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Trump Rex

In retrospect, it’s no surprise that, after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, dystopian fiction enjoyed a spike in popularity. However, novels like George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which soared on Amazon, would prove more horror stories than roadmaps. Like so many ominous sounds from a dark basement, they provided good scares but didn’t foreshadow the actual Trumpian future.

Of course, it didn’t take an Orwell or an Atwood to extrapolate from the statements of candidate Trump to the policies of President Trump — and such projections bore little resemblance to the worlds of Big Brother or an all-powerful patriarchy. Many Americans quickly began bracing themselves for something quite different: less totalitarian than total chaos. There would likely be unmitigated corruption, new wars, and massive tax cuts for the wealthy, along with an unprecedented reduction in government services and the further concentration of power in the executive branch. And it was a given that there would be boastfully incoherent presidential addresses, as well as mockery from officials in countries that had only recently been our closest allies. A Trumpian dystopia would be a Frankenstein monster constructed of the worst parts of previous administrations with plenty of ugly invective and narcissistic preening thrown in for bad measure.

And yet, there was still a lingering hope that those unsettling noises from the basement were just the equivalent of a broken furnace — annoying and expensive to fix, yes, but nothing like a living, breathing monster. Trump, after all, was going to be a singularly incompetent leader, or so his multiple bankruptcies and failed ventures suggested. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to do that much damage tweeting from the White House or phoning in from the links. And even if his minions in Congress did manage to push through some disturbing legislation, the guardrails of democracy would continue to contain his administration, and dystopias would, for the most part, remain the stuff of scary novels, not everyday life.

For many Americans, a Trump presidency did indeed usher in harder times. The earnings of farmers, dependent on exporting their crops, plummeted during the trade war with China. Nearly 700,000 people were poised to lose access to food stamps. Hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees from Haiti, El Salvador, and other countries faced the loss of their temporary protected status.

Still, many of those farmers received government subsidies to offset their losses and the courts blocked the administration from following through on some of its cruelest immigration policies, at least postponing the worst nightmares. Meanwhile, the 2018 midterm elections signaled a possible post-Trumpian future, as the Democrats, led by a crew of new women candidates, won control of the House of Representatives. Admittedly, the ultimate failure of the impeachment effort was a setback, but it was still just a matter of holding on for less than a year until election 2020 and then quite possibly waving the Trump era farewell.

That has now all changed.

Thanks to the coronavirus, dystopia is here, right now — but with a twist. As science fiction writer William Gibson once so aptly put it, “The future has arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” In April 2020, the same applies to our new world.

Pandemic

Dystopia arrived not with a bang, but a cough. The culprit wasn’t a looming monster or a totalitarian state, but a microscopic speck that’s technically not even alive. And that basement, by the way, turned out to be far-off Wuhan, the Chinese city where the novel coronavirus first appeared. With Hubei province overwhelmed by sickness and death, China responded by using the powers of a centralized state to shut down everything — from travel to restaurants, public gatherings to dissent — in a draconian fashion.

The Trump administration chose to ignore those warnings.

Meanwhile, given the level of international travel in a globalized economy, other countries soon became hotspots. South Korea used technology — widespread testing, contact tracing, and apps to monitor quarantining — to contain the problem. Iran’s initial poor response, even as members of its leadership took sick and in some cases died, was compounded by punitive Trump administration sanctions. The hospitals in northern Italy were overwhelmed by Covid-19 and the government suddenly shut down the country in a belated attempt to stave off disaster.

Still, Washington dawdled. Trump and his crew squandered 70 full days during which they could have implemented valuable lessons being painfully learned elsewhere in the world.

Now, Covid-19 has decisively put the lie to American exceptionalism. Not only can it happen here, but it’s happening here, far worse than anywhere else. The United States is adding upwards of 30,000 new infections daily, twice the rate of China on February 12th, that country’s worst day, and nearly five times what Italy faced at its peak on March 20th.

Meanwhile, adding depression to disease, the U.S. economy has crashed. Claims for unemployment benefits have risen by an astounding 17 million in just three weeks, pushing the jobless rate close to 10% (and still rising fast). Yes, the whole global economy is taking a hit, but other countries have moved in more sensible directions. China’s blunt-force quarantine has now enabled it to restart its economy, South Korea’s pinpoint approach has so far avoided a full-scale economic lockdown, and Denmark has paid its companies directly to maintain their payrolls and retain workers during the downturn of self-isolation.

In other words, in true dystopian fashion, Washington has managed to fumble both its response to the pandemic and its potential economic recovery plan. Presidential incompetence, incomprehension, and intransigence have been key to these glaring failures. The myriad defects that Donald Trump displayed from his first day in the White House, then largely grist for the monologues of late-night talk-show hosts, have now turned truly tragic. They include his stunning disregard for science, his undeniable compulsion to spread misinformation, his complete refusal to take responsibility for anything negative, his thoroughgoing contempt for government, and his abrupt vacillations in policy.

Most of all, the president exhibited extraordinary hubris. Out of a belief in his own infallibility, he thinks he knows better than the experts, any experts, no matter the topic.

As it happens, he doesn’t.

In ordinary times, such an epic fail might bring thousands, even hundreds of thousands, out into the streets to protest. Not in this pandemic moment, however. Most Americans, if they can, are now sheltering in place, watching a dystopian scenario unfold in real time on their screens and expressing gratitude to front-line workers who are suiting up to fight the microscopic monster every day.

When the world outside becomes too much to bear, we escape into stories. Right now, however, dystopian fiction about other times and places just doesn’t do the trick. Instead, desperate to understand how and why this fate has befallen us, we’ve been watching films about infectious disease. In early March, 2011’s Contagion became the number one streaming movie of the moment, while Outbreak recently cracked Netflix’s top 10 even though it came out 25 years ago. And when we’re not streaming, we’re reading novels about epidemics that, from Camus to Crichton, are back on bestseller lists.

Don’t be surprised if you’re feeling a nagging sense of déjà vu. Bingeing on stories about plagues during a plague? Doesn’t that ring a bell? Could it have been something you were assigned to read or see on stage back in school?

Know Thyself — Or Not

In 430 BC, the second year of its war with Sparta, the legendary democracy of Athens in ancient Greece was struck by an unknown infectious disease. The Athenians first suspected that the Spartans had poisoned their reservoirs. As it turned out, though, their undemocratic adversary wasn’t to blame. According to the historian Thucydides, the plague came from faraway Ethiopia and entered the city by ship. Since Athens had built its empire with naval power, it was perhaps grimly fitting that its greatest strength would prove in that moment to be its signal weakness.

The plague spread quickly. “At the beginning, the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods,” wrote Thucydides. “In fact mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick.” (Sound familiar?) The disease soon overwhelmed the city’s rudimentary health-care system and dead bodies lay about the streets, rotting and unburied. And yet, despite the plague, the Peloponnesian War continued. That forever war of the ancient world (sound familiar again?), already in its second round, wouldn’t end until 405 BC, a quarter-century later.

Over five years and three successive outbreaks, the plague would, however, ultimately claim more Athenian lives than the war. Nearly a quarter of that city-state’s population, an estimated 100,000 people, would die from the disease. Even its esteemed leader, Pericles, would lose two sons. Another victim: the vaunted Athenian political system. According to classical scholar Katherine Kelaidis, “The Great Plague of Athens wrote the first chapter in the end of Athenian democracy.”

During those plague years, Athens didn’t, however, completely lock down the city. It continued, for instance, to hold its annual drama festival at the Theater of Dionysus where, at some point, a new play by Sophocles had its debut. In itself, that was anything but unusual as he wrote more than 100 plays during his long lifetime. But this drama also proved painfully topical. Sophocles took the legendary story of Oedipus the king and added a wholly original element: he set its plot in motion with a plague.

Oedipus Rex takes place in Thebes while “a fiery demon” grips the city. Its king, Oedipus, desperate to understand why the gods have called such a plague down upon his realm, sends an emissary to the famed Delphic Oracle to find out. Its answer is unexpected: to rid Thebes of the plague, he must bring to justice the murderer of the previous king. As it happens, Oedipus himself killed that previous king. What’s worse, that king was also his father. In doing so, Oedipus had, however inadvertently, fulfilled the first part of a previous Delphic prophecy: that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In other words, he is the cause of the religious pollution that has brought plague down on Thebes.

All of this qualified Oedipus as the classic example of the tragic hero, a son of nobility who lacks self-knowledge, in this case an understanding of his true origins. Moreover, he demonstrates an extraordinary arrogance, believing that only he can rule wisely or save Thebes. Even when the oracle predicts a tragic outcome for him, he scoffs, believing that the will of the gods is no impediment to his actions.

