They “Saw” the Future and Were Not Impressed

Long ago in a galaxy far away…well, not really, but more than 50 years ago in a small high school in a tiny town not unlike thousands of other small high schools in other tiny towns all across these United States, a young lad with an active mind read his way through much of the library of that school.  Yes, I’m talking about myself, but the “me” of the here and now seems so far removed from that lad that an editorial distance seems appropriate.  That said, the active mind continues to survive and make itself felt even half a century later.

I was particularly fond, even then, of books, stories, movies, and TV shows that tried to answer the question “what if…”  Some small departure from the world and the thinking of the here and now, some twist, some miniscule shift in the order of things: any or all of these could cause changes and changes would, of course, cause other changes, and so on, until the reader (or viewer) would find himself in some setting that, though clearly similar to his own world, incorporated enough differences to make it subtly, or sometimes terrifyingly, different.  “Different” was usually thought-provoking.  Much of the era’s fiction was clearly post-war; whether specifically laid out or implicit, most of the characters showed the influence of having lived though a terrible, widespread war.  That mindset often caused them to work, if not for peace, at least for the avoidance of war.  Changes in the social structure often flowed from that avoidance.

Young readers today often are targeted by authors who write from the point of view of a hero(ine) in late adolescence or early adulthood, a time when everyone questions everything and wants answers that are not always available.  The Hunger Games series and the Divergent series are commercially successful examples.  Their central characters find themselves in situations that are manifestly unfair and cruel, and they struggle to overcome them from within.  In the middle 60’s, I didn’t find a lot of that.  The only writer of prominence who wrote to the so-called “juvenile” audience was Robert Heinlein, who aimed several novels at this audience during the 1950’s.

I was most struck, however, by works that were decidedly not juvenile, and not really “science fiction,” but dystopic, i.e., the opposite of utopian.  They depicted miserable places and miserable people, but such people as one might have met in every-day life–just that something “twisted” reality out of its familiar shape and into something that thwarted the desire of people to live a better life and pass on that better life to their children–and I won’t belabor the point to show how all these commonly-known dystopias are relevant today.  Three of them in particular bear mentioning–and reading or rereading.

In 1948, WWII was a not-very-distant memory for the British author and essayist George Orwell (yes, I know, Eric Blair).  He actually had already written one broadly satiric novella, Animal Farm, which took as its subject the Russian Revolution that established the Leninist regime.  It was successful, but Orwell wanted to show how the ordinary Brit could be led down a path to horrible repression and authoritarianism.  His masterpiece, 1984, is well-known.  Legend has it that Orwell himself wanted to call the book “1948,” the time in which he was writing, but the publisher would not agree, and supposedly suggested transposing the eight and the four; the reading public, the story goes , would not like to see Britain or London portrayed so negatively.

In the world of 1984, the world has devolved into three huge nation-states, Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia.  Oceania comprises the Americas and the British Isles; Eurasia is Europe and the old Soviet Union; and Eastasia is principally China and Southeast Asia.  Most of Africa as well as some of South Asia and some other areas, are the resource and labor-rich prize over which the three superstates fight–eternally,  with Oceania in an uneasy “alliance” with one of the other two, until a betrayal changes the ally to the enemy and vice-versa.  Thus, the economy, such as it is, of Oceania is always on a war footing, and the needs of the population are largely ignored.

The social system is known as “Ingsoc,” an abbreviated term for “English Socialism,” and society is divided into the Inner Party, the Outer Party, and “the proles,” the vast underbelly of the society, kept alive by state charity and amused by “illegal” lotteries and other such pedestrian pursuits.  Its hero is Winston Smith (gotta love that name…), an Outer Party functionary who dreams of rebellion, while the police state is waaaay ahead of him.  An illicit love affair (since the Party controls all “normal” sexual relations) gives the state the proximal cause to arrest, imprison, torture, and brainwash both Winston and his paramour, Julia; in the end, each betrays the other, and news of a military advance gives poor Winston cause to love Big Brother, the representation of the totalitarian government.

