Dystopian Lit Is Giving Me Nightmares

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I have been reading a lot of fiction lately about a future dystopian United States – from the vampiric world of Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy to Octavia Butler’s nightmare Parables to Margaret Atwood’s scary land of Gilead in The Testaments, a sequel to the acclaimed work The Handmaid’s Tale. And I’ve got to say, I’m feeling more than a little unsettled.

You see, the worlds created by these masterly writers seem all too close to current realities. One of the themes that runs throughout dystopian fiction is that of an Earth ravaged by human excess and the resultant climate change. While many deny the existence of man-made climate change for political reasons, there is little doubt that the Earth is warming and that this warming is already causing sea levels to rise, Arctic and Antarctic ice to melt, and weather-related devastation in the form of high category hurricanes and arid lands being ravaged by wildfires.

Another theme of dystopian fiction is that of totalitarianism taking hold. In Margaret Atwood’s two books about the fictional land of Gilead, an ultra right wing faction has seized the White House, suspended the Constitution, and created a total police state. In Butler’s book The Parable of the Talents, a presidential hopeful promises to restore order to a lawless and broken country through heavy-handed means, including lynchings and burnings. Most ominous to me in reading Butler’s novel is this politician promising to “make America great again,” a slogan we have heard only too often in recent history. Yet Butler wrote The Parable of the Talents in 1998.

That’s what is so scary to me about dystopian fiction. Writers such as Butler and Atwood seem frighteningly prescient in their imaginings of future worlds. In some of Atwood’s other novels, pigs are implanted with human brain tissue, drones are used to spy on citizens, and for-profit prisons make ordinary people’s lives a living nightmare. None of these imagined realities seems out of the realm of plausibility.

In times of fear and stress, people are often willing to suspend their own freedoms in order to be protected. We saw this immediately after 9/11 when the Patriot Act was passed with little political opposition. We now allow agents of the federal government to search our possessions, x-ray our persons, and deny our right to carry particular nonlethal items just in order to board a plane. Technological innovations of the past two decades have also threatened to destroy our privacy in ways reminiscent of Big Brother in George Orwell’s classic 1984.

The other day my daughter asked me if I thought it would be possible for the United States to become a totalitarian state. I told her that the Constitution is only a document. It takes the will of the people and their leaders in government to assure that it is enforced. Today we are seeing individuals in the executive and legislative branches of our government refuse to abide by the norms and stipulations of that document. To my mind, it is not that far-fetched to imagine a group like the “Sons of Jacob” in The Testaments overtaking our democracy and turning it into a dictatorship.

Perhaps I should start reading other types of fiction for a while. These dystopian novels are giving me waking nightmares.

Retire the Prosperity Gospel

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Sunday seems a good day on which to reflect upon matters of faith, especially when the local paper reports that Donald Trump has invited televangelist Paula White to become a member of his administration. White is a proponent of the so-called prosperity gospel, a disturbing interpretation of the Bible that insists God rewards true believers with material wealth and even good health. The prosperity gospel is especially popular in the televangelism arena because it helps the Joel Osteens of the world get rich on the backs of people desperate for hope and relief from their own difficulties.

Mainstream Christians reject the tenets of this belief system. It is absurdly in conflict with a suffering savior who died on the cross for our sins, who emptied himself and became a servant in order to save our souls.

Today’s gospel at Mass concerned the diminutive tax collector Zacchaeus. Inspired by Jesus singling him out on his visit to the town of Jericho, Zacchaeus declares, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8) In other words, salvation does not come to believers when they amass great wealth by exploiting others. It comes when they give freely of themselves, imitating the life and mission of Christ.

Evangelical leaders like Osteen and White cherry pick verses from the Bible to shore up their own grasping ambitions. And it’s not hard to see why the grasping, greedy Trump would find this “gospel” appealing. What bothers me is that there has been no objection on the part of the Christian Right to Trump’s embrace of what many view as heretical beliefs.

The prosperity gospel is insidious because it implies that if you are poor or a victim of cancer or other serious illness, it’s due to your own lack of faith. If you were more of a believer and gave more of your hard-earned cash to support Joel Osteen’s teeth whitening treatments, you’d surely be doing better.

I can’t really think of anything more reprehensible than twisting the divinely inspired words of God to one’s own ends. I wish more Christians would speak out against such fraud and let the true message of the gospel shine forth.

Trump’s Naked Ambition

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When are the people surrounding Donald Trump going to acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes? That was my thought when I saw a Washington Post story about the president ranting during a Cabinet meeting about the impeachment “witch hunt” and the “phony emoluments clause” in the Constitution that seeks to prevent His Orange-ness from profiting off of the presidency. Like deer caught in the headlights, these hapless dupes just sat there as Trump raved.

