Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Iron Heel and 1984-Part Seven

So here we are on the other end of a century that began with The Iron Heel. We don't have an Oligarchy or a Plutocracy in charge of things. On the contrary, we have a government headed by a leftist--a non-denominational leftist maybe, but a leftist nonetheless, aided and abetted by like-minded people. Some of those people came of age during the 1960s. I assume that, at the time, they stood in opposition to authority, especially governmental and academic authority. They presumably believed in human freedom. Now they find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: How can you be against power in government and academia when you're out of power, but be in favor of it when you're in power? How can you wish to assert your own freedom when you're on the outs, but once on the inside wish to compel other people to give up their freedom? The Who knew what they were talking about when they sang, "Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss."

Jack London was wrong about Oligarchy, yet many of his extrapolations have proved accurate. Why? Because, as Mr. Wickson in The Iron Heel points out:
"There is the word. It is the king of words--Power. Not God, not Mammon, but Power. Pour it over your tongue till it tingles with it. Power." (Signet, 1971, p. 65)
Despite labels, despite millions of words of ideology, it all comes down to the pursuit of power by men and women who are unhappy for as long as other people are free. They have a vision for the world--a utopian vision--and they will not rest for as long as the world and all of its people fall short of that vision. To them we are cattle and we must be driven, even if that means we are driven to the slaughterhouse of dystopia.

A hundred years ago, Jack London feared an Oligarchy, what some people might call a Fascist, right-wing, or reactionary totalitarian state. At mid-century, George Orwell feared a Stalinist, left-wing, or collectivist totalitarian state. Many people today--in their ignorance--believe those two things to be opposites. I would ask in response: How is totalitarianism the opposite of totalitarianism? Isn't freedom in fact the opposite of totalitarianism?

George Orwell's vision of the future has proved far keener than that of Jack London, but then Orwell is not so removed in the past. Many of his ideas have proved terrifyingly prescient, and his neologisms have passed into common usage: Big Brother, thoughtcrime, Thought Police, memory hole (1), doublethink, newspeak, duckspeak, Room 101. Fortunately, the dystopian future he warned against has not fully come about. It looks as though it won't, not because there are fewer totalitarians and more freedom-loving people in the world. On the contrary, totalitarians are at least as common now as they were in the twentieth century. The difference is that back then they used physical force to get what they wanted. The totalitarians of today have figured out they don't have to use torture or murder to make people comply. Instead they use their control of language and other tricks (as George Orwell foresaw) to force lies into truth and truth into lies, or crime, or an indicator of insanity. 

To that point, I'll draw your attention to an essay written by Mark Steyn, "Birth of the New," on Mr. Steyn's website Steyn Online, dated June 5, 2015. Mr. Steyn is known for his humor and erudition. His long essay closes with a tongue-in-cheek (or maybe not) reference to 1984:
What happened this week [regarding Bruce Jenner] was a strange mix of Huxley and Orwell, Brave New World and 1984, hedonism and totalitarianism, sexual diversity and ruthless conformity in everything else--a stiletto heel stamping on a human face, forever.
So if The Iron Heel hasn't come about and 1984 hasn't quite come about, then we arrive at a question: Is dystopia even possible? Or is the dystopian novel merely a kind of satire, or, alternatively, a description or diagnosis, a warning or Jeremiad? Will human beings really surrender their freedom? Will they comply with the requirements of totalitarianism? The evidence of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union suggests that there is an irrepressible desire among us to be free. I would say that the desire for truth and freedom is innate in human beings, an unalienable part of our nature. But what if the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov or Yevgeny Zamyatin's Well-Doer in We or Aldous Huxley's Controller in Brave New World is right, that in order to be what they call happy, people will give up everything that makes them human? Some people would say we're living in a dystopia right now. I wouldn't argue too hard against that idea. There are certainly signs of it all around us.

* * *

By the way, I just finished re-reading Brave New World. I prefer 1984, but Brave New World, with its masses of morons addled and dehumanized by drugs, hedonism, materialism, selective breeding, psychological conditioning, and mindless sloganeering, might be closer to the truth of our world today. If only they had Facebook and Starbucks their lives would be perfect.

* * *

I'm still searching for the first totalitarian in literature. He isn't to be found in The Iron Heel, in which the Oligarchy is a group of men and not led by one man possessed of absolute and arbitrary power.

* * *

I should point out that this whole series is predicated on the idea that utopias and dystopias--being about the future or asking the question what if?--are a kind of science fiction, hence within the realm of fantasy. I hope you're okay with that. If not, I have a table waiting for you in Room 101.

* * *

Finally, what does all this have to do with Weird Tales? I'll admit that I have been writing about what I want to write about in this series instead of anything to do with "The Unique Magazine" (except for in the first part about Vennette Herron). I might be stretching things by saying all this connects somehow and eventually I'm going to make my way back to Weird Tales. Between now and then, I'm planning to write about Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, William Gibson, Hugo Gernsback, Christiana Figueres, and maybe even Rajendra Pachauri, Hillary Clinton, and two doctors, Evil and Zachary Smith. So stay tuned.

(1) Ask Hillary Clinton about that one--I think her "private" computer server was manufactured by Memory Hole, Incorporated.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley in the Bantam edition (1953) with cover art by Charles Binger. I don't know who are the two who escape the "soulless, streamlined Eden." Nobody escapes from dystopia.

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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