1984 is a fascinating peek into Orwell’s nightmare.  Such terms as doublespeak (convincingly lying while one knows the truth), thoughtcrime (committing the crime of thinking something contrary to the Party’s teachings), and the government’s Ministries, all ironically named for the opposite of of what they practiced–i.e., the  Ministry of Love, which tortured, that of Truth, which disseminated only propaganda, and that of Plenty, which distributed goods to the people, making sure that only the favored classes were, well…favored.  All of it was what Orwell feared England could become in a return to a WWII scenario.  If you ever see someone watch a bit of news come out of Washington or London or Beijing, etc., and he nods and says “We have always been at war with Eastasia,” he’s quoting from the Ministry of Truth shortly after a switch in alliances.

In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451, named for the supposedly precise temperature that book paper catches fire.  Its principal character, Guy Montag, is a “fireman,” but in this novel, firemen are book-burners.  The fire truck has a tank full of kerosene.  Books are banned, and I mean, seriously BANNED.  If you are hiding books at your house, and you are found out, you’ll get a visit from the firemen.  They pull up out front, douse the house in flammable liquid, and torch the whole thing.

Bradbury doesn’t devote a lot of exposition to the why of things.  It’s Montag’s world, and he really doesn’t question it much, at least not for a while.  He lives a pretty sterile life with his wife Mildred, who questions even less than he does, spending her time in mass entertainment, while indulging her addiction to sleeping pills.  Montag is put seriously off his path by the arrival of a neighbor girl who does things like “drinking” rain water by tilting her head back during a shower, and of course, asking questions.  Mildred eventually reports Montag for hoarded books, and then abandons him.

I never counted Fahrenheit 451 as one of Bradbury’s finest novels, but it does illustrate in a kind of clumsy way the lengths some will go to defend censorship and anti-intellectualism.  It came out in the area of McCarthyism, with its dark insinuations of dangerous “otherism.”  In most of the book’s setting exposition, it appears it could be set in small-town America, circa 1953.  It sets forth a small gathering of people who commit themselves to memorizing entire books, one to a person, in anticipation of another time when the world would be ready for books again.

In an abrupt ending, Mildred, who, after leaving Montag and going off to live in the nearest large city, dies in a nuclear attack, while Montag survives in the woods to become a member of the book people.  Heavy stuff.  In my own opinion, it suffered from being made into an unwatchable film in the mid-60’s.  The movie version featured Oskar Werner and Julie Christie (who was hot as pistol at the time, in box-office terms), but just did not really hang together as a story.

My last entry here among the dystopias of my youth is a sort of under-the-radar classic: Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut.  Vonnegut has seemed to have an up-and-down reputation as an author, but at the time of publication of Player Piano, he had no reputation to speak of, since it was his first novel.  It did not enjoy much commercial success, but did win some critical praise plus an unintended and unwelcome side effect.  Critics referred to it as science fiction, but Vonnegut wanted it to be received as satire or social criticism.  It became more widely read some years later, as the author gained fame with other works like Slaughterhouse Five.

Player Piano tells the story of a society substantially like ours today, except that the labor shortage caused by World War II is an important plot device.  In the book, it has caused more and more of heretofore human labor to be obsolete because of automation.  This factor alone may make it more relevant to the present day.

Imagine a society made up of a small number of engineers, some managerial types, and a lot of underemployed people.  The engineers and managers live in a comfortable, spacious area with ample houses, while the underclass huddle in small apartments in a city setting.  The protagonist, Paul Proteus, though a part of the engineer/manager class, begins to feel uneasy and joins an embryonic rebellion.  One thing leads to another, and a rebellion does break out, though it is quickly crushed.

The remarkable thing is that in the crowded towns, as order breaks down, individuals attempt to rebuild machinery for their own purposes, thus recreating (on a personal scale) the automation Armageddon to which they have lost their way of life.  Though it’s been 50 years, I still recall some guy wandering the chaos, muttering that if he could find a particular part, he could build a machine that would play the drums.  Would I surprise you if I told you that I am reminded of this nearly every day?  People who have been put out of work by computers working, dreaming of creating the next popular “app” that will put others out of work?

Sometimes it’s scary how authors predict elements of the future.  On the other hand, to give credit where credit is due, these authors were visionaries, each in his own way.  Want to know what’s to come?  Someone in the here and now is writing it.

It Seems to Me…

OK, here I am, returning to the blogscape after the severe shock of Donald Trump’s win in the US presidential election.  I was genuinely flattened (in an emotional sense) in the immediate aftermath, and I did not feel like writing any more because I had been so wrong (like so many others) in my writing leading up to the event.

