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.

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

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The European continent is in the midst of an unprecedented outbreak of measles – unprecedented, at least, since a vaccine was developed to prevent measles, mumps, and rubella in the 1960s. Thirty-seven people have lost their lives due to complications of this very serious disease. Why? Because people refuse to believe accepted scientific fact on the safety of the MMR vaccine.

Ignorance is killing us.

Possibly the biggest threat to future civilizations is the warming of the Earth due to greenhouse gas emissions. The ice melt at the North and South poles, rising sea levels, catastrophic weather events such as deadly hurricanes, and record-breaking heat waves in places like Canada and Scandinavia are all harbingers of doom. But they’re harbingers many people are willfully ignoring.

My cousin is visiting from the Pacific Northwest. She has a nagging cough from the smoke that is hovering over Washington State due to wildfires raging in British Columbia. My cousin told me that as her small plane “puddle-jumped” from her hometown to Seattle, she was unable to see any of the landscape below because the smoke was so thick.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is rolling back emissions standards for automobiles, deregulating the EPA, and encouraging a resurgence of dirty coal production. This is the 21st Century equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

Once again, there is consensus that man-made global warming is a reality and that it may already be too late to save parts of the world from devastating floods, droughts, and famine. But for economic and political reasons, our government leaders are refusing to act. And they have persuaded many otherwise intelligent people that climate change is “fake news.”

And don’t look for future generations to be smarter about scientific facts. It’s well-known that the state board of education in Texas has an outsized influence on what school textbooks are selected across the country for use in our schools. In recent years, board members have objected to the theory of evolution being taught as fact, with one board member even declaring, “Evolution is hooey.” (Gail Collins, “How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us,” The New York Review of Books, June 21, 2012)

Science used to be the one pure subject that we could count on not being tampered with by political or ideological concerns. But in our politically charged atmosphere and with so much information (and misinformation) at our fingertips, even our scientific knowledge is being called into question constantly.

I guess the number one skill we should be concentrating on in educating future generations is critical thinking.  Only dispassionate and thoughtful inquiry will lead us to truth and away from ignorance.

 

Divided We Fall

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Aretha L. Franklin, President George W. BushThe news that Aretha Franklin died this week created an outpouring of tribute on social media. Everyone posted articles, photos, videos of performances – all honoring the Queen of Soul. It was heartening to me to see, for one brief moment, a meeting of hearts and minds on a subject.

In our divided country, you can’t even talk about the weather without potentially getting into a fraught argument over climate change. Everything from the Robert Mueller investigation of Russian collusion to the prospect of NFL players taking to their knees in protest this fall is cause for anger and vitriol.

It’s not that thoughtful people can’t disagree on a subject. With a two party political system, free speech, and a free press, it’s inevitable that individuals will have differences and the urge to express those differences. What’s new about the current state of discourse is that one needn’t confront someone face to face. With social media, we can sling insults at each other from a safe distance.

A case in point is Donald Trump’s use of Twitter. The president usually tweets in the wee hours of the morning, a time when most people’s discernment and judgment are not at their highest. These pronouncements are often filled with vitriol, as Trump attacks anyone he perceives as an enemy. And even though said “enemy” can take to Twitter to send a counterpunch, there is something not quite real in the exchange. If Trump were forced to confront these people face to face, I doubt whether he would act in such a hateful and spiteful manner.

This is true for all of us, and it is making America an inhospitable place. “Comments” sections on social media are minefields we should approach on tenterhooks. Feelings get hurt, friends get “blocked,” and our images of people we’ve known and liked, or even loved, are tainted.

The divisiveness prevalent in today’s society should worry us. It feels as if the very social fabric that makes up civilization is being irreparably torn. And once it is in tatters, it may be impossible to put back together.

The Upside Down

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The_Upside_Down_-_Public_Library_(exterior)I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that the plot of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things revolves around the Upside Down, a shadowy world that lurks beneath the ordinary world in which the characters live. The Upside Down resembles the real world, but something very out of the ordinary resides there.

The Upside Down is a good metaphor for the American scene today. While the surface looks the same and the sun rises and sets in the way it always has, the fabric of American society is dark, frayed, and oozing corruption.

Take our climate. Despite huge ice melts in Antarctica, rising sea levels, and an upsurge in cataclysmic storms across the globe, the Trump Administration persists in its denials that climate change is real and continues to push the consumption of fossil fuels, a practice that scientists the world over agree has contributed to the warming of the Earth. We can’t see all the storm clouds gathering in the Upside Down, but they are indeed there.

On the economic front, Paul Ryan is leading the charge on so-called tax reform, which is really just a giant handout to the rich masquerading as tax relief for the middle class. The “zombie-eyed granny starver” is stomping around in the Upside Down and preparing to chew on the meager earnings of senior citizens and the poor. And if he’s really lucky, he will eliminate health care for millions of lower income Americans at the same time. A twofer!

