VANCOUVER ISLAND — CANADA Those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time analysing, criticising, chastising, and reproaching society either for a living or by temperament or both (as I do), seem to have a predilection, in our fiction reading anyway, for dystopian depictions.
Dystopian views of the world, of course, have venerable antecedents. Depending on your viewpoint or cynicism (or lack of it), one could argue that the very first example of the genre – a Utopian one, in fact, the very one for which the genre was named, was the novel Utopia by Saint Thomas Moore. The eponymous novel form had a following and, one can argue, quite a subsequent genre in the form of those romance novels that invariably provided happy endings before the inevitable nuptials.
The prototype, Utopia, published in 1516 in a religiously tumultuous Great Britain (More, himself, Lord Chancellor to Henry viii was beheaded for heresy on perjured testimony just a few years later, for defending Catholicism. This was at a time when Henry was desperately searching for a Catholic rationalisation for his divorce from Anne Boleyn. Not finding an ecclesiastical one, even with More scouring the literature assiduously on his behalf, Henry settled on making himself head of his own church, creating new rules, beheading the irritant and then permitting divorce in his newer, truer Christianity. For his failure to come up with a rationalisation that would have done the job within Catholic strictures, More’s last view of the London skyline was a rotating one as his head tumbled from the block).
With apologies for that aside, the history of utopian/dystopian literature has been a somewhat lopsided one. Very few utopian visions appeal to a majority, and much of their features have distinctly dystopian overtones for many of us.
One, if not the earliest, The Republic of Plato, is an exercise in postulating a perfect society. While it is hard to ignore the rigorous logic, psychology, anthropology, and application of justice that the attempt to thread the needle takes, Even Plato doesn’t expect the Republic to last indefinitely. While it is stable, relatively safe from wars or financial catastrophe, and the people would be content with their lot, Plato uses a few tricks to jam the pieces of the puzzle together.
To make it all work, Plato has his population divided into three classes: the Guardian Class, the police, soldier, militia class of citizen; the Artisan Class, the class that actually does stuff, the tinkers, tailors and candlestick makers, framers, street cleaners, cooks, artists, writers…everybody; Finally, the one you and I would belong to (Plato was talking to his contemporaries, after all, the Philosopher Kings…these are the intelligentsia, the ruling class, who by virtue of their superior intellect and civic sense of responsibility would exercise a benign rule and administration over the Republic.
The entire “Utopian” edifice rests on an assumption that there are certain types or classes of people, people who are unchanging and, if their immediate needs are met and superseded, will be satisfied with their lot, and if they feel that they are treated with fairness, dignity, and above all, justice, they will live lives of satisfactory fulfillment. That assumption, of course, conflicts with reality, as anyone who knows an accountant, who would rather be a cop, or a waitress who longs to be an actress, or a Prime Minister who would make a better dog-catcher, could attest.
Aldous Huxley addressed that exact issue in his utopian(?) book Brave New World. In the society he postulated in BNW, we are at first confronted with what appears to be a genuine utopia.
Imagine, if you will, a society in which there is no want and indeed, only luxury. Certainly there are different tastes and different desires in this society, but that is expected and accounted for. Think of the movie Titanic (1997). The people below decks, in steerage, have every bit as rollicking a good trans-Atlantic passage (at least until they get to the Newfoundland Icefields) as did the white-tie and diamond bedecked upper deck denizens. Such is BNW. Society is divided in prenatal laboratories and then in class divided crèches into different segments with infants of different intelligences where they are programmed to have different desires, ambitions and aspirations.
Some of society’s citizens will be predisposed to be thrilled at the prospect of a night at a hockey game followed by a raucous evening of post-game beer-drinking and analysis. They will be content, indeed, delighted with their occupation as computer programmer or mechanic and will each be at the point of being Peter Principled. Given sufficient levels of this planned society, there ought to be no systemic dissatisfaction. Of course, in a complex human society, there is always room for some individual instances of transient dissatisfaction. That’s where SOMA comes in.
For those moments when anxiety, dread, anger, or any other negative emotion dares raise its ugly head, this world that hath such people in it, seems to have a limitless supply of a pharmaceutical that softens any and all of the rougher edges of the perfect society. SOMA is non-addictive, apparently has no lethal threshold, and is recommended when any…ANY…less than tranquil, copacetic emotion crops up. Feeling a little crabby? Maybe a half SOMA would be in order. A full-blown panic attack? Go ahead, take two. SOMA seems to restore one’s psyche to a calm, reflective, logical, emotionally sanguine condition. There is apparently no cognitive impairment, soporific (unless one is unduly agitated), or negative residual effect from SOMA. The perfect drug. Never mind that BNW turns out to be a dystopian rather than utopian novel (SOMA notwithstanding), the point is that dystopian world visions are far more commonplace than are the opposite – world visions of an ideal rather than a demonic nature. The truth is that there are far more ways for things to go wrong than right; far more ways to piss people off than to please them.
Among the results is the proliferation of dystopian books. Pretty much any book that offers an alternative history, or corresponding reality, or alternative universe, can be assumed to offer a bleak reality with corresponding events that are replete with more angst and fear and loathing than the current one. And this one, of course, cannot really be judged, as there IS no alternative reality or no easily accessible reality, anyway, outside of the imagination.
And, frankly, the current one is becoming as dystopic as the most cynical among us could hope for.