With a little “reflection” time, though, I can feel a little better about my own prognostication.  The postmortems keep coming in, and they generally take the form of “Hillary lost because…” and then the writer goes off on his/her take on what went wrong, why everyone was wrong in pre-election predictions, and some, though not all, then attempt to find a scapegoat or scapegoats.  I read them all.  I think some are insightful, and a few are clueless.  Let’s look at a few interesting  tidbits that bear some further reflection.

The popular vote total was not so different from what I had expected.  My last post before the election hinted at a Clinton popular vote victory in the range of three percent.  I am not an expert in polling: three percent just seemed like a reasonable guess at the total after digesting all the so-called “expert polls.”  Current totals show about a 1.5 % Clinton advantage (more than 2,000,000 votes), which is likely to inch toward the 2% mark.  So what’s a lousy 1% difference?  As it turns out this time, it’s everything.  In a twist that political science professors will chew over with eager undergraduates for decades, the Clinton advantage was too concentrated in a few big states to translate to an Electoral College victory, the only one that matters in reality.  Trump won three states, in particular, that were complete surprises to everyone, including the Trump camp, if they are honest, in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  The total advantage to Trump in those three states came in at about 80,000 votes, a paper thin margin of about 1% in all of them together.  Clinton won New York and California by an aggregate total of over 4,000,000.  Of course, bragging rights mean nothing, but I had mentioned that Republicans would call Clinton a “minority President” if her vote total came to under 50%.  She will finish with around 47%, and he will finish with about 45.  She will be called a loser while he will be called “Mr. President.”  Weird.

The Trump camp’s claims of victory are becoming more disconnected from reality every day.  This President-elect’s relation with the truth has been tenuous, at best, for the duration of his campaign, with outrageous claims (40% unemployment, millions of illegal votes,  President Obama as a secret foreigner, etc.), and now he and his surrogates have begun to claim that his loss in the popular vote was really a massive victory because (voter fraud, illegals voting, etc.) and that his Electoral College margin is a “landslide.”  The situation calls for maybe…say, an ounce of humility and calls for unity and cooperation, not boastful, playground-style taunts toward the other party.  But that presupposes a sincere desire to govern and succeed on the part of Trump.  Needless to say, I don’t see that.

What is clearly visible is a campaign to delegitimize any sort of alternative opinion.  While many see an inclination toward authoritarianism, it is just as likely to show a drift toward to a sort of dissociation from reality in general.  Has anyone else been struck by the sheer silliness of a President-elect tweeting that Saturday Night Live is “biased?”  Does he not get that SNL is not a news program and pokes fun at virtually everything and everybody?  He shows a tendency to believe that now that he has won his “landslide” victory, no one should be critical of him, even hinting at lawsuits against various media outlets.  I await the first insult from some foreign leader with some trepidation…

I called for a somewhat “bluer” Texas.  That did happen, but not at the rate I had thought it would.  Comparing vote totals in 2016 with those of 2012, you can see that Mitt Romney took Texas by a 16% margin over President Obama; 2016 was a Trump win in Texas by roughly 10%.  Is 10% a close margin?  No, not by any account.  10% is still a wide margin, but much less comfortable than 16%, and keep in mind how weak a candidate Hilary Clinton would be in Texas.  “Blue” momentum there still does not threaten Republican governance and domination, but the day is approaching still.  Within a generation, I would still expect Texas to be a “purple” state, in play each presidential cycle.

The Comey factor: we could chew this over until 2020, and the result would be the same.  Nobody really knows.  There has been a lot of speculation as to how much effect the FBI’s director’s decision to announce a new investigation into HRC’s e-mails based on…well, somehow something or other that was found on a computer belonging to the pathetic Anthony Weiner.  Joyous Trump partisans pounced on this one to insist that here finally was the smoking gun that would prove that…um…something something Huma Abedin something Muslim Brotherhood could be maybe…Yes!

Adding more confusion to the whole sordid mess was the subsequent second announcement that most of the messages on that computer were copies of messages that the FBI had already seen, so, well, never mind.  Effect on the electorate?  I don’t know, but I have no trouble believing that it could have been a final tilt in the minds of a few voters in such states as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  And remember, these on-the-fence voters would not have been required to vote for Trump to tilt the margin; if they were Democrat-inclined voters who simply became too disillusioned in the end to get out and vote for Hillary (or against Trump) that would do for the Trump camp.