The Greek word for this kind of arrogance is hubris and, in Greek drama, it’s associated with the pride that precedes the fall of a powerful man. The inevitable result of hubris is a visit from Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, often depicted with a sword and scales.

Focused as it was on the inevitable downfall of a tragic hero in a plague-stricken city, Oedipus Rex must have been deeply disturbing, if not terrifying, to watch in the Athens of that moment. Given the pandemic at hand, it’s remarkable that Athenians were still staging plays at all. But like Oedipus, its citizens undoubtedly wanted to better understand the cause of their affliction. This early example of horror fiction — with its plot twists involving murder, incest, and pandemic — surely helped some of them come to terms with their predicament and decide who or what to blame for it, just as, almost 2,500 years later, we watch films or read novels about plagues, among other things, to try to grasp ours.

In that first season of the plague, the citizens of Athens would indeed turn their fury against their leader, Pericles, and drive him from office. Later, after a brief return to power, he, too, would die of the disease.

Every Society Gets the Tragic Hero It Deserves

Now, another democracy is being overwhelmed by contagion. It, too, is involved in endless wars and led by a man whom millions of its citizens once believed to be the last-chance savior of the country.

Donald Trump didn’t kill his father or marry his mother, nor is he the cause of the coronavirus.

Still, in other respects, he hews to a distinctly modern, reality-TV version of the tragic hero. He, of course, became as rich as Croesus, even as he bathed in the adulation of his television viewers. Thanks to the Delphic Oracle of the Electoral College, he then rose to the most powerful political position in the world. Yet, through it all, he has exhibited virtually no self-knowledge. To this day, his understanding of his own faults remains near zero, while his amplification of his imagined strengths is off the Richter scale. Admittedly, Donald Trump lacks the gravitas of Oedipus and would never have been able to answer the riddle of the Sphinx, but this is twenty-first-century America, not ancient Greece, and every society gets the tragic hero it deserves.

As with Oedipus, the president’s extraordinary arrogance has put the country in peril. His denial of the scientific evidence for climate change prompted him to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, a monumental blunder that will plague later generations. His “deconstruction of the administrative state,” the unravelling of government institutions patiently constructed by his predecessors, significantly crippled his administration’s response to the coronavirus. His gargantuan pre-pandemic addition to the national debt through simultaneous tax cuts and military budget increases put the country at great economic risk. All of these policies were pushed through over the advice of wiser counsels, even within his administration.

Now, on a daily basis, the president appears before the American people and pretends to know much more than he does: about when to lift shelter-in-place restrictions (Easter because “it’s a beautiful day”), which experimental drugs to use (“I’m not a doctor, but I have common sense”), and how to meet the needs of states desperate for ventilators (“try getting it yourselves”). Serial failure has not tempered his hubris, not faintly. In adversity, he’s simply fallen back on a tactic he’s deployed his whole life in the face of adversity: double down. If hubris didn’t work, then über-hubris is the cure.

Through it all, Donald Trump has somehow eluded the grasp of Nemesis. Poised with her scales of justice, the goddess watched over last year’s impeachment hearings. Yet courtesy of a phalanx of Republican senators, Trump was not brought to justice, despite his unconstitutional behavior.

Now, it seems, Nemesis has returned, this time brandishing her sword.

Trump’s incompetence in the face of Covid-19 has helped cause a soaring American death toll. The U.S. is being serially laid to waste, a reality for which he accepts no responsibility. Unlike Oedipus Rex, Trump Rex has not the slightest interest in confronting the truth of his sins or the horror of his actions. Don’t expect the president to put out his own eyes, as Oedipus does at the end of the play. No need, in fact. Trump has always been blind and, not surprisingly, his blind ambition combined with his blind greed has culminated in an administration in which the blind are indeed leading the blind.

Come November, it falls to the American people, if all goes well, to deliver the ultimate judgment of Nemesis.

The End of the World?

Dystopian fiction is about how the world ends — not the extinction of the planet but the end of our familiar world. How we got from here to dystopia isn’t normally central to such novels. In fact, the end of that familiar world has usually taken place before you open the book and you may, at best, see it through brief flashbacks. The point is to plunge you directly into a future from hell like, for example, the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Nightmares don’t work with long explanatory introductions.

In a similar fashion, we’re not experiencing the end of the world itself right now. We’re not (yet) in the midst of nuclear annihilation or, say, the extinction of the human species via some extreme version of climate change. The current coronavirus pandemic is an apocalypse, to be sure, but a passing one. As Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki wrote long ago about the everyday horrors of communism in A Minor Apocalypse, “Many generations have thought the world was dying, but it was only their world which was dying.”

Herein lies the sobering reassurance of such stories. They remind us that worlds, like people, die all the time, only to be replaced by new worlds. Cities fall and rise again, as do civilizations. Even dystopian places like Idi Amin’s Uganda or the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodian killing fields eventually burn out. The handmaid lives to tell her tale and Gilead, too, crumbles in the end.

Athens survived the plague, though its democracy was compromised by war and disease. America, too, will live on. But it will have lost some further measure of its greatness thanks in no small part to the man who, however cynically, wanted to make it great again.

TomDispatch, April 17, 2020

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The Importance of the New Netflix Dystopia

Popular culture is full of alternative histories. Mackinley Kantor wrote a famous article in Look magazine in 1960 about what would have happened if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America imagines a world where Charles Lindbergh beats FDR in the 1940 elections and ushers fascism into the United States. And The Man in the High Castle, an Amazon series based on the Philip K. Dick novel, depicts a terrifying scenario in which the Axis powers have won World War II.

These counter-histories tackle big historical events. The stakes are huge. As we read or watch these parallel universes, we shudder as we contemplate the precariousness of our current reality.

The new Netflix series 1983 inspires comparisons to these other counter-histories. But I fear that many people outside Poland might decide not to watch the series because the “what if” might seem parochial to them. It’s not just that the alternative history involves Poland rather than the United States or Russia or even Germany. It’s that even the “what if” here would be somewhat obscure for Poles themselves.

The show is called 1983, after all, not 1981. That’s the year when most people ask the big “what if” questions. What if the Soviet Union had invaded Poland that year to suppress the Solidarity trade union movement? What if Solidarity had improbably brought down the Communist government and replaced it with something more democratic nearly a decade before this actually happened in 1989?

But this new series focuses not on 1981 but on 1983, more than a year after the Polish government declared Martial Law, suppressed Solidarity, and supposedly prevented the Soviet Union from intervening. In March 1983, according to the fictitious past of the new Netflix series, a number of explosions take place in major Polish cities. The Communist government blames the incidents on terrorists and uses them to justify a further consolidation of power. It does so also to keep the Russians at arm’s length, though in reality the risk of Soviet military intervention had effectively disappeared even before the Polish government declared Martial Law in December 1981.

Thus we have a very strange counter-history. In reality, although the Polish government remained concerned about Solidarity’s activities underground and the overall sympathies of the Polish population, it would lift Martial Law in July 1983. Meanwhile, March 1983 was no special month, no critical turning point. Which means that the new Netflix series is set in a relatively small country and takes place in a not particularly pivotal year. The stakes, it would seem, are very low indeed.

But it turns out that 1983 is not so much about what happened differently but about what didn’t happen. Because of these explosions in Poland in the parallel universe of 1983, the country doesn’t go through the transformations of 1989. The explosions give the Communist Party an opportunity not just to push the opposition underground but effectively to eliminate it and continue to hold power into the 2000s. Indeed, the present day of the series is 2003, 20 years after the incidents. The Party, with the help of the secret police, the army, and the regular police, is still well-entrenched. It has constructed a widespread surveillance regime. It distributes propaganda to a population isolated from the outside world. It delivers sufficient economic success to garner popular support while relying more on nationalism than communism to maintain its legitimacy. The underground opposition that has survived is meager. A new resistance movement called the Light Brigade attracts a younger generation, but it too is small in number.

The show toggles back and forth between 1983 and 2003. In the first episode, a young man, Kajtan, passes his oral exams in the spring of 2003 on his way to becoming a lawyer. Kajtan seems to be the golden child of the Communist elite. He’s even dating the daughter of the economics minister. He is also an orphan. His parents died in the 1983 bombings. That’s when he became imprinted on the public imagination when he appeared on the front page of the Party newspaper as the boy with a lily at the funeral of his parents. In the flashbacks, we see his parents in the months before the bombings, the father participating in the underground, the mother working at the sports ministry. The two plotlines seem to run in parallel but they actually converge, the first leading up to the bombings themselves in 1983 and the second gradually exposing the real cause of the attacks.