This being a brand new year, I’m disinclined to start with a litany of societal ills, or the growing evils that inhabit the world in which we have to perform our daily dance for the cynical amusement of whatever gods we might worship. It’s wretched and ugly, and lacking in human decency and compassion and it’s getting uglier every day. So in honour of the new year, I’ll leave most of that low-hanging fruit for another day…I’ll just focus on a single example of the tawdriness and selfishness of today’s society, and the fact that we choose this shabbiness over what could be marginally less soul-eroding and maybe even a tiny measure inspiring.
Rarely in our lifetimes has there been so much unemployment and poverty amid such wealth and opulence in our society. Never has there been such a well-educated and ambitious generation of youth facing such a rugged obstacle course simply to enter the mainstream; something that the post-war generation has always considered a birthright. Nevertheless, as the ambition of these young, educated, and potentially productive starry eyed job aspirants to society manifests itself as job seeking, they encounter the drawbridge mentality. The drawbridge mentality is that inclination demonstrated by the mediocre who take the position that now that their positions are secure, it’s best to pull up the drawbridge and keep the barbarians from entering the promised land. This attitude is with respect to barbarians that are, in fact, our children and our neighbours’ children; it also has to do with a “promised land” which is our shared birthright but is being treated as a personal fiefdom by those who have managed, through whatever means, to have breached the walls and ensconced themselves within.
Still, the young people, hungry to participate in the good life that they see on TV and all around them every day, keep on trying. Meanwhile, they are treated with contempt by those who already have that for which they are striving with every breath they take. Get a job, lazy bastards! Kids today don’t know the meaning of work! And if they should have the temerity to access any of the social safety net that we have long ago determined to be necessary and for which we have worked so hard to create and maintain? The stigma is palpable. They are sneered at and they are marginalised; they have become “takers” rather than “makers” and those who have snuck into the citadel and are now in a position to avoid paying taxes treat them as the cause of all our economic woes? The solution they offer is brilliantly simple….cut them off; diminish whatever minimal resources are available to help alleviate the situation. Repeat the mantra that those trying to join the ranks of normal society are the reason there are economic problems to begin with. Not to be resoundingly obvious, but Logic 101 would tell you that thinking that way is a classic example of confusing cause and effect.
That attitude, I’m afraid, isn’t going to change soon. There is little that can encourage those who find themselves in a position of superiority to accept that others are as good as they are and every bit as entitled to their share of the society that was built jointly by their forbears. But maybe – I, for one, doubt it – just maybe, we can be a little more respectful of our fellow citizens.
We all know that communication, both spoken and written is immeasurably easier than it was a few decades ago. When I first started working in the real world, you couldn’t possibly do my job or that of most white collar drones without a secretary. For those who are to young to remember what that was like, forget all those old Jack Lemmon movies or 50s and 60s TV sitcoms. While some secretaries did, in fact, bring the boss a coffee, their primary function was handling correspondence.
Where we might today bash out a five line email, we used to dictate the same letter either into a Dictaphone or to a short-hand secretary. She would then, on a typewriter, transcribe, lay out and punctuate the letter on the appropriate letterhead over one or more sheets of carbon. The original would come to me for proofing and if there were any revisions, she would probably have to start over….if it was minor, she may have been able to do some remedial work with White-Out and make it acceptable. Once approved, I’d sign it, she’d fold insert, stamp and mail the original and then file the copies.
Now, correspondence secretaries don’t even exist, because even the most indulged CEO has his own email account and writes and even files much of his or her own correspondence. That’s come about not because the workplace has become more egalitarian or because executives are less indulged than formerly, but because it’s easier. And that said, there is no excuse for the prevailing policy toward applicants for advertised positions.
Despite the obvious fact that even if a company’s HR department were to receive literally thousands of replies to an advertisement for an entry level position, it would still take the person responsible for hiring hours to read through and short list the potential candidates, responding to every applicant would take only moments. Whereas in the past one could be assured of – at the very least – a form letter thanking you for your application and offering encouragement, today the advertisements almost invariably close with a sentence that informs potential applicants that although their interest is appreciated, only short-listed candidates will even be contacted. Those advertisements that don’t contain the warning simply toss aside all non-starting letters of application. For this, there is no excuse…except arrogance and a “fuck you, Jack, I’ve got mine” attitude.
Over the years I have advertised literally hundreds of times and received applications for positions ranging from research assistant to high school teacher. Both when I had a secretary and in the current eon, I answered every single one of them. Once, when the advertisement elicited over a thousand responses, I admit that I wrote a form letter, but I signed every one and I kept every single application on file and referred to them at subsequent times I needed staff, and I made a genuine effort to consider who might be interested in the candidate and forwarded the CVs to potential employers. It took a little more time but I slept better and I hope some others did as well.
What I didn’t do was leave a group of sincere, possibly desperate, job seekers indefinitely twisting in the wind with no idea whether the letter had even been received, let alone reviewed and rejected or considered. It was a small gesture but it made a small section of the world marginally less inhuman and maybe softened the blow of rejection by an infinitesimal increment. That is just courtesy. And that is the purpose of courtesy. It doesn’t, in any overt, obvious way, add to efficiency or contribute directly to anyone’s bottom line. But it does make the world ever so slightly easier to bear.
And that is my New Year’s wish. I wish we would all try to exercise that little degree of courtesy, even kindness, that makes the lives of others a little less unpleasant. It’s time we gave a thought to those who have less than we do and recognised that a small effort on our part can make a big difference in their lives.
Happy New Year everyone!