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Thursday, 19 February 2015

Editorial: Is the USA a classic dystopia?

Editorial: Is the USA a classic dystopia?

I pondered for a while whether this fit into my blog's remit - this being, after all, a blog on entertainment, not politics, although the overlap between the two has always been considerable. I eventually decided that it did, because you can't truly talk about a dystopia, and what it means in real life, without talking about what it means in fiction, and how our media both mirrors and attempts to distance itself from situations in real life.

It's a question that bears asking, as well. Partly because, as the biggest producer and audience for dystopian fiction, particularly for young adults, it's worthwhile questioning whether such fiction inadvertently describes it. Mostly because for everyone who isn't American, it's very obvious how awful a place it is.

So, let's roll on with the characteristics of a dystopia.

1. Propaganda is used to control the citizens of society.

Seen in: 1984, Animal Farm.

Well, this one is startlingly relevant with the recent release of American Sniper, a film that is sheer and pure propaganda and exists almost entirely for the purposes of convincing people of the inherent moral goodness of killing people for your country, regardless of if they are soldiers, civilians, men, women or children. 

Those types of films come along every year, and they are as unpleasant as each other. Red Dawn, which borrowed its plot cues from Victorian propaganda novellas. Pearl Harbor, which erroneously portrayed the Japanese as attacking civilians. 

But it's not just American Sniper and its ilk - the thread of propaganda is, in many ways, an almost omnipresent one in US entertainment, and they manifest in myriad ways. When Rick Riordan writes book series in which the deities of Greece and Norway make their homes in the continental US, that carries a tinge of propaganda to it. When a TV series like Broadchurch is adapted almost scene for scene, but airlifted to the US so that the audience doesn't have cope with seeing something set outside their borders, that must necessarily carry a tinge of propaganda. When 24 portrays torture as supremely effective and justifiable in the face of destruction from nebulous, foreign forces, that is most certainly propaganda. Even a pretty benign series like Sleepy Hollow, which I deeply enjoy, comes equipped with the idea that the Founding Fathers of the US were a cabal of demon-fighting super-geniuses.

This has to be a yes, because the US propaganda machine works so hard that it is nigh impossible to escape.

2. Information, independent thought, and freedom are restricted.

Seen in: Pretty much every dystopian novel ever.

So, remember how every day for the entirety of their school lives, children are expected to chant a literal oath of fealty to a flag? That's kinda weird, and also, like any brainwashing process, an example of suppression of independent thought.

But it goes beyond that: The supply of information in the US is often radically different and more narrow than the rest of the world. Education provides a distorted form of history framed to place America in the most rosy light possible; information about events in other countries is so absurdly distorted that many people who were literally growing up while the Troubles in Northern Ireland were going on have no idea who the IRA or UVF even are, despite that conflict having completely revolutionised military and diplomatic approaches to conflict resolution worldwide, and is enormously relevant to current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

From an early age, Americans face massive restrictions on the information they receive and can access, and vehement suppression of independent thought, so this one is a yes too.

3. A figurehead or concept is worshipped by the citizens of the society.

Seen in: Bioshock Infinite.

The 'seen in' for this one is especially relevant, since Bioshock Infinite is riffing off the US' tendency towards this. It's exaggerating it, obviously - the US is not led by dictatorial prophet - but it is intended as political commentary on the hyper-religiosity of the US.

And for a secular country, the US' religious fervour is stark - not just for the Christian God, although there is certainly a strange fixation on him (with Baylor University conducting a survey that found that 65% of Americans had no doubt in God's existence, and a further 10% believing in him with some doubts), but for the nation itself. 

Entire philosophical movements have sprung into being around the idea of the US as a semi-mythical place styled after the biblical City On The Hill. Entire religious denominations born in America include in their mythology that Missouri is the location of the Garden of Eden, and that Jesus came to the US. 

This one has to be a yes.

4. Citizens are perceived to be under constant surveillance.

Seen in: THX 1138, Equilibrium, 1984.

This is a bit of an odd one, because perceived to be under constant surveillance is not the same as being under constant surveillance - and I'm not sure the latter is true, as that would be a logistical nightmare. Certainly, though, the US's surveillance state is bloated and invasive, with a succession of laws like the PATRIOT Act having practically made privacy meaningless.