Along with widening the divide between the haves and have nots, our government is insidiously eroding our freedoms. Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the press have been designed to discredit negative media reports about him and his administration. Meanwhile, in the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has clamped down on news leaks and is reviewing department policy on subpoenaing reporters, both of which may have a chilling effect on investigating corruption. Sessions has also backed away from the Obama era mandates on police reform, promoted tougher sentencing on non-violent drug offenses, and renewed the war on marijuana at a time when states have begun recognizing its medical usefulness and relative benignity as compared to opioids and other drugs.

It seems that big business is the shadow monster that lurks in the American Upside Down these days. The proposed tax bill, the push to help the coal and oil industries, the deregulation of financial institutions, and, most recently, FCC indications that net neutrality may become a thing of the past – all favor the moneyed interests in America and, indeed, the president’s own businesses themselves. Yet for all the howling about Hillary Clinton’s supposed conflicts of interest as Secretary of State, I don’t hear many complaints about policies that will make Trump and his family even richer.

But for me, the most disturbing aspect of this upside down world is the abdication of character and moral responsibility. And our president, Donald Trump, lurks at the center  of the morass. His complete disregard for women, minorities, and even the disabled; his petty squabbles with anyone who dares criticize him; his constant self-aggrandizing boasts and outright lies – they all create a primordial slime that makes the Upside Down seem dainty and quaint. Since Donald Trump became president, incidences of racially motivated hate crimes have skyrocketed. White supremacists have become emboldened to march with torches and riot gear and hurl hateful racial epithets with impunity. And for all Trump’s howling over sexual abuse allegations against prominent Democrats such as Harvey Weinstein and Sen. Al “Frankenstien” [sic], he has shown no interest in condemning a serial child molester, instead tacitly encouraging voters to make Moore the new senator from Alabama.

I find it especially ironic that Trump would liken Sen. Franken to a well-known literary and movie monster. With Trump’s own questionable business dealings and sexual history, I guess I’d have to say, it takes one to know one.

 

 

 

 

I’m Disappointed

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I’m disappointed that Hillary Clinton recently came out of virtual seclusion to hawk her book rather than to lead the resistance against the Trump Administration.

I’m disappointed that President Trump treated an appearance at the site of massive flooding in Texas as another campaign rally: “Look at the crowd; look at the turnout.”

I’m disappointed that petty Americans are spending their time criticizing Melania’s choice of footwear.

I’m disappointed that Berkley antifascist groups used violence to counter a white supremacist march.

I’m disappointed that deniers refuse to concede that climate change might possibly have something to do with the heaviest amount of rainfall ever to fall on the 48 contiguous states.

I’m disappointed that even a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey can’t seem to bring our country together.

Life is just full of disappointments. And yet . . .

Online and on TV, I am seeing first responders and volunteers helping residents of Texas escape the floodwaters. Everywhere from furniture stores to churches are opening their doors to shelter the displaced. In my home town, residents are making plans to collect needed supplies and drive them down to the Houston area. Donations are pouring into relief agencies.

The innate goodness in people seems to be taking over. I am going to choose to ignore the hate and snark and acrimony that is ever present on the internet these days, find out how best to help others, and go do something.

 

Defending Science

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Scores of independent scientific advisors to the EPA were recently told that their membership on the Board of Scientific Counselors would not be renewed in August. The move seems like part of the Trump Administration’s efforts to quash the dialogue on climate change, an unsurprising move given the nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA along with Trump’s own rhetoric during the presidential campaign. Unsurprising, but alarming.

From the moment Donald Trump took office, the White House website removed information on climate change. Even though a consensus of scientists agrees that the Earth’s atmosphere is warming and that the warming is largely due to human activity, Republicans have stubbornly refused to address the issue. Recently, Energy Secretary Rick Perry (not exactly a rocket scientist) denied the correlation between global warming and human actions. It’s as if a group of Republicans were standing in the rain and insisting there was a drought.

The politicization of science is not new.  The season finale of Genius, the story of Albert Einstein, depicts Jewish scientists being dismissed from the prestigious Prussian Academy and books by Jewish scientists such as Einstein being burned in a massive fire by Nazi soldiers. The series also demonstrates Einstein’s outspoken objections to his discoveries being used to create weapons of mass destruction.

Throughout history, political powers have interfered with scientific discovery that did not advance their agenda, or that conflicted with their beliefs. Galileo is a perfect example of how politics (and, to a degree, religion) can affect the reception of new scientific ideas.

The ability of scientists to work independently of political agendas is vital to discovery and progress. Nowadays, the issue of the safety and efficacy of vaccines has become a political football. So has research on climate change. Meanwhile, an ice melt the size of Texas has been discovered in Antarctica. Sea levels are rising, and global weather patterns are being disrupted, with potential for devastating complications.

It’s time to allow scientific inquiry to inform our political decisions and not the reverse.