The two most read dystopian novels in English are 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Despite the common vision of a totally controlled society they are fundamentally different. In Orwell’s nightmare vision, people are controlled by what they fear, but in Huxley’s, they are controlled by what they desire.
I would say that America is tending in both directions at once. After 9/11, the regulatory state, already bloated, has started becoming a security state. Torture, assassination and imprisonment without trial became acceptable (at least to the government) and the executive branch has made clear that it will use these methods even against American citizens. If there were another large terrorist attack on U.S. soil, it is quite credible that our society might tip over into a “permanent state of emergency” style of dictatorship. This is more similar to 1984.
Preventing Orwell’s vision from being realized is an urgent concern, but in the long run I think the more likely threat comes from the Huxleyan direction.
It’s easy to dismiss the threat of a Brave New World-like order, because many of the “innovations” of Huxley’s 26th century do not exist in our world: We do not hatch all babies from bottles, we have not abolished marriage and family, we don’t divide people up into Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon castes, and we do not have the perfect drug, Soma.
But of course, Huxley wasn’t really warning us against these literal specifics. They were not even on the horizon in 1932, when he published his novel. What he is warning us against is the danger of basing society on safety and pleasure and being willing to foreswear passion and risk to do so.
Have we no tendency in this direction?
Promiscuity is a Citizen’s Duty
We have not gone so far as to abolish romantic love, but dating is on the decline in favor of “hooking up,” temporary arrangements with NSA (no strings attached). Furthermore, the “enlightened” attitude is that any sexual proclivity is acceptable as long as it is practiced “safely.” I stopped reading the advice column “Savage Love” at about the time its author defended drinking other people’s urine, if that’s what thrills you. He got a doctor to say it was safe, you see, so that made it OK.
Huxley’s characters do not practice anything so blatantly degrading, but they do celebrate orgies. No doubt they have wiped out sexually transmitted diseases, so that makes it OK.
The similarities to Brave New World are not all driven by a desire for pleasure and security. The (understandable) desire of women today to establish themselves professionally is pushing back the childbearing years so far that assisted reproductive technologies somewhat similar to Huxley’s have to be used in some cases. It’s just a matter of time before an artificial uterus will allow women who can afford it not to have to carry babies at all. I seriously doubt that most women would want to forego the connection they feel to their unborn child, but some ambitious and/or rich ones will. It could become a trend.
Moreover, the divorce rate and the frequency of childbirth out of wedlock demonstrate that relationships and commitment are in decline. We’re not to the point where they only last a week or two, as in Huxley’s world, but the idea of a lifelong passionate partnership does seem to be on the wane.
Safety is Our Watchword
I mentioned before that any sex is OK (in some people’s eyes) as long as it was safe sex. Safety is an obsession in our society. You can get arrested for driving your child around without a car seat, even though people over 30 or so managed pretty much just fine without car seats as children.
Speaking of safety, I remember reading about how some concerned people started handing out bottles of water at “raves,” dances where the drug Ecstasy is consumed, because dehydration is a serious risk when exertion and E are mixed. Apparently, drugs are OK as long as they are used safely. No, we don’t have Soma, Huxley’s perfect narcotic with no side-effects, but pot and E come pretty close, and there is a very casual attitude among young people toward using them. A student I knew at George Washington University once defended to me her friends’ use of marijuana. They only partook on the weekends and they studied really hard during the week. It’s not a problem if it doesn’t keep your from working hard when you need to and you use it to unwind. This is not the drug use of the pothead or stoner, but rational, controlled use, and that makes it OK. Huxley’s characters use their drug the same
Digging Holes and Filling Them Up Again
Brave New World is based on a kind of Keynesian economics where innovation and efficiency are often eschewed so as to maintain full employment. Their society creates “semi-moron” members of the Epsilon caste to operate elevators instead of just having automatic elevators. Only games (such as the hilariously named Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy) that require extensive equipment are allowed.
Is this kind of thinking so different from the thinking that has underwritten the bailouts and stimulus packages? What’s important is making work and keeping the wheel turning, not actually using capital and labor efficiently. Efficiency is secondary, because on our view and Huxley’s, the economy is driven by consumption, not production. We, and Huxley’s citizens, don’t want real progress. What we want is social stability. Moreover, people in the twenty-sixth century, like people increasingly now, are driven by an anticipation of consumption rather than an ambition toward production.