The world outside of Poland is full of big events, like the deployment of U.S. troops in the Middle East in preparation for what seems like another war in Iraq under orders from an administration headed by Al Gore. But these world-historical events are marginal. The series focuses claustrophobically on Poland as if we, the viewers, are as isolated as the characters in the show. And that’s what makes 1983 so interesting. The show is concerned not with abstract what-ifs. It is instead suffused with the specifics of Polish culture and history.

Take, for instance, the depiction of the opposition movement. 1983 depicts clandestine meetings and heated discussions over the use of violence, just like the conditions during Martial Law. But there is one scene in particular that stands out. One of Kajtan’s old friends brings him to a performance in an underground passage in Warsaw’s Old Town. It is a single actor reciting from the poet Adam Mickiewicz’s masterpiece Dziady. Many Poles will instantly recognize the reference to the banned performance of Dziady that precipitated the protests of 1968 that began in Warsaw.

Then there’s the role of the Vietnamese community. When I lived in Warsaw in 1989, I remember the small community of Vietnamese who’d come over as students or guest workers. They’d set up a few restaurants where you could get reasonably authentic noodle soup. There was one community in particular in Praga, across the river, and I even remember articles in the paper about Vietnamese gangs. A new wave of Vietnamese came to Poland in the 1990s as small-scale entrepreneurs, and they are now Poland’s largest non-European immigrant population.

But 1983 imagines a much larger role for the Vietnamese. The Party has brought in large numbers of Vietnamese guest workers to handle sensitive tasks. There are Vietnamese students and Vietnamese oppositionists. The community seems to have monopolized the fast-food industry. And Vietnamese are involved in the underground economy of drugs, prostitution, and gun-running. Polish cops even have to pick up some Vietnamese words to get by.

It’s the many details of 1983 that give it so much authenticity even though it’s fake history. The series showcases the Stalinist architecture that’s still scattered around Warsaw, including the famous wedding cake Palace of Culture and Science in the very center of the city. But there’s also the Old Town and some of the new glass and steel structures as well. At one point, Kajtan is sitting on a bench eating a zapiekanka, the cheap French-bread pizza that was ubiquitous in 1989 but harder to find by the early 2000s when better options were available. In the alternative reality of 1983, the zapiekanka survives just like the Party.

But perhaps the most authentic part of 1983 is its preoccupation with those twin phenomena of modern Polish political life: manipulation and collaboration. It was a constant fear among those in the opposition that the authorities were constantly manipulating people and events. Perhaps they were provoking the opposition so that it would respond with violence. The other great fear was of collaborators. Poland’s secret police – Sluzba Biezpieczenstwo (the security service known as the SB) – was not as powerful or as influential as the East German Stasi. But there were still 20,000-plus operatives who were managing, at their height, 84,000 informants. Many leading intellectuals and dissidents have been accused at one point or another of being informants, including former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

There were no terrorist attacks in Poland in 1983. But a few months earlier in September 1982, a strange incident took place in Switzerland. A group that called itself the “Polish Revolutionary Home Army” seized control of the Polish embassy in the city of Bern and took several diplomats as hostages. The militants called for an end to Martial Law, more than a million dollars, and safe passage out of Switzerland. After 72 hours, Swiss police stormed the embassy, freed the hostages, and captured the gunmen.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. The head of the hostage-takers was Florian Kruszyk, who turned out to be a convicted Polish spy. In 1968, the Austrian authorities arrested him after determining that he was a member of the Polish secret service. So, was the whole incident cooked up by the Polish authorities to discredit the opposition and justify a crackdown on Solidarity underground? Possibly. 1983 takes this scenario and runs with it.

Jennifer Wilson criticizes the series in The New Republic for depicting an imaginary Polish dystopia instead of challenging Poland’s current dystopian reality. But that’s not fair. For many Poles and those who listen carefully, there’s a substantial connection between the imagined future of 1983 and the current reality of Poland under the Law and Justice Party or PiS. This party, of course, is right-wing, not Communist. But it espouses the kind of nationalism that Communist Party officials spout in 1983. And PiS favors the same kind of semi-isolationist politics.

Agnieszka Holland, the famous Polish director who was involved in the making of 1983, encourages such comparisons. “The Poland in the series is isolated – much more isolated than in the communist era,” she told The Guardian. “Outside influences are very rare, so the country develops its own version of modernity. Prosperity is limited, but people don’t know how it is outside so they feel safe and happy. They are manipulated by this propaganda, but they feel it is good for them. Of course, this is very close to what PiS would love to have in Poland.”

It’s not just Poland, she goes on. The support for right-wing populists and authoritarians in Russia, the United States, Turkey, the Philippines, India, and Brazil suggests that many people around the world have little interest in freedom.

For this reason, 1983’s exploration of the freedom vs. security dilemma goes beyond the Polish context of the series. It’s a show that’s well suited to the times we live in. It’s also a genuinely riveting show, with sharp dialogue, great acting, and mesmerizing atmospherics. I hope that it cultivates an audience hitherto ignorant of Poland and its history.

Foreign Policy In Focus, December 14, 2018

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Welcome to the Ultimate Escape Room

You’ve done enough escape rooms to know the drill by now. You are escorted into what seems like an ordinary room. There’s a table and a chair. On the table is a book. As soon as you step across the threshold, the door closes behind you. You hear the lock click into place.

You are now trapped in a room with four strangers. Three of them look as concerned as you are. The fourth is nonchalant.

The instructions this time are a little different. As with other escape rooms, you have a certain amount of time to figure out how to get out. Also, you know that clues to the puzzle are hidden somewhere in the room. Figure them out and you’ll be able to unlock the door.

But here’s the difference: the temperature in this room will go up a degree with every minute that passes. If you and those four strangers can’t figure out how to stop it from rising, you’ll succumb to heat stroke. In other words, if you don’t escape in the allotted time period, you’ll die.

You immediately set to work looking for the clues. Maybe one or two are in the book on the table or maybe a code is carved on the underside of the table. Maybe you need to use the chair to climb up close enough to scrutinize the crown molding near the ceiling. Three of the strangers are doing what you’re doing: trying to uncover clues.

The fourth is leaning against the wall, looking relaxed. “It’s just a joke,” he says to no one in particular.

“I already feel it getting warmer in here,” you respond.

“It’s just your imagination,” he replies. “Power of suggestion. Fake news.”

The clock is already ticking. It can’t be your imagination. It’s definitely hotter in the room than when you first entered. You’re sweating. Everyone’s sweating, even the leaning man. “Temperatures naturally fluctuate,” he comments. “It might be going up now, but it will go down again. Count on it.”

“Don’t listen to him,” says the teenager in your group. “He’s just a jerk.”

She’s right and there’s no time to try to persuade him either. The four of you are now uncovering one clue after another, which brings you to the truly challenging part: cracking the code. Each of you contributes something: the teenager quickly solves a quadratic equation, the stay-at-home mom translates that Japanese phrase, and the aging literature professor recognizes the quote from Dante’s Inferno.

And once the four of you use this code to open a panel you’ve discovered beneath a loose floorboard, you finally get the chance to apply your engineering knowhow to the situation. You personally figure out how to reset the thermostat hidden inside it and so manage to slow the rise in temperature. It’s not much perhaps, but it’s a start.

You’re working smoothly together now. Only through cooperation have you been able to get this far. Problem is, it’s still too warm in the room. The 70-something professor is now crumpled in the corner, breathing heavily. You only have one bottle of water to share and a couple of nutrition bars and there are still more puzzles to solve. The teenager is urging you on — and little wonder, she has her whole life ahead of her.

But here’s the catch. You’re getting tired, all of you.

This Hot Room is only the latest and greatest challenge you’ve faced. You’ve been doing escape rooms now for what seems like decades, each challenge evidently more urgent than the last.

You were relatively young when you first stumbled into this craze. In the War Room, you were trapped with two heavily armed men pointing high-powered weapons at each other. In the Pandemic Room, you were all infected with a deadly virus and had to find an antidote. Most recently, you were locked in the Autocrat Room with a raving narcissist who believed he was the king of the world and who had his finger on a very real button that could destroy you, him, and everyone else.

Yet somehow you managed to extricate yourself from each of those rooms — only to find yourself trapped in this one. You should be tired!

You can’t even believe it: Only now is the reality of it all beginning to dawn on you — that you’ve been proceeding through a series of nested escape rooms, boxes within boxes, that have led you here, to the ultimate box.

In this Hot Room, time is running out, resources are scarce, and you have to listen to an idiot leaning against a wall doing nothing, and acting as if this were a delightful sauna, not a potential coffin.