The silence of White House officials and Republicans on Capitol Hill serves only to embolden Trump. He has blatantly admitted to demanding a quid pro quo from the Ukrainian president in order to damage a political rival. Back at the onset of the Mueller investigation, he was quoted as saying, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.” (If only!) In light of the recent revelations about his attempts to get Ukraine to help his political fortunes, does anyone actually doubt that Trump attempted to get Russia to help him back in 2016?

Mueller’s circumspect conclusions gave Trump the sense that he was untouchable. Despite Mueller’s refusal to acquit him of obstruction of justice charges, he claimed total vindication. Now that he’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, it’s obvious that the man will do anything to further his own fortunes and self-aggrandizement.

From the start of his presidency, Trump has financially profited from his office. All his weekend trips to Mar a Lago put money in his pocket at taxpayer expense. His hotel in Washington D.C. has hosted countless delegations doing business with the government. And it becomes clearer by the day that his foreign policy revolves around relationships that will personally benefit him: his support of Saudi Arabia despite the state-sanctioned killing of an American journalist, and more recently, his withdrawal of troops in Syria to appease Turkish president Recep Erdogan.

Voters should have known better than to elect a man who refused to reveal his tax returns during the election. There is one person at the center of Donald Trump’s mind: himself.

Tulsi Gabbard recently compared Hillary Clinton to the Wizard of Oz. But that comparison is much more apt for Trump, a man of flim flam and bombastic  rhetoric. The only difference is that with Trump, there is no curtain. His naked ambition, his narcissism, and his spite are on display for all to see.

It’s time for Republicans to take the veil from their eyes, unite with Democrats, and do something about this disastrously unfit president.

Socialist or National Socialist?

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Hey, Republicans! I’ll make you a deal. I’ll stop calling Trump a Nazi if you stop calling Democrats socialists.

As the Trump presidency deteriorates further and further, I’ve noticed a tinge of desperation in Republican attempts to portray Democratic legislators, and especially the Democratic candidates for president, as Venezuela-style socialists who are bent on destroying our great democracy. Hogwash!

Since when is trying to rein in runaway prescription drug prices a socialist policy? Trump himself has attacked Big Pharma and promised to get drug prices in line. But when Democrat Nancy Pelosi pushes for legislation to do just that, she’s painted as a socialist. And why is Elizabeth Warren condemned for insisting upon holding banks and other financial institutions accountable for irresponsible and predatory business practices? The laxity of regulations on these institutions helped bring about the Great Recession, after all.

Wanting to insure that all Americans have access to affordable health care should be a bipartisan goal. Addressing the enormous inflation in tuition at colleges and universities should be a common goal as well. Insisting that the richest Americans pay their fair share in taxes is common sense. Yet all of these ambitions – which, by the way, have widespread appeal across party lines – are deemed marks of a slippery slope toward Big Government controlling our lives. It’s a lazy narrative, and Republicans need to stop.

After all, what are the gigantic farm subsidies Trump granted to maintain rural support for his candidacy but a form of socialism? What about all the tax breaks and subsidies to giant corporations to keep them doing business in the U.S.? Republicans decry welfare to poor individuals, but they say nothing against the rampant corporate welfare that occurs in this country.

The other day I was reading a book set in Poland during World War II. In a chilling scene,  SS officers ruthlessly separate children from their families to be sent off to concentration camps. It reminded me of the immigration policy of a certain current president. But I won’t call Trump a Nazi, despite his love of dictators and predilection toward authoritarianism.

So let’s can it with the comparisons to Hugo Chavez and the boogeyman word “socialist.” Let Democrats and Republicans debate national policy ideas on their merits, and allow the American electorate to decide what they want for their future without resorting to scare tactics and ad hominem attacks.

Speaking Truth to Power

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In a podcast from Season 3 of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell describes the 1980s hysteria that befell Washington with regard to supposed fraud in the medical research community. Democratic Congressman John Dingell was a formidable legislator who was in charge of overseeing  investigations at the NIH, the CDC, and the FDA for potential fraud. The problem was that researchers’ careers were being destroyed by matters as insignificant as a typographical error in a grant application.

In the middle of Dingell’s McCarthy-esque crusade, NIH director Bernardine Healy stood up against Dingell and his heavies, defending the work of the organization and refusing to make nice, even after successfully repudiating his accusations against her and scientists under her leadership. As Gladwell explains, Healy knew that the only way to stop the hysteria was to remain true to her principles, despite the fact that she needed Congressman Dingell’s support to fund the work of the NIH. In short, Bernardine Healy was willing to risk her career and speak truth to power.

Two years into a Donald Trump presidency, we need this kind of political courage more than ever. As the House of Representatives moves toward an impeachment inquiry, we need more Republicans to stand up and be true to their principles. We need more Republicans like former senator Jeff Flake, who declined to run for reelection rather than support the policies of the president. Flake recently spoke out in an op ed piece that appeared in The Washington Post, urging other Republicans to follow suit. (“Jeff Flake: Fellow Republicans, there’s still time to save your souls,” Washington Post, Sept. 30, 2019) He reminds them of his assertion two years ago, “’There are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles.’”

