Wanting is only human. Humans are only wants. My purpose is to see tiny seeds of wanting that I can magnify and satisfy. Then, because I am human, too, I will want stuff. The cycle is so beautiful. I will belong.
There but for the grace of God go I.
A statement often used in reference to misfortune. I'm lucky that's not me
. Many nations would use it to support their social and economic welfare programs; I'm willing to pay my share to take care of others because in different circumstances I might be the one in need
Except, I've also seen it used to describe an underlying attitude in the American psyche toward wealth. As this quote attributed to John Steinbeck says:
Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.
Kurt Vonnegut goes into at more length in Slaughterhouse-Five
America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, 'It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.' It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: 'if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?' There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.
This attitude and these quotes come to mind in response to a book I recently read, MARTians
by Blythe Woolston. A short description of the teen book reads: In a near-future consumer dystopia, Zoe Zindleman must choose from limited, bleak housing options, including a converted strip-mall refuge that offers safety and proximity to her new place of work, ALLMART
. I want to share it specifically for the long quote about politics at the end of my review, which also tells you a bit more about the book. Here's what I wrote:
This is a book of ideas. A slight character story overlaid on a world of big ideas. Amusingly sad; sadly amusing. Consider, for instance, its beginning:
Sexual Responsibility is boring.
It isn't Ms. Brody's fault. She's a good teacher. She switches channels at appropriate moments, tases students who need tasing--zizzz-ZAAPPP!--and she only once got stuck in the garbage can beside her teaching station. She was a teeny bit weepy that day, but no drunker than normal . . .
Zoe lives in a near future world where capitalism and corporatism have run amok. In school, we learn not only Sexual Responsibility but also Communication, Math, Corporate History, and Consumer Citizenship. Her high school, though, is suddenly closed. She and her peers are graduated early, and each assigned an appropriate future--including some straight to penitentiary. Zoe gets to choose between entry-level positions with AllMART and Q-MART. She returns home from school with her new diploma to find her mom is forced to move for work, leaving Zoe behind to finish attempting to sell their house. The last occupied house in their remote suburban subdivision, the other occupants having preceded her mom in the quest for employment. Zoe is the last girl living in Terra Incognita.
She finds the buses have stopped running to her area. Luckily, she is taken in by a former neighbor, who has found a home with other lost youth in an abandoned strip mall near work. So she is able to start her new life as an AllMART trainee. Which, she quickly discovers, is life as an AllMART "human resource," basically owned by the company and immediately in debt for her uniform and other work necessities.
Zoe's life is an extrapolation from dynamics currently at play in our world. Those things have been exaggerated, but they are far from invented, and the book is full of sharp social commentary. Zoe's story, while poignant, could have been longer, deeper, and fuller. That social commentary, though, is hilariously, depressingly spot on, and makes this entirely worth reading. Consider:
Governor: Congratulations, students, yes, congratulations. I'm pleased to announce that you are all, as of this morning, graduated.
My brain does the math: impossible. This message must be intended for another classroom, another school. We here in 2-B have another year and a half before we are fully educated and ready for the future.
Governor: In the interest of efficiency, your school . . . (glances at her phone) . . . Frederick Winslow Taylor High School, is closing permanently as of this date. Each student in attendance will have a personal appointment with the homeroom technician who will provide an e-tificate of graduation and a referral to an appropriate entry-level position. We are extremely proud of all of you on this occasion. Welcome to an exciting future.
Sallie Lee: Hello, viewers, this is Sallie Lee, Channel 42 News, the news you can use, with today's Big Story. Today we have a special guest, our Governor. Governor, today you privatized what was left of the public school system. (Looks directly at the camera.) Congratulations, graduates!
(Governor smiles, says nothing.)
Sallie Lee: Thanks to innovations like that, you have been able to balance the state budget. Congratulations, Governor! That's an accomplishment.
Governor: (Glances at her phone, smiles.) A balanced budget means nothing. I'm not stopping until the budget is zero. Zero is the only balance point that matters. There is no reason to take money away from people who earn it and then provide services they may not want. Why should I steal from your bank account and make your consumer choices for you? It's nuts. (Looks directly at the camera and shakes her finger.) I don't believe in government.
Chad Manley: . . . The real story tonight comes to us from the campaign trail, where the Governor is rolling out a new jobs program.