You suspect that this is the human condition, this endless succession of crises. Civilizations have risen and fallen throughout history. One culture after another has failed to figure out the riddle inscribed in its environment. Some didn’t even realize that they were on the verge of collapse until it was too late.

But this is different. Each previous time, it was just one part of the globe — the Mycenaeans, the Khmer, the Mayans, the Romans — that grappled with its communal fate.

Now, you’re addressing the fate of the planet. This Hot Room, you’ve come to realize, is Earth itself. And there’s nothing on the other side of the door except the cold, cold void.

To solve the riddle of this ultimate escape room means performing a genuine miracle. You have to stop the temperature from rising. You have to multiply the water bottles and the nutrition bars. Most challenging of all perhaps, you have to prevent everyone from giving in to despair.

So, you take time out to do what you’ve always done in such situations. You did it at work to rally your discouraged colleagues. You did it for your children at bedtime to dispel the nightly terrors.

You tell a story.

A Matryoshka of Dystopias

My novel Splinterlands was an exploration of one particular dystopian path: the nationalist fragmentation of the world into ever-smaller splinters. This was no far-fetched fantasy when I wrote it, just an extrapolation, circa early 2016, from ongoing trends: tensions within the European Union, the polarization of politics in the United States, the rise of far-right parties, the widening global gap between the rich and the poor.

Unfortunately, those trends only intensified after I finished the manuscript. It hadn’t actually been my intention to predict. Like any politically engaged dystopian novel, Splinterlands was meant to be a warning. I knew things could get that bad. I just didn’t think they would — not so quickly anyway.

Even before the book came out, Britain had voted to leave the European Union and then, more improbably yet, Donald Trump managed to win the 2016 presidential election. Instead of being weird exceptions, the Trump-Brexit developments turned out to be part of a terrifying trajectory. Since then, the far right has assumed positions of power in Austria, Italy, and now Brazil. It has done well in elections in Germany and Sweden. In France, the extremist National Front is now, according to pollsters, the country’s most popular party.

Get on a train today in Poland, heading for North Korea, and you’ll pass through an enormous swath of territory ruled by fake democrats and authentic autocrats. An illiberal axis connects this great expanse of Eurasia to Turkey, Israel, India, the Philippines, Colombia, and Nicaragua. The military or one-party governments hold sway over much of Southeast Asia. Religious zealots and strong-arm leaders rule the greater part of the Middle East. Democracy is weak in most African countries and non-existent in others.

Together, these illiberal forces are deeply suspicious of any transnational authority that demands they adhere to global human rights norms and international standards.

The international community, never a particularly robust entity, is beginning to evaporate. Countries are withdrawing from international agreements like the Global Pact for Migration and organizations like the International Criminal Court. With its high-profile exits, Donald Trump’s America has done its best to undermine the Paris accord on climate change and the U.N. Human Rights Council. It’s not quite a rush to the exits, nor is this retreat into sovereign parochialism irreversible — not yet anyway. But the Splinterlands scenario of the total collapse of the international order and the fragmentation of countries like the United States and China has become incrementally more likely.

Meanwhile, global inequality continues to worsen. According to Oxfam, “82% of the wealth created last year went to the richest one percent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity got nothing.” Facilitated by financial deregulation, corruption has become rampant, registering as a serious problem in two-thirds of the world’s countries, according to the latest Transparency International report. The media are under attack even in traditionally liberal countries like the United States.

And surveillance by the state and corporate conglomerates like Facebook has become commonplace. In China, the two forces are working hand in hand under the auspices of the phone app WeChat. Chinese use the application to shop, listen to music, and exchange messages. But the app also assigns users a score based on everything from online behavior to how they drive their cars, and if that score is too low, they’re locked out of certain jobs, travel opportunities, and schools. The system should be fully operational and exportable in a couple of years.

These various real-world dystopian scenarios are not discrete. They are indeed nested in one another, like one of those Russian matryoshka dolls that open only to reveal smaller versions of itself, each inside the next. Just as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once characterized Soviet Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” think of the current reality as never-ending wars wrapped in nuclear proliferation inside nationalist fragmentation enclosed in climate change.

This last challenge is, of course, the most urgent, transcending politics as it does. Governments of every political flavor have contributed to it and continue to dither in the face of an obviously looming catastrophe, while economic greed prevents any sustainable solution. In other words, we’re heading for a true existential reckoning. Heat up the planet enough and there won’t be any more politics or economics. It will be the real end of history, not the triumphalist one that Francis Fukuyama thought up in 1989 in anticipation of the end of the Cold War.

In Splinterlands, I still saw climate change as one part of an overall ecosystem of threat. In my new dystopian novel, Frostlands, climate change takes center stage. A stand-alone sequel set in 2051, the moment when Splinterlands ended, it focuses on Rachel Leopold, an aging climatologist, living in Arcadia, a sustainable community in what was once part of Vermont. Arcadia is now under attack by unknown forces and Rachel is worried that those attacks are directed at her. She’s been conducting experiments in secret to regenerate the Arctic ice cap in a desperate bid to enclose the remaining methane gas trapped in the permafrost. But (as in our world today) not everyone shares her urgent desire to stop climate change.

As with Splinterlands, the dystopia of Frostlands is, in fact, unspooling in real life on an accelerated basis. As environmentalist Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in a recent New Yorker:

”Arctic soils contain hundreds of billions of tons of carbon, in the form of frozen and only partially decomposed plants. As the region heats up, much of this carbon is likely to be released into the atmosphere, where it will trap more heat… In the Arctic Ocean, vast stores of methane lie buried under frozen sediments. If these stores, too, are released, the resulting warming is likely to be catastrophic.”

Kolbert then quotes Peter Wadhams, an ice specialist: “The risk of an Arctic seabed methane pulse is one of the greatest immediate risks facing the human race.”

Why wait until 2051 when you can experience apocalypse now?

Evolutionary Dead-End?

A climatologist, a nuclear physicist, and an epidemiologist walk into a bar.

The bartender gestures to the three tiers of bottles arrayed behind her. “Pick your poison.”

The three professionals laugh ruefully. The climate scientist links arms with her two colleagues and says, “Why don’t you pick your poison?”

It’s no joke.

In a culture that emphasizes free choice — among political candidates, breakfast cereals, and Internet avatars — we now face the ultimate choice. We can choose our dystopian future. We can cut funding for medical research and emergency response and increase our vulnerability to the next plague. We can elect leaders who have itchy nuclear fingers and increase the likelihood that we go out with a bang. Or, if we somehow make it out of those particular escape rooms, we can drink the ultimate poison and heat up the planet until it can no longer sustain anything but cockroaches.

For some, the inexcusable slowness with which the international community is addressing climate change — along with the other apocalyptic scenarios — is yet more proof that humans, like dinosaurs, have outlived their evolutionary usefulness. It’s hard not to feel that all of humanity deserves a Darwin award when you see the effects of recent superstorms, the vanishing of polar ice, the heedless drilling for oil and gas everywhere, and the dilatory efforts of even sensibly led countries like South Korea to reduce their carbon footprint.

Dinosaurs, of course, couldn’t put up much of a fight against the asteroid that slammed into Earth 66 million years ago and the cataclysms that followed. You, however, can still tell the bartender, “Thanks, but no thanks, on the poison tonight.” You can still solve the riddle of the Hot Room and hope that the next challenge won’t be quite as apocalyptic.

Remember: there’s always going to be some guy leaning against the wall, making light of your efforts to save the world. It’s maddening to have to listen to him. So, like Odysseus, you must close your ears to the siren songs of what passes for pragmatism today. The politics of the possible don’t stand much chance in an impossible situation.

In that Hot Room, everyone but the skeptic is back to work, even the aging professor. Your story has inspired them to attempt the impossible: to work together, to solve the riddle, to overcome the resistance. They know the odds. They understand that they’re already living in a dystopia.

But now you’ve given them reason to believe that even dystopias can have sequels.

Reprinted, with permission, from TomDispatch, November 13, 2018

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A Fairy Tale from 2050

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I testified before the great assembly of our land.

When I describe this event to children today, it really does sound to them like a fairy tale. Once upon a time — a time before the world splintered into a million pieces and America became its current disunited states — this old woman was a young idealist who tried to persuade our mighty Congress that a monster was stalking the land.

“Did they listen to you, Auntie Rachel?” they typically ask me.

“Oh, they listened to me, but they didn’t hear me.”

“So, what did you do?”

“I thought and I thought, and I wrote and I wrote, and I put together an even better presentation,” I say patiently. “I had to somehow make that monster visible so those mighty people could see it.”