What’s on the Feelies Tonight?
In Brave New World, a “savage” named John is brought to civilization from a reservation. He is not like the other inhabitants of the reservation, who are Indians; his parents were from “civilization” and his mother was stranded there, accidentally impregnated and forced to carry the baby, which normally would have been aborted, to term. She teaches the child to read and he gets his hands on a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, which he memorizes. Although he holds some truly awful religious ideas, such as self-flagellation, which he has gotten from the Indians, he is Huxley’s representative of the twentieth-century viewpoint in the world of the future.
John is amazed at the puerility of “civilization.” Except for one of the World Controllers, who has a library of forbidden works, no one knows anything about Shakespeare or any other artifact of culture. As a teacher in the real world, I am constantly amazed by what my students (all college graduates) don’t know. A couple of our readings in class involve Richard Wagner. All the students I have asked to read these passages aloud have mispronounced his name, and when I have polled the room, 90% of them say they have never heard of him. (Although when I hum “The Ride of the Valkyries” they usually know that.)
Ignorance of higher culture is bad enough, but our popular culture is often far worse. Look at the state of contemporary television. It’s true that our best shows are among the best shows ever (e.g. The Wire and Mad Men), but the worst shows today, which vastly outnumber the good ones, are among the worst shows ever. I am referring to reality TV and to what you might call horror TV. The Jersey Shore, The Real World, and Keeping up with the Kardashians are far worse than The Beverly Hillbillies or even Gilligan’s Island. I could easily see Huxley’s future including reality TV, with its gossip, shallow idiosyncrasies and attention to utterly unimportant events in utterly unimportant people’s lives. The chattering quality of the genre fits right in with the atmosphere of Brave New World.
It is obvious that many, perhaps most, Americans no longer feel that they have to hold themselves up to any kind of cultural standard. Even bare logic has gone by the wayside. A show like the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, which started out as chic science fiction, descended into mysticism and ever-more-twisted plot contrivances. J. J. Abrams’ Lost had about as much logic and realism as a peyote-induced hallucination.
But many people get caught up in these shows. They don’t know any better. They don’t have the attention spans for anything more sophisticated. I once praised Mad Men to a group of smart and educated (but young) co-workers. Only one had seen it. She agreed that it was good, but said that nothing much happened in it. I guess it didn’t feature enough explosions.
One innovation in Huxley’s world is the “feelies,” which are movies where you can physically feel things along with the characters. Needless to say, this is used to sensationalistic ends, with scenes such as making love on a bearskin rug. Well, we don’t have the feelies yet, but we do have IMAX, which is a similar idea.
We love spectacle more than ever, but where half a century ago, spectacle would have meant Lawrence of Arabia or Spartacus, which were meaningful stories with interesting characters, now it means The 300 or The Dark Knight Rising. In a kind of gruesome irony, comic book movies are becoming almost the only way we can have a moral theme in the movies at all. Movies with any moral complexity, such as Bridge on the River Kwai, the original Flight of the Phoenix and Cabaret, are much less common as major motion pictures, although the indies still keep such things alive on a smaller scale.
Sending a Message
One noteworthy feature of Brave New World is the use of hypnopedia and conditioning on children. Recorded moral precepts are whispered under their pillows as they slept, and electric shocks are used as aversion reinforcers on some. Members of the lower castes who are destined for exclusively urban life are conditioned to hate nature, for example.
We don’t go this far, of course, but there are similarities between Huxley’s world and ours in this area. Some people think they can make their babies smarter by playing Mozart for them, an idea rather like conditioning. This is harmless, because, Mozart is a good thing to expose children to, even if it doesn’t make them smarter.
Less harmless, unfortunately, is the belief that if we reinforce a child’s self-adoration at every turn, it will foster better self-esteem, ambition and drive. According to Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, what it creates is narcissists. Twenge and Campbell mention a ditty that many kindergarten teachers like to teach their charges. It goes like this: “I am special, I am special, Look at me, Look at me.” What’s the takeaway from that song? I wonder. It also sends the wrong message to give every child in the sports league a trophy. T-shirts for four-year olds that say “Princess” or “Rock Star” are not devised to foster realism in the young.
Narcissism isn’t a problem In Huxley’s world, where children are programmed for social stability, but it is in ours because they are programmed to reach (somebody’s idea of) success. That is a significant difference. But the common element between Huxley’s world and ours is the belief that children are programmable.