But perhaps more alarming is the US' relatively high acceptance of surveillance. The Pew Research Centre found that 56% of Americans think it's acceptable for their cell records to be consistently tracked, and 45% thought it was acceptable for their e-mails to be monitored. When asked a general question as to which was more important, privacy or security, 62% said security.

That's a little terrifying, and does suggest that a majority of Americans do perceive themselves to be under constant surveillance, and are okay with that. So, let's go with a yes. 

5. Citizens have a fear of the outside world.

Seen in: Psycho-Pass, Bioshock Infinite. 

Actually, a colleague of mine literally did her dissertation on how the entire American idea of patriotism is in fact jingoism and nationalism. It's true, too: What Americans term 'patriotism', everyone else terms 'distasteful nationalism', of the sort usually associated with Germany of a certain era.

But fear, that is a different thing altogether. Anecdotally, I can say that I've observed deep anxiety over even the existence of other countries, discomfort at hearing about things being done differently. But if you want to see fear of other countries, you really need only look at how American media frames countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, North Korea, China, or even the UK.

Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea are frequently framed as imminent and terrifying threats to the US, with the US military as the only thing defending the freedom of its citizens, despite only one of those three having even a potential interest in harming the US, and none of those three having the capability. Russia and China are often framed as the two great arch-enemies of the US, poised to strike at any moment - but in truth, neither of them care about the US that much, with Russia's vim being directed at pretty much everywhere else in the entire world, and China's interest being mostly directed inward. 

It's just bizarre how often I see the UK framed as secretly hungering to reabsorb the US into its empire, despite the fact that I think if you offered the people of the UK that option, they would flee screaming in the other direction.

Even when the US doesn't view another country as intending to destroy them with military might, they are quick to cast them as threats. It took only a tiny amount of ebola cases in barely any African countries for the entire continent to be cast as a vast swarm of plague rats drawn inexorably towards US soil.

The US' views of other countries are defined by fear, ranging from discomfort and anxiety to outright terror, so this one, as well, has to be a yes. Fifth verse, same as the first.

6. Citizens live in a dehumanised state.

Seen in: 1984, The Hunger Games, Pretties.

If you want to see citizens living in a dehumanised state, you really need only look towards the US' treatment of black people. The shooting of Mike Brown, the choking of Eric Garner, and countless more atrocities are brutal and dehumanising events all on their own - but the total failure of the legal system to enact justice on their killers is as dehumanising, suggesting a state and a people that don't see a large portion of their citizenry as deserving the same basic human rights. 

That's not even getting into how the media treats black victims compared to white ones.

Nor is it just black people that the US dehumanises in this way. Muslims, LGBT people, women, Native Americans, any other non-white ethnicities - all are treated as less-than-human, less deserving of rights than the narrow section of society that the US assumes is the correct one. So this is undeniably a yes. 

7. The natural world is banished and distrusted.

Seen in: The Longest Journey, Blade Runner, Pretties.

Well, certainly the US is heavily industrialised, but so are most Western countries, and that doesn't necessarily mean that the natural world has been banished or is distrusted. That would suggest an utter revulsion or even outright terror at nature, and I don't think that really holds true, especially given that the characteristic refers to an extreme, ala seclusion in domes and suchlike. 

(In fact, the US has a thriving agricultural sector - not necessarily a healthy one, as like all US industries it's overwhelmingly dominated by the few - but certainly a thriving one.)

So, I'm going to mark this one down as a no.

8. Citizens conform to uniform expectations. Individuality and dissent are bad.

Seen in: Pretties, 1984. 

See Point 6, it's relevant to this.

But it goes beyond that, because uniform expectations implies things that people have control (or can be believed to have control) over - and it's true, US culture does enforce strict standards of uniformity. Its relative intolerance for religions other than Christianity is one such standard, its total intolerance of people being poor is another, and its deep distrust of anybody who doesn't vocally support the state is another.

So this one must be a yes.

9. The society is an illusion of a perfect, utopian world.

Seen in: Psycho-Pass, Bioshock Infinite, Pretties.

Much is made of the US as a utopia of freedom, wherein a person can achieve their dreams with just the sweat of their brow. Indeed, for much of its history, American philosophers and historians used the principle of American exceptionalism as a starting point when discussing the US and its place in history, more or less guaranteeing that it would always be presented as a utopia the likes of which the world has never seen.

I'm not sure many people believe that anymore. Probably some, but not many, so I'm going to place this one as a no, but I do so - reluctantly.

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