Voter suppression.  Did that get your attention?  I will not attempt to “prove” that obvious Republican attempts to suppress turnout of normally Democratic constituencies (minorities, targets of “gender minority politics,” and others) were probably successful, at least to some degree.  Someone more willing to invest enormous amounts of time and analysis than I am will no doubt attempt to quantify this in the coming months or years, but I will merely say this:  suppressing opposition in an election does not have to take the form of convoluted sabotage of people’s ability to vote.  Merely discouraging them can do the trick, and the uniquely negative Trump campaign did much of this, from constantly asserting that his opponent was, in fact, a criminal, and actually ineligible even to run for President to inciting his partisans to chant “Lock her up!” at rallies.  Pure demagoguery.  I was not happy to see this taking place in a campaign for such a serious office as the Presidency, and I  was a lukewarm supporter, at best, of HRC.

The “suppression” angle will, I think, turn out to be a continuing story in efforts to analyze the results of the 2016 election on the Presidential level, and it will be studied by some future candidates as they seek any advantage to elevate themselves to higher office.  A thread of analysis has emerged that shows overall turnout in 2016 was slightly lower than the 2012 figures. Clinton suffered from the failure to turn out her natural base in numbers similar to those of Barack Obama in the two previous elections.

The idea that this was a victory for “flyover America” or rural America is, I think, just silly.  Both phrases have been conflated lately to subsume a group of disaffected Caucasian, less-than-fully employed voters who long for simpler times when a guy could graduate from high school and go down to the local plant (or whatever was the local equivalent of the local plant–it could be the local feed mill or meat packer, or whatever), put in his name, and be called for an interview, followed by placement in a job with some security, allowing him to become the breadwinner of his family, own a house, and some day, retire with a pension.  I lament the passing from the national scene of this scenario as much as anyone.

Low-skill, non-technical jobs are not coming back to the US.  They have even begun to move on from China to lower-paying countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam.  The response on the part of the American worker has been predictable.  Some move to where what small number of such jobs remain in play.  Some resolve to retrain and be able to be competitive in other areas.  Some remain where they are in hopes the situation will return to status quo ante.  Trump’s bellows that he could stop the cycle and return to something that began to slide away about 1970 excited many of these.  I am not optimistic he can do much, notwithstanding his recent touting of “victory” in getting Carrier to stay in Indianapolis.  The fine print in that “victory” shows $7,000,000 in tax reduction to Carrier and several hundred other jobs leaving for Mexico, anyway.  As the reality sinks in that Trump is no more a savior in this battle than anyone else (and that he, in fact, is an outsourcer himself), it remains to be seen what will be the effect among his blue collar supporters.  And the $7,000,000 in lost taxes, of course, will be made up by shifting the burden to some other source of revenue.  Whether a policy is good or not still depends for many people on whether or not their own ox is being gored.

I look for much scapegoating in the near term: the “war on Christmas (or Christians)”, drug testing for welfare recipients, Planned   Parenthood, etc.  All of these things can be expected to play prominent parts in the national discourse, along with GUNS.  Hidden (imaginary) conspiracies by Democrats will be found and exposed whereby “they want to come for your guns!”  The NRA and its one-trick pony leader, Wayne LaPierrre, will continue to thunder that your Second Amendment rights are under assault, even though there has been no attempt to restrict gun ownership other than an attempt to close a couple of loopholes in namechecking, hopefully to keep people who can’t board a commercial airplane from buying a (legal) gun (which polls show a majority of Americans support).  And LaPierre will slip in a request for your cash, too.  Gotta keep those lobbyists’ palms greased, folks!

So, in the end, what long-term lessons will be learned from this fever swamp of an election campaign?  Sadly, it appears that one lesson is being reinforced.  Everybody claims to hate “lying politicians,” but one of the greatest unrepentant  liars on the political scene has just been elected President.  Another longstanding feature of politics is that everybody likes government services but no one likes to pay taxes.  This is understandable, of course, but not realistic.  That same disaffected group of voters the 2016 economy has left behind (as mentioned above) is absolutely convinced that the country has been reshaped for the benefit of an army of people who don’t want to work and “our tax dollars” go to support these freeloaders.  There are, no doubt, some who “play the system.”  But most welfare recipients are children.  Yes, children.  It seems the electorate is coming around to wanting the same thing from its candidates that it gradually selected in its choice of news.  Tell me what I want to hear.  Confirm my opinions.

Buckle up, folks.  It may be an odd four years.