Tuesday, December 6, 2016

We Live in a Dystopia

A fictional dystopia is a frightening place. Some authors or script-writers have depicted dystopian societies with little or no government -- thus, chaos or control by opportunists or thugs. Other authors envision totalitarian nightmares. Leaders with evocative personalities are often part of these chilling environments. Strange technologies may disrupt normal behavior of the residents; some dystopian fiction is outright sci-fi. Lies supplant truth in many dystopias, and challenge the equilibrium of the characters. Imagined dystopian life often includes an abnormal or overwhelming setting, with too much to look at and nothing to make sense of.

Recently, American life that I see in the newspapers -- and I mean the mainstream press -- is all too much like a fictional dystopia. Here are some examples.

The Ghost Ship

A room in the Ghost Ship: "The Oakland warehouse and
art collective was full of collectibles, instruments and
art projects that had been amassed over its existence
from across the world." -- Rolling Stone.
We learned Sunday of a dreamscape of antique and junk furniture, exotic ethnic artworks, new artworks in progress, artists and musicians creating visionary projects including concerts. The labyrinthine network of artist studios and performance spaces in a former warehouse in Oakland, California, was called "The Ghost Ship." A strange and troubling man was the impresario and creator, and collected money from the residents and concert-goers.

It must have been beautiful. Rolling Stone reports: "Artists lived in the warehouse and built lofts that existed between the first and second floors. Partitions between the lofts were made of pallets, two-by-fours and other types of wood while all the floors were covered in carpet." (source)

But people knew there were problems, according to CNN:
"On November 13, the city received complaints of blight and unpermitted interior construction at the building and sent an investigator to the property on November 17. The inspector verified the blight complaint but could not gain access to the building to confirm the unpermitted construction complaint, leaving the investigation open, the city said.... 
"Most of the time it served as a "live-work" warehouse: part commune, part artists collective. Photos posted online show a space with a ceiling resembling a ship's hull, covered wall to wall with furniture, instruments and tools of the artists' trades." (source)
Until Saturday night, no one seemed to take seriously that all the beautiful artistic atmosphere was accompanied by makeshift construction, rickety stairways, lack of exits, open-flame propane heaters, illegal dwelling places, flammable collections, etc. Residents were afraid to complain, for fear the dream would end with eviction from the illegal space.

Yes, it ended. Headlines for the last two days have described how the Ghost Ship, hosting a concert on the nearly inaccessible second floor, became an inferno. Over 35 people died a terrible death. Utopia became dystopia in seconds.

Attack on a Pizza Parlor

A pleasant neighborhood restaurant in Washington D.C. inexplicably was chosen by bizarre conspiracy theorists as the site where criminal activity was alleged without any. Utterly unfounded accusations included tales of secret tunnels underneath the restaurant's dining room, and fantasies that Hillary Clinton and her associates tortured children there.

Sunday, a self-appointed "investigator" showed up at the D.C. restaurant threatening people with an assault rifle and other weapons, shooting a hole in the ceiling. Somehow the patrons and employees -- all of course completely innocent of the ridiculous fabrications -- escaped being shot, but there was a really horrifying scene while the intruder was being pacified. This violent act "quickly became a symbol of the powerful and dangerous potential impact of rumors and conspiracy theories have taken on during a volatile election." Other businesses were also targeted by the fabulists -- "Business owners initially tried to ignore the false claims, but in recent weeks have been frightened by harassment and violent threats." (source)

"That an insane online conspiracy theory brought violence to a neighborhood business five miles from the White House is mind-boggling. Even worse is that similar fake stories involving Mrs. Clinton and pedophilia have been promoted by Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Trump’s choice for national security adviser." (source)

Again, for totally different reasons, a delightful place where families gathered for pizza, ping-pong, and neighborhood get-togethers turned from utopia to dystopia.

