Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Republic of the Future by Anna Bowman Dodd-Part Two

The Republic of the Future was first published in 1887. I have read it in an edition in which the author is uncredited (Rahway, N.J.: W.L. Mershon & Co., 1887). (The copyright is by O.M. Dunham.) It's a short book, only eighty-six pages in all. Each of the seven chapters takes the form of a letter from a Swedish nobleman named Wolfgang to his friend Hannevig back home.

The weakness in a utopian or dystopian novel is always that the author is so busy describing her perfect (or perfectly awful) society that she doesn't have time to tell a story. That's true of The Republic of the Future as well. The point isn't really to tell a story, though. Anna Bowman Dodd's point was that socialism is a recipe for misery, something we all ought to know by now but that we must seemingly learn anew with every generation.

Wolfgang the nobleman travels from Sweden, where people are free, to New York Socialistic City by way of an undersea tunnel. His first letter is dated December 1, 2050. He describes what he sees to Hannevig in epistolary form:
To connect the word enjoyment with the aspect of these serious socialists is almost laughable. A more sober collection of people I never beheld. They are as solemn as the oldest and wisest of owls. They have the look of people who have come to the end of things and who have failed to find it amusing. The entire population appear to be eternally in the streets . . . on the lookout for something that never happens. What indeed, is there to happen? Have they not come to the consummation of everything, of their dreams and their hopes and desires? A man can't have his dream and dream it too. (pp. 22-23)
One of the residents of New York explains to Wolfgang: "The State scientists now regulate all such matters [regarding eating]. Once a month our Officer of Hygiene comes and examines each member of the household. He then prescribes the kind of food he thinks you require for the next few weeks," after which prescription every person orders his or her food to be delivered by tube. (pp. 28-29) 
Some of the women are still pretty, in spite of their hideous clothes. But they all tell me, they wouldn't be [pretty] if they could help it, as they hold that the beauty of their sex was the chief cause of their long-continued former slavery; they consider comeliness now as a brand and mark of which to be ashamed. . . . I should say that the prettiness which has descended to some of the women fails to awaken any old-time sentiment or gallantry on the part of the men. There has, I learn, been a gradual decay of the erotic sentiment, which doubtless accounts for the indifference among the men. . . . (pp. 36-37)
The few men . . . whom I saw seemed to me to be allowed to exist as specimen examples of a fallen race. Of course, this view is more or less an exaggeration. But the women here do appear to possess by far the most energy, vigor, vitality and ambition. (p. 38)
A law was passed providing that children almost immediately after birth, should be brought up, educated and trained under state direction. . . . It has followed, of course, that with the jurisdiction of the state over the children of the community, all family life has died out. (pp. 39-40)
Break away from his past as hard as ever he may try, [the American] has still found himself heir to his past, and his heredity dominates him in spite of all his attempts to throw it off. (p. 46)
Well, if some of the ineradicable, indestructible principles in human nature could be changed as easily as laws are made or unmade, the chances for an ideal realization of the happiness of mankind would be the more easily attained. But the Socialists committed the grave error of omitting to count some of these determining laws into the sum of their calculations. (p. 56)
The longer I stay here the more I am impressed with the profound melancholy which appears to have taken possession of this people. The men, particularly, seem sunk in a torpor of dejection and settled apathy. (p. 58)
The race having been leveled to a common plane, there has been a gradual dying out of individuality. (p. 60)
. . . the entire population seems to have but one serious purpose in life--to murder time which appears to be slowly killing them. (p. 63)
All scholars, authors, artists and scientists who were found on examination to be more gifted than the average, were exiled. A strict law was passed . . . forbidding mental or artistic development being carried beyond a certain fixed standard, a standard attainable by all. (p. 66)
It is the State that directs all such ventures [involving trade and commerce]. But the State, for some reason or other, does not appear to be a success as a merchant or as a commercial financier. (p. 71)
The law of equality, with its logical decrees for the suppression of superiority, has brought about the other extreme, sterility. The crippling of individual activity has finally produced its legitimate result--it has fatally sapped the energies of the people. (p. 73)
. . . if men are to be made equal, such equality can only be maintained by the suppression of degrees of inequality. (p. 74)
An account from a history read by Wolfgang: ". . . for years the state penitentiaries were filled with men whose crime was their unconquerable desire selfishly to surpass their less fortunate brothers." (p. 75)
Wolfgang gives his assessment of socialist New York to one of the residents: "In attempting to make the people happy by insuring equality of goods and equal division of property, you have found it necessary to stultify ambition and to kill aspiration. Therefore a healthy, vigorous morale has ceased to exist. . . . Ennui is the curse of the land." (p. 84)
I have quoted at such length for a reason, for I think that these quotes and the book as a whole fairly describe our time, or as well as any bit of fiction from 1887 might. Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the Last Man from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (published 1883-1891) sounds like Anna's socialist American. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., returned to the theme in 1961 with his short story, "Harrison Bergeron," which begins:
          The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.
That equality is enforced by the United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, who I imagine looks like Kathleen Sibelius. The title character is taken away from his family because of his superior physical and intellectual abilities. His father, also superior, has a "mental handicap radio in his ear." Every twenty seconds it goes off, thereby scrambling his thoughts and making him incapable of dissent or rebellion. Harrison attempts a revolution, but . . . well, you just have to read the story. In fact you should read the story, as soon as you can.

