Reading about dystopias is all fun and games, until you realize you’re living in one.

dys • to • pi • a
/dis’tōpēǝ/

noun

an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.

Definition from Oxford Languages

The Bible might arguably be the first apocalypse novel out there, but throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, dystopian stories have thrived, encouraged by the trauma inflicted on the human race through events as far back as the French Revolution, the Crimean War, and of course, World Wars One and Two. Every time our existence is threatened we tell stories of it, imaginations of what it could have been like if the ‘bad guys’ had won.

But a common thread through all the stories, from Brave New World (1932) to Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Fahrenheit 451 (1953), is the perspective that this post-apocalyptic, totalitarian regime is nonetheless undesirable, that it should be railed against, fought tooth and nail to the last of our dying breaths, because it represents the total lack of all freedoms we have come to enjoy and expect in our civilization.

We enjoy these sorts of novels – and later, of course, films – because they present a thrilling view into a terrible society from a safe place. At worst, they offer a few hours of escapism from our otherwise mundane lives; at best, they offer insight into why we believe in freedom and justice, and why we should continue to prevail against what we perceive to be evil.

Did George Orwell not predict omnipresent CCTV?

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

The realms of the disaster novel, the dystopian future, and the post-apocalypse, are of course more then idle entertainment. The very best of those authors carefully analyze visible trends in today’s existing society and extrapolate where they might lead if left unchecked. And in many of those cases, the spirit of the prediction, if not the letter, has come eerily true. Everything from CCTV and media propaganda to a distaste for all things intellectual and scientific was at some point predicted by some of the best science fiction authors the world has ever put forth.

And yet, for decades, we’ve relegated these stories to the file of ‘interesting, but couldn’t really happen’, simply because we like to believe that the real world is more grounded, that society’s checks and balances would kick in to prevent such a disastrous outcome. We like to feel that our privileged lives can’t be touched by the ugly realities that we’ve been warned about for over a century now. And we forget; we forget the true injustices of great wars and holocausts and genocides, because they didn’t happen to us.

So what happens when one day you wake up, and realize that the world you thought you believed in, the one in which you were safe from persecution, is gone? Worse yet, what happens when you come to the realization that for many, it never existed at all?

An imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice.

Let’s focus on this first part of the definition of the word ‘dystopia’. We don’t need to imagine such a state; our society, here in the United States, exhibits tremendous suffering and injustice. It has for centuries, was founded on the blood of indigenous people who were savagely conquered, and then built by the slaves who were ripped from their home and severed from all nationality, culture and family they ever knew. And despite movements to give these people equal rights dating back as far as the American Civil War, we continue to live in a world that judges men and women all the harsher for the color of their skin.

How blind is justice, really?

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The worst type of society is not one in which discrimination is legal and supported; it’s one in which it’s professed to be abolished, and yet allowed to persist. It’s not one in which black people must sit at the back of the bus; it’s one in which they’re silently judged if they don’t. It’s not one in which a black person knows they’ll be treated worse by police; it’s one in which they fear it.

There is great suffering and injustice in this country, and the world over. The society we live in – the one I grew up in – is run by white men standing on the shoulders of black workers. The worst of it is that when President Obama was elected, people began to feel hope that a change was coming; people began to wonder – could a black person really make a difference to the world? And when his terms were over, the white supremacists retaliated, hard. They made damn sure to elect someone who could undo all the progress made in eight years, to find someone who would speak their language: the language of oppression.

And this brings me to the second part of the definition of a dystopia:

Typically [a society] that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.

For those of you who decry, “but we live in a democracy!”, I challenge you to look around you at your government’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests that are sweeping the nation. Let’s define totalitarian for a moment:

To • tal • i • tar • i • an
/tōˌtaləˈterēən/

adjective

relating to a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.

Definition from Oxford Languages

Let’s break this down. The United States government is heavily centralized, to the end that Washington is the be-all and end-all of the government itself. Representatives are elected from their states, of course, but all paths eventually lead to DC. It is exceptionally difficult to get a law passed in one state that is considered unlawful in others (look at the effort to legalize marijuana as an example), and federal law triumphs over all local and state laws.

And if you think the United States isn’t an elected dictatorship … a dictatorship is really nothing more than a form of government “characterized by a single leader or group of leaders with little or no toleration for political pluralism or independent programs or media”. Let’s think about the United States for a moment in this context: we have a single leader who has definitively demonstrated his lack of tolerance for any kind of political pluralism and independent media. From phrases such as “fake news” to the glorious “Fox isn’t working for us anymore!“, the president of the United States has never appeared more dictatorial.

And he requires – demands – complete subservience. Look at the violence instigated by the George Floyd protests, in which unarmed protestors have been viciously attacked by heavily militarized police, beaten, bruised and bloodied and left in the streets. Ask yourself, is a government in which police brutality is not only tolerated but outright taught not a totalitarian regime?

And finally, we are undoubtedly post-apocalyptic. From entire continents burning to deadly viruses and violence in the streets, one could be forgiven for thinking the end of the world is definitely upon us. And whilst practically speaking, of course, the world will keep on spinning with or without the human race, perhaps the end of the world is closer than we think – in a different sort of way.

And this is the only place that I feel I can draw any sort of hope. Perhaps the end of the world isn’t the end of all humanity, but rather the end of inhumanity. Perhaps … just perhaps the slew of apocalyptical events that have decimated 2020 can lead to a change, something that could bring people together, allow space for listening, allow for justice, a space where people stop rejecting science and embracing ignorance.