“What did it look like, Auntie Rachel?”

“It was invisible, my dear children, but we could feel its hot breath. And we could see the terrible things that it did. It could make the oceans rise. It could make the crops wilt in the fields. Still, we kept feeding this terrible beast.”

“But why?”

“It’s what the monster demanded. Some monsters want to devour little children. Others insist on young maidens. But this one insisted on tankers of oil and truckloads of coal. Even as it grew, it only demanded more and more.”

At this point, the children are always wide-eyed. “What did you do then?”

“I talked to those great people again. And this time I tried even harder to describe the monster.” As I slip into the past, the faces of the children become those of long-dead politicians. “I provided more detailed graphs of rising temperatures. I cited statistics on the impact of burning coal and oil and natural gas. I displayed photos of what the melting ice and the surging waters had already done. And then I showed them pictures of what the future would look like: submerged cities, drought-stricken lands, dead seas. They looked and still they didn’t see. They listened and still they didn’t hear. Great people,” I conclude, “are not always good people.”

“What did you do then?” they always ask.

“I stopped talking, my darlings. I came here to escape the monster. I came to Arcadia.”

They look disappointed. The children know their fairy tales. They expect someone — perhaps a knight in shining armor — to appear suddenly and slay the monster.

“There was no knight,” I lament. “And the monster still lives. We can feel its hot breath even now.”

Of course, my young charges don’t really understand my story. Today, in 2050, there is no Congress. There are no committee hearings. There are no intergovernmental panels or global gatherings. I might as well be telling them about Roman banquets or medieval jousts. And yet my little students always clamor for more stories of the vanished world of Washington, D.C., 2017, just as they would beg for yet another of Aesop’s fables. But they don’t quite see how these tales of long ago connect to their lives today.

After all, they live in a post-political world.

The Death of Politics

Before the global thermometer went haywire, before the great economic panics of the early 2020s, before the battles escalated between vigilantes and jihadis, before the international community cracked like a mirror smashed by a fist, there was that initial death, which was barely noticed at the time.

As the historians — those left to tell the tale — will inform you, there were no funerals for the death of politics, nor were there obituaries. And even if there had been, few would have shed any tears. The confidence the American public had in Congress back in those days was lower than in any other institution — a mere 9% had such confidence, compared to 18% for big business and 73% for the military.

Politics in the muggy swamp of Washington, where I lived in those antediluvian years, had become a tug of war between two hated teams. Sometimes, one side won and dragged the other through the muck. Then the situation would be reversed. No matter: at the end of the day, everyone was left covered in mud.

Yes, things might have turned out differently. Radical reforms might have been enacted, a new generation of politicians cultivated. But at the moment of greatest peril — to the republic and the world at large — Americans turned their backs on politics, electing the most anti-political candidate in the history of the country. The founding fathers had done everything they could to ensure that the system would not produce such a result, but there was no way they could have anticipated Donald Trump or the circumstances that put him in power.

When the initial Europeans arrived in North America more than half a millennium ago, they brought weapons far more powerful than the stone axes and wooden clubs wielded by the First Nations. But it wasn’t just the guns that proved so devastating. The Europeans carried within them something far more lethal: invisible diseases like smallpox and the flu. Those viruses cut through the Native Americans like so many scythes, killing nine out of every ten of the original inhabitants of this continent.

Many centuries later, Donald Trump arrived in Washington armed with the explicit weapons of extremist rhetoric and sociopathic sangfroid with which he had destroyed his political opponents. But it was what he carried hidden within him that would ultimately turn out to be so catastrophic. Although he had railed against the political establishment in the election campaign that put him in the Oval Office, in his own way he had also played by the political rules to get there. Deep down, however, his greatest urge was to destroy politics altogether: tweet by tweet, outrage by outrage.

And his attack on politics would finish off the world as we knew it in Washington circa 2017. In the end, it would render congressional testimony and Congress itself irrelevant. Even today, more than 30 years later, the bodies are still piling up.

The Judgment of Paris

I teach science to the young children here in Arcadia. It’s not difficult to explain the basic scientific concepts that so changed our world, and we have a well-equipped lab for them to run experiments. So they understand the science of climate change. What bewilders them is how the crisis came about.

“Why didn’t our grandparents run the factories every other day?” a bright young girl once asked me. “Why didn’t they drive those stupid cars just on the weekend?”

Our children know little but Arcadia, and this community is fully sustainable. We produce everything we need here in this corner of what was once the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. What we don’t grow, we synthesize or create on our 3-D printers. We conduct limited trade with the few neighboring communities. If there is an unexpected death, we issue another birth permit. If our solar batteries run low during the winter, we ration energy. Everything is recycled, from our chicken bones to our night soil. The children of Arcadia don’t understand waste.

They also don’t understand the now-strange concept of an international community. They’ve never ventured beyond the walls of our little universe.  It’s only thanks to virtual tourism that they’ve seen the world outside, which just reinforces their desire to remain here. After all, the world out there is just a collection of sharp little shards, what my ex-husband used to call the “splinterlands” of this planet. My students can’t comprehend how those shards, most of them exceedingly dangerous micro-environments, once fit together to form larger nations that in turn sometimes cooperated to solve common problems. It’s like that old story of the elephant and the six blind men. The children of Arcadia can understand the parts, but unsurprising enough, given the events of the last three decades, the whole eludes them.

Think of that long-gone international community, I tell them, as a squalling infant born in 1945 to bickering parents. A troubled childhood was followed by an awkward youth. Only in middle age, with the end of the Cold War in 1989, did it finally seem to come into its own, however briefly.  Unfortunately, within a few short years, it was prematurely in its dotage. In 2017, at 72, the international community was past retirement age, in frail health, and in desperate need of assisted care.

Once upon a time, this aged collective creature, this Knight of the Sad Countenance, was supposed to be our savior, the slayer of the horrible monster. When the time came, however, it could barely lift a lance.

Without some knowledge of the life cycle of the international community, my children can’t possibly understand why global temperatures continued to rise in the first part of this century, despite the best efforts of scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens. Several countries, Uruguay and Bhutan among them, had gone to extraordinary lengths to reduce their carbon footprint, and more than a dozen cities eventually became carbon neutral. Individuals adopted vegetarianism, drove electric cars, turned down their thermostats in the winter — as if lifestyle changes alone could slay the monster.

Unfortunately, a global problem really did require a global response. The Paris climate accord, which 196 countries signed at the end of 2015, was just such an effort. Only two countries refused to sign, one (Syria) because it was mired in a civil war and the other (Nicaragua) due to sheer cussedness. And yet the terms of the agreement were far from adequate. The international community, which had come together in this twilight of cooperation, well understood the enormity of the challenge: to keep global temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial average. At best, however, the Paris treaty would have kept temperatures from rising three degrees.  And as everyone now knows, the best was hardly what happened.

In this way did that community abandon the very idea of sustainability and embrace its lesser cousin, resilience. I try to explain to my children that sustainability is all about harmony — maintaining balance, never taking more than what we give back. Resilience, on the other hand, is about making the adaptations required by a crisis, about simply getting by. The judgment of Paris, with its nod toward resilience, was, in fact, an acknowledgment of failure.

Although flawed, it was at least part of a process. That’s what democratic politics is all about, I tell my charges. You have to begin somewhere and hope to improve from there. After all, there’s always the possibility that one day you might even graduate from resilience to sustainability.

But, of course, there’s also the option of going backward, which is exactly what happened, big league — to use an expression of the new American president — in 2017.

The Trump Revolution

It’s an unfortunate fact of our world that destruction is so much easier than construction. Anyone can wield a sledgehammer; few can use a trowel. An inadvertent sneeze can take down the most elaborately built house of cards.

Donald Trump was more than just a sneeze. His devotion to the destruction of the “administrative state” was impressive. At the time, we were all so focused on the domestic side of that destruction — the toppling of the pillars of the welfare state, the repeal of universal health care, the rollback of legal protections and voting rights of all sorts — that we failed to pay proper attention to just how devastatingly that destruction spread internationally.

Yes, the new president cancelled pending trade deals, thumbed his nose at traditional allies, and questioned the utility of agreements like the one that mothballed Iran’s nuclear program. But those were largely bilateral attacks. Much more dangerous were his fierce sallies against the international administrative state.

The most important of these, of course, was his decision to withdraw from the Paris accord. Admittedly, it was a weak, voluntary agreement. Yet even that was too much for Donald Trump. The president declared that the agreement would disadvantage Americans and force workers and taxpayers “to absorb the cost” of reducing greenhouse gas admissions through “lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.” It didn’t matter that none of that was true.  Renewable energy programs were creating more well-paying jobs in the United States than the dirty energy industries were trying to maintain.  In his surge of destruction, however, President Trump never felt the need to justify his actions with recourse to actual facts.

