I’m tempted to write a dystopian novel.
Imagine a country that is facing hard times, not the worst of times but far from the best. In this country, people debate whether torture is wrong and fellow citizens should be allowed to starve or suffer without medical care. Gangs within the population behave like barbarian looters or pirates, feeding their insatiable greed and abandoning any sense of community responsibility. The worst offenders, thieves in expensive suits, control an aptly-named place called Wall Street.
This country is a land where many great and good people lack conviction, although the worst surely do possess demonic intensity. Debates rage constantly about which people are good and which are bad. The country, which faces an ongoing deficit of moral self-awareness among the citizenry, is a place where trust in others is receding faster than an ocean tide, where people destroy the livelihoods of millions of families or hurt strangers, and then share their atrocities in e-mails or YouTube videos.
Leaders from both major political parties waste days in petty skirmishes over their competing utopian visions; they have forgotten that no utopian visionary ever convinces everybody that a particular vision is the right one. Some people remember why humanity invented democracy: to create a civic space for the inevitable disagreements to resolve themselves peacefully through compromise. But fanaticism pushes on, and the inevitable resistance creates paralysis and economic decay, which spawns frustration, which triggers intensifying cycles of mindless abuse, exploitation, and violence as people discard moral restraints.
Many of the young are adrift, with most struggling to find decent jobs and some increasingly unable to distinguish between hedonistic self-indulgence and positive growth. Many of the old grow fearful and maneuver to protect their narrow interests, their vision of the way things ought to be, against the historical reality of change.
Scientists from other countries make earth-shattering discoveries in areas where we canceled our research, because we were spending our money on bombs rather than on exploration. Social-networking software links people together and devours their time. A strain of mutually assured humiliation infects the entertainment industries. Movies integrate more “special” effects that are loud and bizarre yet add nothing meaningful.
The arrogance of privileged elites grows as evidence of their competence shrinks, or becomes harder to see or hear through the deluge of dysfunction vomited by infotainment shows. Catastrophic droughts engulf the land, flowers burn brown under the sun, yet scientific illiteracy remains each person’s birthright.
This country wars endlessly as its military-industrial complex relentlessly produces the tools of death. Wounded warriors return home to long lines for medical care or counseling, and many struggle to find jobs from the enterprises whose right to exist they battled to protect. This travesty of compassion and justice passes beneath the notice of other citizens, who are amused by their latest diversion.
Oppressed peoples in other countries topple dictators, and there is no jubilant celebration in the land of the free, because freedom, in the short term, might be bad for business. People also need their dictators to fear and to distract them from the decrepit buildings in their cities and towns.
Churches and human-services agencies labor to fill a bottomless pit of need, but they are overmatched and know it. Meanwhile, celebrities implode at regular intervals, athletes cheat to win, and by so doing deny themselves the sweetest fruits of victory, and spectators pretend that it all matters. People stumble through a haze of unhealthy choices, because one simply must fit in, weakness is the new normal, and nobody seems to care anyway.
In my dystopian novel, what everybody senses, and usually avoids talking about, is that civilization is teetering on the edge of the abyss as mutual disgust and learned helplessness cover the globe like a black shroud. There are no easy solutions to their society’s problems.
What will happen next? What choices will this country’s people make? Will they choose the paths that lead toward the pandemic violence which they haven’t experienced since their civil war? Or will they walk the path toward a renewal of seriousness and purpose? Will they choose to create a time of high drama and meaningful labor as they quit waiting for a leader-savior and all decide to contribute to human progress, the well-being of their families, and the vitality of their communities? Can such a novel somehow have a happy ending?
Surely this novel would rival the Harry Potter books in its popularity and profit-making potential because everybody knows that Americans love a good story more than boring reality.
This column appeared in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier on 23 July 2012.
Posted: Monday, 23 July 2012