It’s hard to see, especially when you’re in the midst of it. But the very worst thing that could happen to the world, and to this country right now, is for us to simply pretend it isn’t happening, and that our lives can continue unaffected. For some, that may well be true – the wealthy and privileged, naturally, are the exempt in any good dystopian story – but for the rest of us, we need resist the status quo with every ounce of our strength.

Otherwise, to quote an otherwise questionable movie: “So this is how liberty dies … with thunderous applause.”

Thought of the Week: Um…They Actually Prayed?

I’m going to apologize upfront, in case this twangs anybody’s strings. I should also point out that I don’t subscribe to any religious faith; it’s not something I give a whole lot of thought to, and I really don’t much care what people believe – to each their own. I also had to do a lot of rush research for this, so I may have a whole bunch of things wrong. Sorry about that, too.

So…that’s out of the way.

President_Official_Portrait_HiRes

President Barack Obama

Today was the inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama. I kind of like him; he’s got presence and charisma, and I personally reckon he’s done some pretty good stuff, especially for the underprivileged. I also think George Bush Jr. did some okay things too; I don’t agree with a lot of the actions he chose to pursue, but he did a brilliant job of reassuring and uniting the general public of the United States after the frankly terrifying attacks on September 11, 2001.

The honest truth is that I just don’t care for politics much. I’m pretty okay with whatever those guys decide; in the end, someone’s always going to benefit and someone’s going to get screwed. Unless something radical like forced conscription is proposed, I’m happy to leave pretty much well alone.

But then today, I saw something that kind of took me aback.

Today was the first time I’ve ever had the chance to see a presidential inauguration. Having left the States at the age of 8 and only returned two years ago, it was never even a consideration for me. To be honest, I didn’t even really watch that much of it (my wife had it on TV, or I wouldn’t have thought to); I thought Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé were entertaining, Barack was inspiring as always; that poet guy had a wonderful poem and read it appallingly. I was really just catching bits of it here and there.

Reverend Luis Leon

Reverend Luis Leon

And then, I noticed that there was a reverend up on stage. I thought, “what?”. Apparently he was giving a benediction, and something twigged in the back of my mind about the separation of church and state; this just didn’t seem appropriate to me.

So I did a bit of digging, and surprised myself with some of the history of religion and politics in the United States. Given the long-standing supposition that, in the United States, the church is not influential in the governing of the country, the inclusion of religion – specifically Christian-faith religion – in the inaugural ceremony struck me as out of place. It turns out that inaugural prayers have only been included in presidential inaugurations since Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1937. Prior to that, any religious ceremony – as far back as George Washington – was kept strictly private (I believe Obama attended a similar service this morning, which as far as I mind is fine – he has every right to attend church if he wishes to).

In fact, there was very little reference to god or religion at all in the early days of the United States. The presidential oath itself makes no reference to such:

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

US Quarter

US Quarter

It is suggested that George Washington added the words “so help me god” to his inaugural speech, but this seems to be unsubstantiated; nonetheless, it has somehow worked its way into the ceremony to such an extent that it is now thought of as part of the oath itself.

Even more interesting is the near-ubiquitous mention of god on all US currency. The words “In God We Trust” are inscribed or printed on nearly all US coins and bills. The history of this little phrase itself is pretty interesting; apparently the first use of it is in The Star-Spangled Banner, whose own history is fascinating. The song started life merely as a poem called The Defense of Fort McHenry; it was later set to a popular British tune, which led to its widespread popularity. The song, however, contains only one couplet referring to god at all:

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: In God is our trust.

United States Seal

United States Seal

This, of course, is in an entirely non-state-related poem written from a personal perspective about a military victory. Its use in government comes in much, much later; it was President Herbert Hoover who signed it in as the United States’ official national anthem in 1931. From this poem cum song cum anthem came a petition from a protestant reverend during the US Civil War to acknowledge god on US currency. The Civil War had raised religious sentiments among both parties, and Congress passed the bill allowing this change to the currency. This became such an ingrained part of the culture that, in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower chose it to replace the United States motto that had prevailed for 180 years: E pluribus unum (Out of many, one).

It could almost be argued, then, that it was this specific action that defined the United States as specifically a religion-based country. It’s interesting, tracing this history, to see how religion has slowly crept its way into US culture from a beginning that was explicitly secular, to the point now where religion is ingrained into state-run functions, actions and events.

Now, going back to the separation of church and state. This seems to stem specifically from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and it’s interesting to note that it explicitly states that religion cannot be the basis for any law or government decision:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

The implication of this seems pretty clear: the US government won’t interfere with your choice of religion, nor how you choose to practice it. And this actually seems pretty good, and pretty fair. However, what isn’t said is equally interesting. Nowhere does it suggest that the United States as a country is not religious; merely that, even if it is, it won’t impose that religion on anyone else.

So…what is it, then, when religious ceremonies are practiced at the inauguration of a United States president? Is it a demonstration of religious faith by the leader of the entire country? If so, is that then an imposition on the people to have such worship displayed – publicly — during quite possibly the most significant government ceremony of the United States? Should I, as a non-religious person, take exception to the fact that, if I wish to watch the official recognition of the leader of my country, I will subjected to such religious displays?

I don’t think there is necessarily a black and white decision about this; I would very much like to see such ceremonies toned back or removed from these public events, for no other reason than I can’t see their relevance to what is happening. Does swearing an oath with your hand on a bible make it any more binding? Would not having a benediction have damaging consequences on the next four years of US progress?

But…this is my opinion. After all – to each their own.

Hmm. What do you think?

Note: I’m aware that the vast majority of my references link to Wikipedia; I apologize, but I really didn’t have time to dig into the original source material.