The United States, moreover, was both the richest country in the world and historically the largest producer of carbon emissions. As we tell our students here in Arcadia, if you’re most responsible for the mess, you should be most responsible for the clean-up.  It’s a simple concept for children to absorb. Yet it was beyond the ken of most Americans.

Worse than being merely indifferent, the new president was determined to hasten global warming, single-handedly if necessary, by expanding offshore drilling; green-lighting more gas and oil pipelinesreducing restrictions of every imaginable sort on the dirty energy industry; cutting support for the development of alternative energies; encouraging the production of, and reduced emissions standards for, gas-guzzling vehicles; and slashing the budget for the enforcement of environmental standards of every imaginable sort. Trump, in other words, wasn’t just willing to let the buried treasure of fossil fuels well enough alone.  He was eager to feed the monster even more than it demanded.

If we had been living in a normal time, it might have been possible to fight back effectively in political terms against this onslaught. But just as Trump’s carbon-based vision of America and the world was exploding upon us, politics was taken into a backroom and strangled.

The Politics of Antipolitics

I remember the birth of antipolitics. I was a young woman when dissidents in the communist world began to associate official political activity with support for an immoral order. Voting, they believed, was an empty gesture if the ruling party won 99% of the ballots cast. Parliaments were empty vessels if the Party leader and the Politburo always ended up making all the decisions. When politics are compromised in this way, all but the opportunists retreat into antipolitics.

Communism died in 1989, and politics was reborn in those lands of antipolitics — but all too briefly. Within a decade, the new converts to democracy began reverting to their earlier mistrust of anything political and conventional politicians became the enemy.  Collaboration and compromise were once again anathema.

And then this very dissatisfaction with politics as we knew it began spreading beyond the post-communist world. Voters elsewhere became dazzled by the most illiberal of politicians, a crew who were naturals for one-party or one-leader states. Donald Trump was just part of this new fraternity of nationalist populists that included Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and Viktor Orban of Hungary.  All of them quickly began concentrating power in their own hands in an attempt to rule by decree (or, in Trump’s case, by executive order). In the process, they used antipolitics strategically to defeat any potential challenges at the domestic and transnational level.

It was odd that, in so many countries, voters seemingly couldn’t wait to disenfranchise themselves through this new antipolitics. To a man, these autocrats came to power not through coups but through elections. Odder still was the fact that, in those years, it was increasingly young people who no longer considered it important to live in a democracy. When only the old believe in such a system, then it, too, is but one step from the grave.

Perhaps the culprit was economic. The major parties in these countries had almost uniformly supported policies that widened the gap between rich and poor, robbing young people of jobs and any hope for a future. No surprise, then, that they lost faith in the secular religion of democracy.

Or perhaps technology killed politics. The computer and the cell phone combined to reduce the attention span required for sustained involvement in public affairs. The micro-communities created by social media obviated the need to interact with those who didn’t share one’s own micro-concerns. And of course everyone began to insist on immediate results at a single keystroke, which, at the political level, translated into an increased preference for decrees.

For a brief moment, the Trump “shock” provoked a counter-reaction. In the United States, there were huge protest marches, while unsympathetic government bureaucrats dug in their heels — but this only strengthened the populist narrative of an irresponsible liberal elite and a hostile “deep state.” In this brief moment of seeming reversal, Trump’s allies in Europe even lost a few elections, but the victors in those contests continued policies that disadvantaged the majority economically and politically and in the next round or the one after the predictable happened.

As those of a certain age remember, Trump himself eventually fell from power, undone in the end by his own self-defeating vengefulness.  At that moment, his critics exulted in their schadenfreude, only to find that he was replaced all too soon by someone who shared his destructive anti-politics without his noxious personal traits.

Trump stunned the international community. His successors gutted it.  And as everyone in Earth’s splinterlands now knows, the monster continued to be fed, while the thermometers, floods, droughts, wild fires, sea levels, tides of refugees, and all the rest continued their inexorable rise.

Childhood’s End

Fairy tales should have happy endings. I assure our children that they are safe inside Arcadia. They can see for themselves how successfully we raise our crops. They are far enough from the ocean’s tidal waves not to fear the waters. They participate in the democratic political life of our community. The occasional breakdown notwithstanding, Arcadia is a small island of hope in a sea of despair.

The temperatures continue their climb. Outside, the scramble for resources becomes bloodier by the year. Many of the communities that once dotted the landscape around us are nothing but a memory. The walls surrounding Arcadia may be next to impregnable and our armory remarkably well stocked, but the question remains: Can we survive without our founding members, who are just now beginning to die off?

We raise and educate our children under the threat of the same monster grown larger yet. As they get older, some of the young accuse my generation and me of failing to slay that creature and, unfortunately, they couldn’t be more right. I believe that we, at least here in Arcadia, did do our best, but sadly it wasn’t good enough.

Soon, it will be our children’s turn. They will tend the crops and maintain the armory. They will continue the search for a scientific solution to climate change in the absence of a political one and an international community to enforce it. And they will be the ones who must make sure that the monster, however much it huffs and puffs and threatens our very livelihood, does not in the end blow our house down, too.

TomDispatch, July 18, 2017

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My Novel (Accidentally) Predicted Trump

It’s terrifying when your dystopian nightmares begin to come true.

Donald Trump is consolidating a circle of extremist advisers. Hardline restrictions on immigration are going up, regulations on Wall Street are tumbling down, and ordinary Americans can no longer agree on simple truths, let alone politics.

Abroad, Europe may be splintering, too, Asia looks volatile, and wars continue to rage in the Middle East. And everywhere, climate change creeps forward.

For me, however, the rise of the Trump era held a special terror.

My novel Splinterlands, which I finished in March 2016 and published in December, imagines a world that breaks into a million little pieces. It begins with the destruction of Washington, DC by a terrible storm — which I called Hurricane Donald — and goes downhill from there.

I tell the story of the unraveling of a family, which takes place against the backdrop of the break-up of the European Union, the collapse of China, the disuniting of the United States, and a massive financial crisis that wipes out the middle class everywhere.

After submitting the final draft of the book to my publisher, I watched in bewilderment as the British public voted to withdraw from the EU. I was astonished some months later when the American public elected Donald Trump. And I was dismayed to watch the new administration begin to undermine U.S. democracy even before it officially took office.

I also felt a strange sense of déjà vu. It was a feeling akin to traveling back in time to watch the unfolding of an assassination or the lead-up to a world war. I’d already gamed out these scenarios when I was plotting my novel.

I’m no Nostradamus, and I didn’t intend Splinterlands as a prediction of the future.

When I was writing the book, I was concerned about the rise of far-right extremists, the rollback of democracy, and growing divisions here and abroad. And the half-measures the international community adopted to address climate change didn’t bode well for the health of the planet either.

I wanted my new novel to serve as a wake-up call. The world — and our country — could easily fragment, I warned, if we didn’t pay more attention to the sources of the new populist nationalism.

Economic globalization was benefiting some and leaving others behind. Faith in the democratic process was eroding as political elites engaged in corruption. Social media was undermining the distinction between real and fake news.

In past eras, progressives challenged these developments with calls for greater economic equality, more democracy, and solidarity across social identities. But mainstream progressive parties have often backed the same 1 percent-friendly policies as the right, leading to skyrocketing inequality.

The decline of the left has provided enormous political opportunities for the far right.

They’re climbing in the polls all over Europe. And here in the States, the white-supremacist alt-right played a critical role in getting Donald Trump elected.

But novelists don’t write dystopias because they think the dismal future they portray is inevitable. 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale: These were all calls to arms. If humanity didn’t change its ways, the novelists warned, those dystopias would be more likely.

Americans, fortunately, are already responding to the threat.

The protests following Trump’s inauguration brought millions of people onto the streets. And the executive order banning Muslims from seven countries from entering the United States has generated unprecedented backlash.

The United States is divided, but still it stands.

I’m terrified. But I’m also hopeful. My novel Splinterlands remains mostly fiction, and I’ll work hard with millions to keep it that way.

OtherWords, March 1, 2017

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Trump: Doubling Down on Dystopia

Dystopias have recently achieved full-spectrum dominance. Kids are drawn to such stories — The Giver, Hunger Games — like Goths to piercings. TV shows about zombie apocalypses, pandemics, and technology run amok inspire binge watching. We’ve seen the world-gone-truly-bad a thousand times over on the big screen.

