December 8, 2016

The other day my sister pointed out that the comparisons bouncing around social media between Donald Trump and Voldemort were inapt—that really, Trump is more like President Snow from The Hunger Games. This seemed right to me, but more importantly, her comment made me ask myself this: Are we already living in a dystopia?

My answer was clear and has three parts:

  1. I am not;
  2. About half of Americans are (or feel like they are, which is probably the same thing);
  3. We are standing at a fork in the road beyond which either we will all be sucked into the dystopia or we will maintain our usual—and survivable—balance between progress and dysfunction.

But really—is dystopia the right word? I have read countless dystopian novels and watched my share of dystopian movies and t.v. shows. Our cultural conception of dystopia usually involves some combination of these elements: (a) environmental catastrophe, (b) an uncontrollable pandemic, (c) an autocratic regime—and the consequent elimination of civil rights, (d) widespread economic suffering, (e) violent infighting among the masses, (f) virtual worlds of spectacle in which people find respite and distraction from their incapacitating reality, and (g) artificially intelligent overlords or enemies.

The United States—and the world more broadly—currently faces an increasingly unstoppable (a), a probable (c), increasingly entrenched (d), increasingly virulent (e), and increasingly powerful (f)’s. Thankfully, pandemics and AI overlords aren’t really an issue at the moment, but you never know.

I don’t think it’s a distortion to say that the election of Donald Trump is a symptom of serious real dystopian social, economic, political, and environmental trends. It is also not an overstatement to say that his ascent to the Presidency (and the one-party state we will inhabit for at least the next two years, but probably longer than that) could tip us over the edge into a full-scale dystopia, not just a partial one.

The more I read, the more I realize how little I’ve understood the great betrayal both parties have perpetrated on the mass of the American people. The economic-political complex is so thoroughly and insidiously rigged against the lower 90% that it will take a revolution of some kind (hopefully one that preserves our institutions, at least the functional ones) to reverse the concentration of wealth and power. The unsustainable inequality we face is the primary driver of our current/coming dystopia. We must absolutely ensure that public figures who understand this crisis (a) rise to power, and (b) hold to their principles.

To many millions of Americans, the idea that their existence might become unbearable, that their hopes might get dashed, and that their potential might be squelched at some hypothetical future moment when “things get really bad” is laughable. It has already happened to them. It’s sad, but not surprising, that they have latched onto an Unreality Show icon who will undoubtedly make their lives worse.

Sure, we are not at Mad Max or Hunger Games levels of dystopia. We are not characters in our own version of The Stand or The Road. But we need to stop thinking of dystopian futures as something only possible long after we’re gone. Let’s call it like it is—or might soon be—and acknowledge the seriousness of our predicament. Maybe we won’t be able to stop environmental catastrophe, but we can fight for greater economic opportunity. Maybe we can’t predict a pandemic or an omnipotent AI, but we can stand up against autocracy and condemn violent infighting.

Remember this: Orwell thought 1984 was a possibility in Nineteen…eighty…four. Maybe if we had taken that message more seriously then we wouldn’t be where we are now. Let’s not let 2016 be the new 1984. Let’s turn down the right path and make sure 2048 dawns with dystopia vanquished for at least another generation. Of course, we could all be living in The Matrix by then, in which case our impulse-tweeting orange-haired demagogue will be the least of our worries. Hopefully, for far better reasons, he is just a long-forgotten nightmare.