Another Republican who has been willing to speak truth to power is Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who called Pres. Trump’s tweet about the possibility of impeachment causing a civil war “beyond repugnant.” Kinzinger is paying the price. He is the only Republican Illinois Rep that Trump declined to name to his reelection team. (“Kinzinger only GOP rep left off Trump’s Ill. reelection team,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 3, 2019) As Kinzinger himself points out, he’s far from a “Never Trumper” and has supported the president on such issues as the military, immigration, and healthcare. All the same, he is willing to stand up for his beliefs and criticize the abhorrent rhetoric of the president.

The impetus for impeachment, of course, goes beyond rhetoric. It goes to the very heart of a corrupt and self-aggrandizing presidency that threatens our democratic institutions. History will certainly judge the actions – and inaction – of those in a position to make decisions on behalf of a venal and unscrupulous president or in service to the greater good of our republic.

 

Politics and the Power of Words

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During the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton described Trump supporters as “deplorables,” and from the moment she uttered that word, I knew it would become a missile in the hands of Republican strategists. Sure enough, Trump supporters started posting proud photos of themselves as so-called “deplorables.” Pundits decried the elitism of the Democratic nominee and used her own unfortunate choice of words to indict her as the ultimate Washington insider.

Similarly, early in the Trump Administration, Senator Mitch McConnell explained why he had shut down Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s objections to the nomination of Jeff Sessions to the Attorney General post: “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Those final three words became a rallying cry for liberals and especially feminists against the predominantly white male presence in Washington and the resiliency of Warren and other women who speak out. T-shirts and hats started sporting the quip, and it took on a life of its own.

When it comes to politics, candidates, government officials, and strategists need to mind their words. Words are powerful and effective means of getting one’s point across. But words can also be used against us.

During the 2012 election, Pres. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan about “hope and change” became the source of mockery from vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. During a speech to Republican supporters, she mocked, “How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out?”

More recently, Pres. Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” (MAGA), has been endlessly parodied into such expressions as “Make America White Again” and “Make America Smart Again.”

As the presidential election of 2020 comes ever nearer, we will be hearing a lot (too much?) from candidates and their supporters. Pres. Trump is no doubt polishing off his dismissive nicknames in preparation for the face-off against his eventual Democratic challenger. Liberals, for their part, are blowing up their “Trump Baby” balloons and preparing to portray the Republican incumbent as idiotic and venal.

It will be interesting to see how language is used both to inspire and tear down in this next election. No doubt t-shirt makers are at the ready to capitalize on the words and slogans that go viral.

Pink pussy hats, anyone?

Smoking Gun

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A handful of people have died from vaping, and President Trump immediately instituted a ban on certain flavored e-cigarettes. Three times that many people were killed in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and hand-wringing was the only action anyone took.

I’m not a fan of e-cigarettes, and I have no issue with regulating them more strictly in light of the mysterious recent deaths and the fact that vaping has caught on with a young, vulnerable population. Indeed, the government’s role is to provide regulations to help keep Americans safe. But when it comes to guns, there is a glaring inconsistency.

In the latest mass shooting, the gunman had obtained his weapon from a private sale, thus skirting a background check that would have marked him as ineligible to have a gun. There are numerous loopholes to our system of background checks that, if closed, could prevent violence.

There are also ways of getting around strict gun laws in one state; get a gun from a neighboring state. Once again, a nationally consistent set of laws governing the sale of guns would help keep them out of the hands of criminals and people with a violent history or history of mental illness.

Alas, I’m beating a dead horse here. The difference between the vaping crisis and the gun one is simple: money. E-cigarette manufacturers and vape shops simply don’t have the lobbying clout of the NRA.

What makes it even more frustrating to me is that in the case of vaping, I am in charge of whether or not I use a product that is increasingly being shown to have serious health risks. I can simply refuse to partake. But in the case of guns, lax laws could mean that in the course of going around minding my own business, I could still be shot and killed. Guns are a lethal weapon against which I expect the government to protect me.

There is not a single right enshrined in the Constitution that does not have some curbs attached to it. You can’t perpetrate violence in the name of your religion, for instance. Hate speech and inciting people to violence are not allowed. The right to bear arms must also be controlled in some fashion.

Ironically, President Trump cited his own 13-year-old son in his remarks about banning e-cigarettes. It’s laudable that he would want to protect his young son from danger. But don’t guns pose an even bigger risk to the son of the president? Secret Service protection notwithstanding, doesn’t Pres. Trump see that his child would be safer in a world with fewer guns in the wrong hands?

We’re not seeing the forest for the trees when it comes to guns. Unfortunately, there’s a raging forest fire, and no one is moving to extinguish it.