* * *

It's interesting to me that Anna Bowman Dodd, who was more remote from our time than was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., set her story in 2050 vs. his setting of 2081--interesting in that she was more accurate in her prediction than he was. And before you say, "Aw, come on, that's not going to happen," consider the exact words of Adam Swift, a so-called philosopher of this very moment:
One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.
And on the issue of loving parents who read to their children, thereby bestowing upon them an advantage in life, Mr. Swift has this to say:
I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.
Oh, thank you, Mr. Swift, most high and exalted thinker, for this very special dispensation of allowing us to continue to read to our children.

* * *

Adam Swift's opinions remind me of a work written by another man named Swift. It was only a modest proposal when that Mr. Swift suggested that poverty and starvation in Ireland might be cured by eating children. Anyway, if you want to read about Adam Swift and his ideas, you can start with an article called "Is Having a Loving Family an Unfair Advantage?" by Joe Gelonesi, dated May 1, 2015, here. As for the question of happiness under a socialist regime, you might want to read "The Danish Don't Have the Secret to Happiness" by Michael Booth, dated January 30, 2015, here. A quote from that article from newspaper columnist Anne Sophia Hermansen of the daily Berlingske:
It is so boring in Denmark. We wear the same clothes, shop in the same places, see the same TV, and struggle to know who to vote for because the parties are so alike. We are so alike it makes me weep.
Here's another from Niels Lillelund of Jyllands-Posten:
In Denmark we do not raise the inventive, the hardworking, the ones with initiative, the successful or the outstanding; we create hopelessness, helplessness, and the sacred, ordinary mediocrity.
I don't know why they're complaining. These people live in a perfect society, one for which we should all be striving, one that we will have once we have laid waste to the past and have progressed into the glorious future. In fact you might even call that perfect society the Republic of the Future.

* * *

You can fairly say that I have cherry-picked from The Republic of the Future the quotes that best describe our current state of affairs. The book includes many predictions that have not come true or that are inaccurate. You might also say that the author, Anna Bowman Dodd, had a conflict of interest. After all, her father and husband were both merchants. Of course she would point out the flaws of a system that threatened her values and her way of life. That's what privileged people do. I would answer: Yes, Anna's father and husband were merchants, but people don't oppose socialism because it threatens to upset the apple cart of the current economy. They oppose it because socialism threatens human freedom and is destructive to the human spirit. And I would ask: How is economic freedom not freedom? Should we be content to give up our freedom of speech if all other freedoms are allowed to remain intact? How does that make any sense? I would say instead that a threat to any of our freedoms is a threat to all of our freedoms. Anna Bowman Dodd and people like her have pointed these things out. The people who today threaten those same freedoms don't like it. And that's why we hear all the name-calling and the whining about "reactionary" "attacks" on socialism. 

* * *

I'm still on the lookout for the first totalitarian in literature. The Republic of the Future doesn't provide him. But it does provide a prescient view of a future society, a society painfully like our own, and a warning that has gone unheeded by countless millions of people in this land of the free and home of the brave.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for October of 1961. The cover is by the great Chesley Bonestell. The dream of science fiction was that this would be our future. "Harrison Bergeron," which first appeared in this issue, now seems closer to the truth.

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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