In the backyard, outside the window where I write, pines rise up a steep hill. The trees and a thick groundcover of amber-red pine straw almost camouflage the deer who frequent the woods; they are usually there when I open the blinds in the morning. Birds chirp and go back and forth among the feeders hanging on the fence and up the hill. Because of the hill, the sun takes its time appearing over the ridge; finally, it appears and emblazons the landscape in a panoply of light and shadow. A feisty squirrel invades the bird feeders, oblivious to the spicy mix that was put there to deter him.
In the front of the house, I open the front door and hear the incessant hum of traffic on the interstate nearby. Trees mostly block the view of the cars in the distance, but the hum is constant. My townhouse’s interior spaces serve as a limbo between these two contrasting worlds; my townhouse functions as my “safe place” in a never-ending pandemic with too many people ignoring the seriousness and consequences it entails.
I have to admit that the word “dystopia” has been creeping into my thoughts lately.
In an undergraduate political theory class, a long time ago, I wrote a paper on “anti-utopian novels” – books which would more commonly be called “dystopian” now. As I recall, I considered 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, and Player Piano, and included a mention of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon as an outlier that comes close but does not totally fit the category.
I think of dystopia when I go to the grocery store and try to avoid the unmasked people. I look at them with suspicion as they look back at me, often with apparent contempt. I think of dystopia as I follow the investigations into the insurrection of January 6, 2021, and see footage from the invasion of the U.S. Capitol that is, in its own way, every bit as disturbing as the footage of the Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11.
I heard a story on NPR today in which two women were having a serious-sounding discussion about the racial implications of the emoji colors one chooses. On NPR! I didn’t think of dystopia then; I just got depressed. I have never used emojis and, if I ever did, it would be in a whimsical spirit of irony. Now, knowing that my choice of emoji might mark me as racist, I will continue to ignore that option.
I think of dystopia when I hear people who identify as Christian, and whom I used to think of as good and reasonable people, support a dissembling celebrity politician – a wannabe autocrat – whose morals, life, and lifestyle fly in the face of everything they profess to believe. I pray that those people will finally abandon the Big Lie about the 2020 election and those who perpetrated it.
It’s an election year in my home state and I think of dystopia when I see the campaign ads of the incumbent governor, running for reelection, delivering a barely articulate diatribe against the current President and telling Washington that they don’t run our business. Or something like that – it’s hard to know what she says half the time. This woman (a friend of mine calls her “Governor Mee-Maw”) doesn’t hesitate to take and spend every dollar of federal money our state can get while challenging the government that authorized it and refusing to expand healthcare fairly to the population. A known January 6 insurrectionist, running for the U.S. Senate, touts his endorsement and support from the man whose insurrection he supported, while his opponents line up to try to outdo each other in their opposition to vaccinations, mask mandates, and the current President, their support of firearms, and their Christian credentials. One guy, who has never met an election he couldn’t lose, is going to go after the “secular left” that, he says, is destroying our country. One candidate even vows to build the “wall” (have we not moved past the wall?) while another has revealed that he was called by God to run for the U.S. Senate. And, just like the prophet Isaiah, he responded, “Here am I; send me.”
These candidates use the word “socialism” as a scare tactic, with the full knowledge that most of the audience for these ads have no clue what “socialism” actually means. They just know they’ve been told it’s bad by politicians who probably don’t know what it means either.
I guess I should be able to take some slight comfort in knowing that these tactics are national, and not confined to my home state of Alabama. But it concerns me that these politicians are making their statements and accusations as if they speak for all Alabamians and that is so far from the truth.
For the record: I am an independent liberal and support everything that label implies. I understand and can have an intelligent and factual conversation about socialism. I do not believe the 2020 election was “stolen” from anyone. I support universal health care. I do not own guns and I support strict gun restrictions. I don’t condone banning books. I am fully vaccinated and boostered; I have been fortunate in not having COVID yet. I will wear a mask in public until I determine it’s safe to take it off. I trust the science and understand that only we humans can address the threats of climate change. I am an Alabamian, the son and grandson and great-grandson of native Alabamians, the descendant of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, and am committed to work for progressive change within my home state. I love college football (Roll Tide) and don’t care much for NASCAR. I am not alone in Alabama and will work for change from within — not criticize from without. Any questions?
I think of dystopia when I hear a woman earnestly tell a school board meeting that her children will never wear masks and that she will bring out all of her guns – “loaded” – if anyone tries to mandate masks.
I have tried to remain silent about these things because, frankly, such insipid cluelessness scares me. But these people have no qualms about spewing and supporting these lies to my face, on social media, and on television, so it’s time they begin to know how I feel – I’m not on board with their callous stupidity.
A new book that captures the zeitgeist of our current moment is Noah Hawley’s novel, Anthem. A post-pandemic dystopian novel, Anthem looks at a time in the near future when young people are starting to commit suicide in alarming numbers, leaving a distinctive meme behind. I recently ran across an excerpt from Anthem in which the author, addressing the reader directly, apologizes for the ridiculous world he has created in the novel, explaining that the senseless world in which we currently live is equally ridiculous. He writes:
“Consider this: … 34 percent of his neighbors have gone to war against tiny pieces of fabric worn across the nose and mouth. They believe these tiny pieces of fabric are robbing them of their personal freedom. And so they have declared war against these pieces of fabric, even as scientists present evidence that those same tiny pieces of fabric will protect them from a deadly virus sweeping the globe, killing millions. But for the 34 percent, the fabric, not the virus, is the enemy. And so they lie dying in hospitals from a disease they argue does not exist.”
I ran across that passage and, just like that, I ordered the book.
I am weary of the pandemic, of politics, of all of it. Still, I look for comfort to the artists that are dealing in their own ways with our current moment and Anthem – despite its Tarantino-level violence and most disturbing plotlines – fits the bill. On the other hand, David Byrne’s jubilant stage show, American Utopia, is upbeat and hopeful while acknowledging the challenges all around us. That show existed before the pandemic, but it somehow is perfect for its moment as captured on film by filmmaker Spike Lee. I see new fiction dealing with life during the pandemic in publications like The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Poet Hank Lazer’s 2020 collection of poetry, COVID19 SUTRAS, tackled the situation head-on in its early months.
Somehow, the writing influenced by the pandemic era is more meaningful than the deluge of daily headlines. They are tackling difficult times but provide a balm in its midst. Their efforts show me that, in a still isolated time, I am not alone and can always look to our shared artistic community for comfort and support in times of stress.
When I started this online journal, I did not plan for it to become political. But I didn’t plan for the current crises we are forced to navigate, either.
I think of dystopia when I worry that we are now living in one. Even so, there are silhouettes of deer grazing atop the hill and birds are chirping in the yard. There is peace for a moment.