It might be retorted that parents have always tried to train their offspring. True, but the way the inculcation of “self-esteem” works, it is more of an attempt to hypnotize the child into believing something rather than encouraging achievement as the foundation for true self-esteem.
Greek Letters, Not a Fraternity
At this point a reader might protest that, while there are similarities between Huxley’s world and ours, there are crucial differences, too. In Huxley’s world they have a caste system and we don’t. Everyone in the future is engineered in the bottle to be an Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta or Epsilon, with the Alphas being brilliant and the Epsilons being “semi-morons.” We have nothing like this, right?
Well, we certainly don’t plan anything like this, but we do have something a bit like it and we do subtly and not-so-subtly encourage it. I am referring to both the Advanced Placement track in high school for the “Alphas” and the deplorable public high schools for the “Deltas” and “Epsilons.” We are perfectly content to doom a certain segment of the population, usually black and Hispanic, to a limited level of performance rather than to figure out how to lift them out of it. We are content to have a reliably available group of people to drive the buses and tend the lawns.
To some extent this situation is an unintended byproduct of century-old trends in American education, such as progressivism, which hold back Alphas and Epsilons alike. But as the saying goes, when a white person gets a cold, a black person gets pneumonia. We could improve everyone’s education, and that might ensure that truly no child gets left behind. Progressivism, I might add, was largely driven by social considerations. Instead of doing the moral thing and lifting up disadvantaged children, especially the black children who are disadvantaged largely because of what society did to their forebears, we have reached a disturbing pass where the Alphas and the Betas find the Deltas and the Epsilons amusing and even emulate their underclass style of baseball caps, hand gestures and music.
Not only does this demonstrate that the “top” of our society does not really know what to do with itself when it’s not at work, but also it demonstrates that the differences between top and bottom are accepted even embraced by a large segment of the population. (Let me hasten to add, that when I refer to Alphas and Epsilons in our world I do not mean actual levels of intelligence so much as education and social standing.)
The Consequences of Getting It Slightly Wrong
So how did our society get to be like Huxley’s? In answering this question I take my cue from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Our society, or “regime” as Bloom calls it, is based on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and especially John Locke who put the fear of violent death and a desire for comfort above all other values. What is required to achieve these ends is a society based on the needs of the body in this world, not the soul in the next. Note that in Hobbes’ and Locke’s way of thinking, we should be more avoiding a negative than seeking a positive.
For a long time, the ideal man was to be found in Locke’s vision of a prudent, reasonable person who was industrious and not self-indulgent. You might say that this ideal was necessary to build up to a self-sustaining level of comfort. In recent decades we have reached that level. At least we think we have, judging by the low rate of savings and the high rate of consumer debt in the U.S. We believe that we can afford to be self-indulgent.
Hobbes explicitly and Locke implicitly turned their back on religion and honor and other divisive and distracting features of the old regime. We have done them one better by deciding that a concern with spiritual matters (and I do not mean just religion) is passé. Popular culture has come into its own. Comic books are now studied in the universities. Using what I call the DeCurtis principle, after Rolling Stone reviewer Anthony DeCurtis, anything is serious if it is taken seriously.
Using this principle, it will not be necessary to ban Shakespeare, as they have done in the 26th century. All we have to do is elevate Batman to the same level. Then why bother with Shakespeare when Batman is so much easier—so much more . . . accessible?
Much of how we view high culture is based on social considerations, as it is in Huxley’s world. Some academics want to expand the “canon,” not on the basis of merit, but of race and sex. No doubt there are worthy works by women and minority authors that have been neglected, but it should be the worthiness that is the deciding factor for teaching them. Race and sex shouldn’t enter into it at all. These academics are not using considerations of stability, as in the 26th century, but of equality. But doesn’t that amount to the same thing?
In sum, what our society and Huxley’s have in common is that both value safety and pleasure above pretty much anything else, both think consumption rather than production drives the economy and the spirit, both devalue love and commitment, both are satisfied with sensations and eschew art, and both accept an implicit or explicit caste system. Considerations of comfort and social stability matter more than passion and ideals.
The picture I paint of our world is not pretty, but it does appear to be what we wanted. Perhaps it is even the society we deserve. Are there countervailing trends that could save us from ourselves? I will look for some and get back to you.