Dystopian Scenarios: 451, Brave New World, 1984, and Lost in the Cosmos.

Remember Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451? In that story, the government banned books out of a desire to keep people from feeling offended and stupid.  It wasn’t so much a government plot.  Nobody cared anymore about knowing the history or the stories that shaped Western society.  Books became a nuisance to societal order.  So why not get rid of them? And they got rid of them by making firemen into book burners. This science fiction is a little too close to present day fact.  Ignorance and apathy can lead to censorship of ideas we don’t like. Additionally, we have this notion of political correctness today that, while not outright banning books (yet), still tries to revise the history and stories.  Fahrenheit 451 sometimes seems right around the corner.  The true humanists today are already hiding out on the fringes just like in the novels.

Another telling dystopian novel, Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, pictures the world as a mixture of genetic and social programming.  People are genetically programmed to be either Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, or Epsilons.  Alphas are the leaders, given extra genetic strength in intellect and physique; Epsilons get the reverse and are reserved for manual labor.  Also, in Brave New World people are controlled by feel-good psychotropic drugs. People are moreover encouraged to live with complete sexual freedom, since the family is no longer necessary to procreate. The West today also is following some of these trends in its use of psychotropic and other kinds of drugs (I’m not condemning the use of all drugs here by the way) and freedom from traditional sexual mores.  The main character in Brave New World rebels from all of this because he realizes his life is artificial and even anti-human.  Eliminate risk and intimacy with others, and you eliminate something essential to humanity.

George Orwell’s 1984 is probably the most well-known dystopian novel.  In this hellish society the government controls all things through constant surveillance, propaganda, disincentivizing of sex and individuality, constant artificial warfare, and the revision of language.  The ultimate goal of the government in 1984 is the elimination of free-thought.  The highest version of controlled thought is “double-think,” accepting contradictions without even noticing them.  1984 makes us think of the modern surveillance state as it has extended into the internet.  There is also a lot of biased media propaganda today and an educational system that pushes relativism.  This rejection of logic today pushes us seriously close to the “double-think” of 1984.

The opposite of dystopia is not really utopia.  It is normal and messy freedom.  Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos asks us what we would choose, a controlled scenario like one of the above or a freer society like what we have now?  In Fahrenheit 451Brave New World, and 1984 we can supposedly get rid of racist people and the “oppressive” Western norms of sex. We can get rid of all the dead, White males who wrote so much of history and literature.  We can reprogram society.  We can find “better living through science.”  In the freedom scenario, we still have to deal with much of the stupidity and ignorance of human nature; we still have differing philosophical and religious views; we still have freedom to live in traditional or nontraditional ways; science has to operate more on the sheer persuasiveness of its ideas.

All these famous dystopias involve social control, the remaking of society via government means into our image instead of what it currently is in all its mess. But perhaps these authors were shock jocks.  Perhaps I am too.  Perhaps you can have social control and freedom too. I myself heed the warnings of the dystopian novelists. What do you think? The future of the human race depends on you.

Photo by C Chapman on Unsplash

A Beginners Guide to Happiness

Norman Vincent Peale popularized the idea of “the Power of Positive Thinking” back in the 50’s.  Since then the positive psychology movement has saturated many sectors of society.  From the fortune 500 company to the United States Military, we are all expected to think happy thoughts.  It is widely assumed that if we think happier, we will be happier.  We could call this the Tinkerbell philosophy of life.  Many recent studies, however, show a correlation between this positive psychology and a tendency among many to depression and even failure.  People are expected to be happy, and when they are not, we try to perk them up with a nice bumper sticker platitude.  People are expected to walk around with a plastered smile and a bubbly frivolity.  Why?  Because that is more productive, and we like productivity.  Productivity pays.  Like in Huxley’s Brave New World we strive for “Community, Identity, and Stability.”

And yet, ironically, positive thinking often yields negative results, non-productivity.  This is because many people cope positively through a bit of negativity.  Not all negativity is bad.  The writer of Ecclesiastes knew this a long time ago.  Ecclesiastes is supposed to be a dour and unhelpful book, one that is to be avoided once we’ve truly seen the light of positive thinking.  But nothing can be further from the truth.  Ecclesiastes reveals the ephemeral nature of our lives but also our need to recognize life’s limitations.

The power of Ecclesiastes is this reminder about the rough edges of life.  Nothing in this world can ever deeply satisfy.  Also, even the ethical quest to better the world will only yield meager results.  “What is crooked cannot ever be straightened.”  If we still think we can find satisfaction, we are kidding ourselves.  If we think we can put an ultimate end to evil and suffering, we haven’t tried hard enough and failed yet.  It’s almost as if we were made for something greater than these temporary diversions and ethical crusades.

We were made to surrender to a being “than that which nothing greater can be thought.”  If we tap out to lesser created beings, we will always have this gnawing suspicion that there is something greater, something happier out there.  Ecclesiastes reminds us that it is only to God that we must give an account.  That is the relationship that we can really lose ourselves in.  We lose ourselves only to gain ourselves back.  But which God, you say?  That would require a completely different article, but I will say this much: the God must be able to fit the key lock of our souls.  He must be able to humble us to the depths and also lift us up in infinite love, to show us our lowliness in his shadow but also conquer us with his humility.  Assuming that there are not multiple options that would work, who are the best candidates for the job?  Another question is whether we are able to slow down, turn off the tube, and cease from our clamor.  Are we able to create space for ourselves to listen, study, or pray in order to find out if there is a God and who he may be?  Or are we too busy trying to think happy thoughts in this modern never-never-land?