Politics -- our dystopian direction

Our politicians have abdicated a commitment to truth as we used to know it. "Post-truth" is even the word of the year chosen by the Oxford English Dictionary. Margaret Sullivan in the Washington Post wrote a column titled "The post-truth world of the Trump administration is scarier than you think." She warns:
"It’s time to dust off your old copy of '1984' by George Orwell and recall this passage: 'The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.' 
"And be vigilant."
An interview in Vox about the "post-truth" environment puts it this way, beginning with a quote: "'Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.' -- Jonathan Swift... As the Swift quote suggests, lies travel faster than truths, which makes the internet a reservoir of misinformation. Because anyone anywhere can propagate a lie at practically no cost or risk, there is really no containing the amount of bullshit percolating online."

Numerous recent articles have summarized the "post-truth" era not only in politics, but also in science, with a reading public eager to be misled about issues of nutrition, vaccines, climate change, and many more areas. Dystopian, yes, but I have no time to expand on this aspect of the situation.

In brief, here are a few more dystopian features of our political situation:
  • Pretending to attack "political correctness" provides an excuse for speech and behavior that used to be held unacceptable.
  • Police are not held accountable when they shoot innocent people, especially innocent Black people. Acquittal of police officers who have killed seems to be a daily news article. Living in an atmosphere where one can be shot at any time obviously puts Black people in a much worse dystopia than whites.
  • A majority of votes does not determine which candidates for office become our elected officials. Most obviously, the losing candidate for President received approximately 2.5 million more votes than the elected candidate, but statewide elections also return large majorities of State and National Representatives of the opposite party to that which received the popular vote, thanks to gerrymandering and other electoral frauds. The certainty of being elected without popular support has enabled totalitarian behavior among many state officials, and appears to be about to enable such behavior nationally as well.

Racism and Antisemitism

Cartoon from L.A.Times
Racist attacks and racially-motivated violence have increased throughout our society, especially in schools. Racism has become "normal" thanks to campaign talk of locking up and/or deporting individuals with specified religions or national origins, another dystopian element of the current political atmosphere.

"Xenophobia" is the word of the year at dictionary.com -- which cited "anti-immigrant rhetoric of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the United Kingdom's Brexit vote to leave the European Union as reasons for its choice." (source)

Overt antisemitic statements and gestures have become almost routine, up to and including Nazi salutes. The antisemitic participants in the incoming administration represent a very pressing concern in the areas I've been covering in this blog, which is why I'm writing here.

From the New York Times: "a brick thrown through the window of a Muslim-owned restaurant in Kansas, apartments of Muslim families in Virginia hit with eggs and graffiti, swastikas scrawled on synagogues and in a playground in New York." (source)

From the Southern Poverty Law Center: "In the ten days following the election, there were almost 900 reports of harassment and intimidation from across the nation. Many harassers invoked Trump’s name during assaults, making it clear that the outbreak of hate stemmed in large part from his electoral success." (source)

From Ha'aretz: "The New York Police Department said it has seen a dramatic rise in hate crimes following the election of Donald Trump, with the majority of incidents directed at Jews." (source)

From the L.A.Times: "'The truth is, the alt-right is a new buzzword that made it appear as if these white supremacists have something different to offer,' said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. 'The name is an alternative to "white supremacy." They just want to make it more acceptable, digestible to white people.' Segal added, 'There’s nothing new there.'" (source)

Social Media

The use or misuse of social media (Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Snapchat...) is held responsible for much of the enabling and inspiring of thuggish elements in our society -- such as the man with the gun in the neighborhood restaurant. In totalitarian nightmare societies of the past plenty of low-tech capabilities allowed this type of destruction of the social contract. Information control by totalitarians is also a frequent element in fictional dystopias.

Author Kenan Malik writes of the new life of lies:
"Lies masquerading as news are as old as news itself. ... In the past, governments, mainstream institutions and newspapers manipulated news and information. Today, anyone with a Facebook account can do it. Instead of the carefully organized fake news of old, there is now an anarchic outflow of lies. What has changed is not that news is faked, but that the old gatekeepers of news have lost their power. Just as elite institutions have lost their grip over the electorate, so their ability to define what is and is not news has also eroded." (source)

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