made no sense. He sought power, but he had it. He sought wealth, but he had it. Shredder’s free-floating evil menace makes no sense, either. What use do immortal samurai of doom have for destroying whole cities? One would imagine a low-profile and careful reinvestment of dividends would be more useful to securing a lasting future than engaging in swordfights with rogue turtles.
Villains make no sense.
So what we’re left with is, to my mind, not so much an evil empire, but a hopelessly fragmented society of self-absorbed, self-serving individuals, giving transitory allegiance to rotating groups based on their immediate needs and the degree to which they happen to believe the last thing they read on the internet or saw on the so-called “news.”
We’re actually seeing this in play in the current election as the Republican Party unravels before our very eyes, not because of anything the toothless Democrats did, but entirely on their own steam. George Packer described this is convincing terms in his essay “Head of the Class” (The New Yorker, May 16, 2016):
Trump also grasped what Republican élites are still struggling to fathom: the ideology that has gripped their Party since the late nineteen-seventies—anti-government, pro-business, nominally pious—has little appeal for millions of ordinary Republicans. The base of the Party, the middle-aged white working class, has suffered at least as much as any demographic group because of globalization, low-wage immigrant labor, and free trade. Trump sensed the rage that flared from this pain and made it the fuel of his campaign. Conservative orthodoxy, already weakened by its own extremism—the latest, least appealing standard-bearer was Ted Cruz—has suffered a stunning defeat from within. And Trump has replaced it with something more dangerous: white identity politics.
I don’t know. I’m white, and identify with nothing I’ve heard, so far, from Donald Trump. But I guess I’m just extra smart?
Well, that got ranty fast, didn’t it? A little unfocused, like the country I live in.
Here’s the takeaway for would-be worldbuilders:
Governments aren’t ever as monolithic as they might seem, and efforts to create monolithic governments have all ended in disaster. Hitler’s Third Reich lasted pretty much as long as it took him to really piss everybody off.
Maybe the real dystopia, the one that’s hanging by the thinnest of threads above our heads now, isn’t the monolithic fascist state, but something more like what Mike Judge portrayed in the movie Idiocracy. Not an evil empire, bent on world domination, but a nation of self-absorbed babies, bent on pretending everything is fine except that transgender people want to use a public bathroom.
There’s a world no twentieth century science fiction author, even George Orwell, ever foresaw.