This apocalyptic outpouring has been so intense that talk of “peak dystopia” started to circulate several years ago. Yet the stock of the doomsday cartel has shown no signs of falling, even as production continues at full blast. (A confession: with my recent novel Splinterlands I’ve contributed my own bit to flooding the dystopia market.) As novelist Junot Diaz argued last October, dystopia has become “the default narrative of the generation.”

Shortly after Diaz made that comment, dystopia became the default narrative for American politics as well when Donald Trump stepped off the set of The Celebrity Apprentice and into the Oval Office. With the election of an uber-narcissist incapable of distinguishing between fact and fantasy, all the dystopian nightmares that had gathered like storm clouds on the horizon — nuclear war, climate change, a clash of civilizations — suddenly moved overhead. Cue the rumble of thunder and the flash of lightning.

The response among those horrified by the results of the recent presidential election has been four-fold.

First came denial — from the existential dread that hammered the solar plexus as the election returns trickled in that Tuesday night to the more prosaic reluctance to get out of bed the morning after. Then came the fantasies of flight, as tens of thousands of Americans checked to see if their passports were still valid and if the ark bound for New Zealand had any berths free. The third stage has been resistance: millions poured into the streets to protest, mobilized at airports to welcome temporarily banned immigrants, and flocked to congressional meet-and-greets to air their grievances with Republicans and Democrats alike.

The fourth step, concurrent with all the others, has been to delve into the dystopias of the past as if they contained some Da Vinci code for deciphering our present predicament. Classics like Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, George Orwell’s 1984, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale quickly climbed back onto bestseller lists.

It might seem counterintuitive — or a perverse form of escapism — to turn from the dystopia of reality to that of fiction. Keep in mind, though, that those novels became bestsellers in their own time precisely because they offered refuge and narratives of resistance for those who feared (in order of publication) the rise of Nazism, the spread of Stalinism, or the resurgence of state-backed misogyny in the Reagan years.

These days, with journalists scrambling to cover the latest outrage from the White House, perhaps it was only natural for readers to seek refuge in the works of writers who took the longer view. After all, it’s an understandable impulse to want to turn the page and find out what happens next. And dystopian narratives are there, in part, to help us brace for the worst, while identifying possible ways out of the downward spiral toward hell.

The dystopian classics, however, are not necessarily well suited to our current moment. They generally depict totalitarian states under a Big Brother figure and a panoptical authority that controls everything from the center, a scenario that’s fascist or communist or just plain North Korean. Certainly, Donald Trump wants his face everywhere, his name on everything, his little fingers in every pot. But the dangers of the current dystopian moment don’t lie in the centralizing of control. Not yet, anyway.

The Trump era so far is all about the center not holding, a time when, in the words of the poet Yeats, things fall apart. Forget about Hannah Arendt and The Origins of Totalitarianism — also a hot seller on Amazon — and focus more on chaos theory. Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.

Don’t be fooled by Trump’s talk of a trillion-dollar infrastructure boom. His team has a very different project in mind, and you can read it on the signpost up ahead. Next Stop: The Deconstruction Zone.

The Zombie Election

In February 2016, when Donald Trump won his first primary in New Hampshire, the New York Daily Newsheadlined it “Dawn of the Brain Dead” and likened Trump’s GOP supporters to “mindless zombies.” Not to be outdone, that conspiracy-minded purveyor of fake news, Alex Jones, routinely described Hillary Clinton supporters as “zombies” on his Trump-positive website Infowars.

The references to zombies spoke to the apocalyptic mindset of both sides. Donald Trump deliberately tapped into the end-of-days impulses of Christian evangelicals, anti-globalists, and white power enthusiasts, who view anyone who hasn’t drunk their Kool-Aid as a dead soul. Meanwhile, those fearful that the billionaire blowhard might win the election began spreading the “Trumpocalypse” meme as they warned of the coming of ever more severe climate change, the collapse of the global economy, and the outbreak of race wars. There was virtually no middle ground between the groups, aside from those who decided to steer clear of the election altogether. The mutual disgust with which each side viewed the other encouraged just the kind of dehumanization implied by that zombie label.

Zombies have become a political metaphor for another reason as well. What’s frightening about the flesh eating undead in their current incarnations is that they are not a formal army. There are no zombie leaders, no zombie battle plans. They shamble along in herds in search of prey. “Our fascination with zombies is partly a transposed fear of immigration,” I wrote in 2013, “of China displacing the United States as the world’s top economy, of bots taking over our computers, of financial markets that can melt down in a single morning.”

Zombies, in other words, reflect anxiety over a loss of control associated with globalization. In this context, the “rise of the rest” conjures up images of a mass of undifferentiated resource consumers — hungry others who are little more than mouths on legs — storming the citadels of the West.

During the election campaign, the Trump team appealed to those very fears by running ads during the popular TV series The Walking Dead that deliberately played on anti-immigration concerns. Once in office, Trump has put into motion his campaign pledges to wall off the United States from Mexico, keep out Muslims, and retreat into Fortress America. He has put special effort into reinforcing the notion that the outside world is a deeply scary place — even Paris, even Sweden! — as if The Walking Dead were a documentary and the zombie threat quite real.

The concentration of power in the executive branch, and Trump’s evident willingness to wield it, certainly echoes dystopian fears of 1984-style totalitarianism. So have the extraordinary lies, the broadsides against the media (“enemies of the people”), and the targeting of internal and external adversaries of every sort. But this is no totalitarian moment.  Trump is not interested in constructing a superstate like Oceania or even a provincial dictatorship like Airstrip One, both of which Orwell described so convincingly in his novel.

Instead, coming out of the gate, the new administration has focused on what Trump’s chief strategist and white nationalist Stephen Bannon promised to do several years ago: “bring everything crashing down.”

The Bannon Dystopia

Dystopians on the right have their own version of 1984. They’ve long been warning that liberals want to establish an all-powerful state that restricts gun ownership, bans the sale of super-sized sodas, and forces mythic “death panels” on the unwary. These right-wing Cassandras are worried not so much about Big Brother as about Big Nanny, though the more extreme among them also claim that liberals are covert fascists, closet communists, or even agents of the caliphate.

Strangely enough, however, these same right-wing dystopians — former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin on the (non-existent) death panels, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) on gun control, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter on soda bans and other trivial pursuits — have never complained about the massive build-up of government power in far more significant areas: namely, the military and the intelligence agencies. Indeed, now that they are back on top, the new Trumpianized “conservatives” are perfectly happy to expand state power by throwing even more money at the Pentagon and potentially giving greater scope to the CIA in its future interrogations of terror suspects. Despite falling rates of violent crime — a tiny uptick in 2015 obscures the fact that these remain at a historic low — Trump also wants to beef up the police to deal with American “carnage.”

So far, so 1984. But the radically new element on the Trump administration’s agenda has nothing to do with the construction of a more powerful state. At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Bannon spoke instead of what was truly crucial to him (and assumedly the president): the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Here, Bannon was speaking specifically of unleashing Wall Street, polluting industries, gun sellers, while freeing a wide range of economic actors from regulation of just about any sort. But Trump’s cabinet appointments and the first indications of what a Trumpian budget might look like suggest a far broader agenda aimed at kneecapping the non-military part of the state by sidelining entire agencies and gutting regulatory enforcement. Bye-bye, EPA. Nighty-night, Department of Education. Nice knowing you, HUD. We sure will miss you, Big Bird and foreign aid.

Even the State Department hasn’t proved safe from demolition. With professional diplomats out of the loop, Pennsylvania Avenue, not Foggy Bottom, will be the locus of control for international relations. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is being reduced to little more than an ornament as the new triumvirate of Trump, Bannon, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner take over foreign policy (though Vice President Pence hovers in the background like a chaperone at the prom). Meanwhile, with a proposed $54 billion future hike in its budget, Trump’s Pentagon will remain untouched by the wrecking ball, as the new president presides over a devastating shrinkage of the government he dislikes and a metastasis of what he loves. (Think: giant, shiny aircraft carriers!)

Thus far, the Trump administration has acted with highly publicized incompetence: administration figures contradicting each other, executive orders short-circuiting the government machinery, tweets wildly caroming around the Internet universe, and basic functions like press conferences handled with all the aplomb of a non-human primate. Trump’s appointees, including Bannon, have looked like anything but skilled demolition experts. This is certainly no Gorbachev-style perestroika, which eventually led to the unraveling of the Soviet Union. It’s nothing like the “shock therapy” programs that first knocked down and then remade the states of Eastern Europe after 1989.