Governor: Jobs. That's what people want and that's why they vote for me. A vote for me is a vote for jobs. Jobs. Job creators. Today we are here to cut the ribbon on a new facility, one that will provide jobs. And not just jobs--we are putting criminals to work. This empty, useless building . . . (The Governor waves.)
Hey, I know that building. It is Frederick Winslow Taylor High School, where I spent 2,942 hours in Room 2-B. I guess it is empty and useless now.
Governor: This waste government property is going to be put to use as a guano-mining facility. We--our corporate partner is Bats of Happiness--have already seeded in the colonies of bats that will be producing black gold. By next week, the facility will be fully staffed, putting prisoners to work as productive citizens.
End review. The book is also the source of the quote at the top of this post.
Sharing the Governor's approach to politics is, as I said, the motivation behind and heart of this post. That's why I've put it in bold.
It's what I fear might be prophetic, given today's political landscape. Why do I think that? Many reasons. Here are a couple of recent articles that say more.
Forget Fascism. It’s Anarchy We Have to Worry About
It’s not Trump’s ability to marshal the forces of repression that should terrify us. It’s his inability to marshal forces to conduct even the most basic governance. Trump really is a presidential Joker. He knows how to wreak havoc, but he doesn’t seem to know how to do, or seem to want to do, much else. . . .
Of course he wants to accrue power, which may be what misled us into thinking he was a potential fascist. It’s just that he doesn’t seem to know how to do anything with it other than to promote himself and puff his ego, which means that everything crumbles around him. And of course, like most strongmen, he wants to do harm to the less powerful — to wit, immigrants and the poor — but it may be no accident that even his attempts at strong-arming turn out to have the opposite effect: chaos. . . .
Republicans never had a viable plan, not just about health care, but about anything, be it tax reform or energy or education. That is why their only remedies are less regulation and more tax cuts.
There is a good reason for this, and it isn’t incompetence, though there is plenty of that, too. Republicans may talk tough. They may tout the idea of conservative, market-driven solutions to our problems, but somehow, serious solutions never get presented because, frankly, Republicans don’t have any interest in them.
When you come down to it, Republicans are really anarchists dedicated to undermining government in the furtherance of an economic state of nature where the rich rule. What we saw these past few weeks was not the failure of Republicanism, as so many pronounced on Friday, but its logical and inevitable conclusion. Republicans are great at opposing things, destroying things, obstructing things, undoing things. They are really, really terrible at creating things because they have no desire to do so.
And now they have an anarchist-in-chief, someone who shares their government phobia . . .
There is, however, a method to this madness. Anarchism isn’t nihilism. By undoing government, anarchism undoes the only protection most Americans have against the depredations of the Trumps of this world and against the often cruel vicissitudes of life, like health crises. Take away government, and you strip away those protections. But take away government, and you also enable Trump and his fellow plutocrats to further enrich themselves because there would no mechanism to stop them. This has long been the Republican way: greed disguised as a fear of government overreach. Joker Trump and his Republican cronies are bent on deconstructing government to leave the rest of us defenseless against them.
Steve Bannon Wants to Destroy the "Administrative State." Neil Gorsuch Could Be the Key.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, White House strategist and former Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon laid out what he called the administration's "three verticals." These priorities included national security, economic nationalism, and "the deconstruction of the administrative state"—in other words, the evisceration of decades' worth of rules and regulations and the agencies that enforce them.
One of Bannon's biggest weapons in his battle against the federal bureaucracy? It may be Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump's nominee for the US Supreme Court.
"Judge Gorsuch's record points strongly in the direction of Bannon's ominous phrase, toward weakening the ability of agencies to protect our air and water, as well as worker safety and compensation," says Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center.
The Trump administration is attacking the regulatory state through executive orders and other executive branch efforts to stymie federal agencies. But Gorsuch—who seems like to be confirmed despite a Democratic filibuster—could help kneecap the system in one stroke if the right case comes up on the docket. . . .
Gorsuch's position on Chevron is more in line with the views of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito. This means if Gorsuch is confirmed, and the right case comes before the court, Chevron could be seriously endangered. The effect of this would be that already overburdened federal judges, instead of deferring to agencies on regulations covering everything from consumer protection to immigration, would essentially take on the job themselves if these rules become the subject of litigation—a situation Scalia himself once suggested would lead to "chaos." Much of the process of issuing and enforcing regulations could grind to a halt—an outcome that would surely please Steve Bannon.
So it may not come to pass. Will hopefully not come to pass. But current events are making Woolston's imagined future less imaginary than when her book was published in 2015.