However, since deconstruction is so much easier than construction and Bannon prides himself on his honey-badger-like persistence, the administration’s project, messy as it seems so far, is likely to prove quite capable of doing real damage. In fact, if you want a more disturbing interpretation of Donald Trump’s first months in office, consider this: What if all the chaos is not an unintended consequence of a greenhorn administration but an actual strategy?

All that dust in the air comes, after all, from the chaotic first steps in a projected massive demolition process and may already be obscuring the fact that Trump is attempting to push through a fundamentally anti-American and potentially supremely unpopular program. He aims to destroy the status quo, as Bannon promised, and replace it with a new world order defined by three Cs: Conservative, Christian, and Caucasian. Let the media cover what they please; let the critics laugh all they like about executive branch antics. In the meantime, all the president’s men are trying to impose their will on a recalcitrant country and world.

Triumph of the Will

I took a course in college on the rise of Nazism in Germany. At one point, the professor showed us Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s famous 1935 documentary that covered the Nazi Party Congress of the previous year and featured extensive footage of Adolf Hitler addressing the faithful. Triumph of the Will was a blockbuster film, our professor assured us. It spread the name of Hitler worldwide and established Riefenstahl’s reputation as a filmmaker. It was so popular inside Germany that it ran for months on end at movie theaters, and people returned again and again to watch it. Our teacher promised us that we would find it fascinating.

Triumph of the Will was not fascinating. Even for students engrossed in the details of the Nazi surge to power, the nearly two-hour documentary was a tremendous bore. After it was over, we bombarded the teacher with questions and complaints. How could he have imagined that we would find it fascinating?

He smiled. That’s the fascinating part, he said. Here was this extraordinarily popular film, and it’s now nearly impossible for Americans to sit through the whole thing. He wanted us to understand that people in Nazi Germany had an entirely different mindset, that they were participating in a kind of mass frenzy. They didn’t find Nazism abhorrent. They didn’t think they were living in a dystopia. They were true believers.

Many Americans are now having their Triumph of the Will moment. They watch Donald Trump repeatedly without getting bored or disgusted. They believe that history has anointed a new leader to revive the country and restore it to its rightful place in the world. They’ve been convinced that the last eight years were a liberal dystopia and what is happening now is, if not utopian, then the first steps in that direction.

A hard core of those enthralled by Trump cannot be convinced otherwise. They hold liberal elites in contempt. They don’t believe CNN or The New York Times. Many subscribe to outlandish theories about Islam and immigrants and the continuing covert machinations of that most famous “Islamic immigrant” of them all, Barack Obama. For this hard core of Trump supporters, the United States could begin to break down, the economy take a nosedive, the international community hold the leadership in Washington in contempt, and they will continue to believe in Trump and Trumpism. The president could even gun down a few people and his most fervent supporters would say nothing except, “Good shot, Mr. President!” Remember: even after Nazi Germany went down in fiery defeat in 1945, significant numbers of Germans remained in thrall to National Socialism. In 1947, more than half of those surveyed still believed that Nazism was a good idea carried out badly.

But plenty of Trump supporters — whether they’re disaffected Democrats, Hillary-hating independents, or rock-ribbed Republican conservatives — don’t fit such a definition. Some have already become deeply disillusioned by the antics of Donald J. and the demolition derby that his advisers are planning to unleash inside the U.S. government, which may, in the end, batter their lives badly.  They can be brought over. This is potentially the biggest of big-tent moments for launching the broadest possible resistance under the banner of a patriotism that portrays Trump and Bannon as guilty of un-American activities.

And it’s here in particular that so many dystopian novels provide the wrong kind of guidance. Trump’s end will not come at the hands of a Katniss Everdeen. A belief in an individual savior who successfully challenges a “totalitarian” system got us into this crisis in the first place when Donald Trump sold himself as the crusading outsider against a “deep state” controlled by devious liberals, craven conservatives, and a complicit mainstream media. Nor will it help for Americans to dream about leading their states out of the Union (are you listening, California?) or for individuals to retreat into political purism. Given that the administration’s dystopian vision is based on chaos and fragmentation, the oppositional response should be to unite everyone opposed, or even potentially opposed, to what Washington is now doing.

As readers, we are free to interpret dystopian fiction the way we please. As citizens, we can do something far more subversive. We can rewrite our own dystopian reality. We can change that bleak future ourselves. To do so, however, we would need to put together a better plot, introduce some more interesting and colorful characters, and, before it’s too late, write a much better ending that doesn’t just leave us with explosions, screams, and fade to black.

TomDispatch, March 13, 2017

Categories
Books Eastern Europe Featured Fiction

Splinterlands

splinterlands2

Part Field Notes from a Catastrophe, part 1984, part World War Z, John Feffer’s striking new dystopian novel, takes us deep into the battered, shattered world of 2050. The European Union has broken apart. Multiethnic great powers like Russia and China have shriveled. America’s global military footprint has virtually disappeared and the United States remains united in name only. Nationalism has proven the century’s most enduring force as ever-rising global temperatures have supercharged each-against-all competition and conflict among the now 300-plus members of an increasingly feeble United Nations.

As he navigates the world of 2050, Julian West offers a roadmap for the path we’re already on, a chronicle of impending disaster, and a faint light of hope. He may be humanity’s last best chance to explain how the world unraveled—if he can survive the savage beauty of the Splinterlands.

Publication Date: December 6, 2016; order here.


Related Articles

From Here to Dystopia, Foreign Policy In Focus,

Excerpt — AlterNet, December 7, 2016

How Donald Trump Changed Everything, 2016-2050 — TomDispatch, December 6, 2016

Splinterlands: The View from 2050 — TomDispatch, November 10, 2015


Interviews

KGNU, December 27, 2016

Catskill Review of Books, December 23, 2016

C-Realm, December 21, 2016


Event Videos

At the New School on February 16 with Elzbieta Matynia, Jeffrey Goldfarb, and Bill Hartung

 

Reviews

 

“In a chilling, thoughtful, and intuitive warning, foreign policy analyst Feffer (Crusade 2.0) takes today’s woes of a politically fragmented, warming Earth and amplifies them into future catastrophe. Looking back from his hospital bed in 2050, octogenarian geo-paleontologist Julian West contemplates his fractured world and estranged family. West is writing the follow-up to his bestselling 2020 monograph, Splinterlands, in which he analyzes the disintegrated international community. By 2050, the refugee-saturated European Union has collapsed; the countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China have splintered; and Washington, D.C., is gone, destroyed by Hurricane Donald in 2022. There are water wars, imitation foods made from seaweed, inequality, disease, and sleeper terrorists. On a virtual reality trip to make amends, West visits his children—professor Aurora in a deteriorating Brussels rampant with kidnappings; wealthy opportunist Gordon in Xinjiang, no longer part of China; and freedom fighter Benjamin in prosperous Botswana. His ex-wife, Rachel, lives in a commune in a snowless Vermont, now a farming paradise. Lending credibility to his predictions, Feffer includes footnotes from West’s editor written around 2058. This novel is not for the emotionally squeamish or optimistic; Feffer’s confident recitation of world collapse is terrifyingly plausible, a short but encompassing look at world tragedy. ”
Publisher Weekly, Starred Review

 

“Feffer’s book is a wild ride through a bleak future, casting a harsh, thought-provoking light on that future’s modern-day roots.”
Foreword Reviews



Splinterlands is a compelling account of what may happen to our world if there is no common future.  At 150 pages, the novel is short and readable. I think it would be an excellent supplemental text for both introductory and advanced courses in International Relations, which can provoke discussion, thought and no doubt consternation in students about the world that they are about to inherit.”
E-International Relations Review


“Splinterlands is a timely and chilling dystopian novel.”
Washington City Paper

 

“Readers who enjoy dystopian stories that hold more than a light look at political structures and their downfall will more than appreciate the in-depth approach John Feffer takes in his novel.”
–Midwest Book Review

 

“John Feffer is our 21st-century Jack London, and, like the latter’s Iron Heel, Splinterlands is a vivid, suspenseful warning about the ultimate incompatibility between capitalism and human survival.”
–Mike Davis

 

“Splinterlands paints a startling portrait of a post-apocalyptic tomorrow that is fast becoming a reality today. Fast-paced, yet strangely haunting, Feffer’s latest novel looks back from 2050 on the disintegration of world order told through the story of one broken family– and offers a disturbing vision of what might await us all if we don’t act quickly.”
—Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickle and Dimed and Living with a Wild God, and founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project“A chilling portrayal of where the politics of division could take us. Now I only hope he writes the sequel to tell us how to avoid it!”
—Naomi Oreskes, co-author of The Collapse of Western Civilization