Speaking of prophetic predictions about the future, this article also recently caught my eye:
The Smartphone Is Eventually Going to Die, and Then Things Are Going to Get Really Crazy
. . . Still, all those decade-plus investments in the future still rely on gadgetry that you have to wear, even if it's only a pair of glasses. Some of the craziest, most forward-looking, most unpredictable advancements go even further — provided you're willing to wait a few extra decades, that is.
This week, we got our first look at Neuralink, a new company cofounded by Musk with a goal of building computers into our brains by way of "neural lace," a very early-stage technology that lays on your brain and bridges it to a computer. It's the next step beyond even that blending of the digital and physical worlds, as human and machine become one.
Assuming the science works — and lots of smart people believe that it will — this is the logical endpoint of the road that smartphones started us on. If smartphones gave us access to information and augmented reality puts that information in front of us when we need it, then putting neural lace in our brains just closes the gap. . . .
I mention that one in conjunction with what preceded because it brings to mind another book, a recent classic of teen literature, M.T. Anderson's 1999 book Feed
. A short description: In a future where most people have computer implants in their heads to control their environment, a boy meets an unusual girl who is in serious trouble
. It contains sharp social commentary about rampant consumerism that has been internalized in more ways that one.
Here's what I wrote in my review:
I read this book when I was first getting into the world of young adult literature, and I've been recommending both it and Anderson ever since. Except I recently realized my memory of the book's specifics were rather vague, so I decided to give it another read from my current perspective. It didn't disappoint.
Anderson's range is amazing, particularly his ability to use entirely different language for each setting (see: Octavian Nothing
), and the language used by the characters in Feed
is our immediate guide to his future United States. The book begins:
We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arwaker was like, "I'm so null," and Marty was all, "I'm null too, unit," but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we'd been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them. So Marty told us that there was this fun place for lo-grav on the moon. Lo-grav can be kind of stupid, but this was supposed to be good. It was called the Ricochet Lounge. We thought we'd go for a few days with some of the girls and stay at a hotel and go dancing.
Anderson doesn't patronize his readers with omniscient narrator explanations, but lets us naturalistically experience the setting through the story and Titus's voice. He does this with his development of language as something living, from new slang to today's profanity becoming acceptable and more. Most importantly, the characters' inability to articulate their thoughts illustrates the impact of life with the feed, of having an Internet-connected computer implanted in their brains from birth, so there's no reason to learn and internalize facts or vocabulary because the feed is always there to fill in the blanks.
Of course, a feed costs money, so the price for having one is a constant (internal) bombardment of customized advertisements from the corporations who provide and maintain everyone's feeds. I said, "Do you mean . . ." I stopped, and tried, "That could be taken to mean that . . . you know . . . we . . ." My feed was like, "Tongue tied? Wowed and gaga? For a fistful of pickups tailored extra-specially for this nightmarish scenario, try Cyranofeed, available at rates as low as--"
There is no escaping the influence of the feed. Except for those too poor, who are then excluded from jobs, status, and just about everything. Feed is a stark, yet realistic vision of the future with an anti-consumer perspective and something to say about privilege and class.
But I get to this point in my review and realize I haven't even mentioned the story, which it most definitely has. A very good one, made all the more powerful and believable because of the language and setting I've gone into above. I'll let Titus describe it for you:
I told her the story of us. "It's about the feed," I said. "It's about this meg normal guy, who doesn't think about anything until one wacky day, when he meets a dissident with a heart of gold." I said, "Set against the backdrop of America in its final days, it's the high-spirited story of their love together, it's laugh-out-loud funny, really heartwarming, and a visual feast." I picked up her hand and held it to my lips. I whispered to her fingers. "Together, the two crazy kids grow, have madcap escapades, and learn an important lesson about love. They learn to resist the feed. Rated PG-13. For language," I whispered, "and mild sexual situations."
A reread has only confirmed to me that this is one to recommend. (A listen actually, to the meg youch audio production; very, very well done.)
A few years ago at a library convention I saw a panel discussion titled "Bleak New World: YA Authors Decode Dystopia." One of the panelists was blogger, journalist, author, and Boing Boing
co-editor Cory Doctorow
. He enthusiastically riffed on the idea that Dystopias have future settings to help us get enough distance from our surroundings to realize that they are cautionary tales about the present.
Sometimes it's hard to be optimistic and idealistic about the future.