Terror Text

Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems.  History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists.  Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016.  One was George Orwell’s 1984,  and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter.  While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies.  The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them.  Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror.  That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate.  To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it.  Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real.  We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years.  A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing.  In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it.  Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie.  I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives.  Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?

Aggression is not a social value.  This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes.  The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others.  That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel.  Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well.  A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core.  When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force.  Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale.  Not only the Bible ends up being abused.

Classic Education

A few months ago now, just after moving, our garage flooded.  Our books, unpacked, were stored there at the time, resulting in many casualties.  As I sorted through what was destroyed—a process still ongoing—I decided that if I replaced books I would re-read them as I did so.  Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was the first replaced, and therefore re-read, volume.  For those who never had the opportunity to attend seminary, I would note that it is the ideal time for reading.  One of my professors, Harrell Beck, although he taught Old Testament, encouraged wide reading.  The Bible, he suggested, didn’t stop at the last verse of Revelation.  It was in seminary that I discovered the Brontë sisters and their remarkable literary achievements.

Wuthering Heights is fine autumnal literature and Heathcliff one of the greatest protagonist villains of literature.  An interloper among the privileged classes, Heathcliff finds delight in making others share in his suffering.  One of the more memorable characters is Joseph, the Bible-toting, Bible-quoting caretaker who sees nothing good in the younger generation.  Even Emily Brontë, the daughter of a clergyman herself, spies the hypocrisy so clear in the lives of literalists.  Joseph enjoys scolding as much as reading Scripture, and even the other servants find him tiresome.  Born in the year Frankenstein was published, Emily had Gothic sensibilities.  With the protracted death scenes and atmosphere  of loss and mourning, this classic can be a restorative in an era such as ours.  In more than one way.

Since Wuthering Heights is a classic, there’s no need to recount the story of lost love and damaged human beings.  What is important is to realize that we continue to support a social structure that repeats the sins of nineteenth-century England.  And like that setting, we do it firmly believing we are a “Christian” nation.  Joseph would surely nod in agreement.  Stripping the safety nets from the vulnerable so that the privileged classes might enjoy more of their ill-gotten gain, we live the hypocrisy of the self-righteous.  It the era of the Brontë sisters, women were not encouraged to write.  They, like the servants of the wealthy, were believed to exist for the comfort and pleasure of the master.  Not paying attention to the classics, we’ve come back to that era, claiming that wealthy white men are the true victims in all of this.  The denizens of the swamp will find their place in history next to Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Benito Mussolini.  Wuthering Heights, like 1984, will, however, remain a classic that sees through hypocrisy.

Fear Factory

Every politician knows that fear wins elections.  Just how deep into Orwellian territory we are became clear at 2:18 p.m. on Wednesday.  A man I loath and distrust, who happens hold high office sent out a national presidential alert to cell phones everywhere.  After being awakened at odd hours a time or two over my cell phone owning years, I’d turned off my smart phone alerts.  I wasn’t out driving to spot amber alert situations in the middle of the night.  If there’s a severe thunderstorm coming, I’m already awake.  The idea that if everyone with a phone is on the lookout we’ll all be safe seems a bogus one to me.  There is, however, no way to turn off a presidential alert.  Like most Americans I was working when my phone went off.  I wasn’t afraid.  Just annoyed.

Random scary sounds are among the most frightening things people experience.  I recently started writing in the attic (if you read this blog regularly you won’t even ask why).  As I was writing this post a gust of wind blew and it sounded like the roof might collapse upon me.  Sudden load sounds make us look for comfort in a strong person.  On a national scale that means, God help us, politicians.  When my phone alert goes off, it’s telling me to vote for the party in power.  There’s psychology afoot here.  This was no accidental coincidence.  Midterm elections are just weeks away.

I know something about fear.  Not only do I write about horror films, I grew up with so many childhood phobias that my mother wondered how I would ever get along.  Those phobias may have gone underground when I became an adult, but they never truly left me.  I don’t encounter them on a daily basis, but I can draw on them for my fiction.  I don’t, however, appreciate my government using them against me.  Perhaps this sounds paranoid.  If paranoid it’s by design.  Even if 45 can’t see beyond his own proboscis, those on his team know the fear factor works.  Winston will come to love big brother.  Fear robs rationality.  We’re mere primates, after all.  Was it coincidence that there was what appeared to be an impromptu Trump rally later that afternoon?  There is a difference between paranoia and naiveté.  We’re a wired nation and the Republican Party has the phone number of each and every one of us.  If this is not a drill, you know where to find me. 

No Help Wanted

Not talking to strangers is something that takes time to grow out of. Somewhere in the back of my mind lurks that fear of when my mother told me what to do if someone tried to grab me as a child. Stranger danger, we now call it. I seldom strike up conversations with those I don’t know, but I’m glad to respond if someone speaks first. So it was that I found myself at the checkout of a Walgreens drug store answering questions about my coat. Well, not exactly my coat—I still have a protest button and a safety pin on it. The safety pin is a symbol adopted in the wake of Trump, and is just as sorely needed now as it was when Pantsuit Nation began the trend. The button is outdated, from Stand CNJ. My wife and I attended the meetings of this grassroots activism group for several months, until they started meeting on weeknights. For commuters that’s the kiss of death.

The woman at the checkout asked what Action Together (the outdated name) was. Caught off guard—I was trying to remember my PIN—I said off-handedly that it was a group for addressing social causes. “What kinds of social causes?” she asked. I couldn’t tell if she was asking because she wanted to join or to challenge. Fight or flight? I punched in my number and mentioned a couple of social justice issues that I thought might appeal, such as fair wages. An older person, she was likely a minimum wager, so I was a little surprised when she said, “If you raise our wages, prices will go up, and it’ll just get worse.” I’m no economist, but I’ve noticed throughout my life that prices go up regardless of wages. I can remember when gas was 27 cents a gallon. My first several jobs were minimum wage. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer her. Here was a woman victimized by the economy and yet she, like Winston Smith, apparently loved Big Brother.

One of the strange things about social activism is that you end up trying to help people who don’t want to help themselves. The poor have been convinced that billionaires and woman-gropers look out for their best interests, financial and moral. Even when they pass a budget that will cut off their own life support, they still believe. Those who want to help are the enemy. When the Party says jump, we know what to answer. And who is Julia anyway?

1985

My edition of 1984 contains an afterword by Erich Fromm. I’m afraid I’ve been in publishing long enough to be somewhat cynical about “value-added content” that’s used to sell subsequent printings. Those who buy a book off the shelf want the text of George Orwell’s classic, not the comments of some academic, right? The intended market, however, is for classroom use—the sweet spot for academic publishers. A few adoptions at major university and what is otherwise any old tome from the used book market becomes a profitable venture. My edition of 1984 is a 62nd impression with a copyright of 1961. The class I took where it had to be read was two decades later than that. In any case, Erich Fromm. I first learned about him in college, and given the underlining in his essay I know I read it back when I took the class. In rereading it decades later, an un-remembered point came clearly to me—Fromm’s brief essay is on prophecy.

In the popular mindset, prophecy is predicting the future. While there’s some element of that in the Bible, by far the majority of prophetic texts serve as a warning to change how things are done before it’s too late. There’s a contingency about it. “Or else.” If there’s no possibility of change, why castigate people you’re only going to destroy anyway? Prophecy, despite its often dire outlook, is ultimately hopeful. Wrote Fromm “it was quite obviously [Orwell’s] intention to sound a warning by showing where we are headed.” But more important are the next words: “for unless we succeed in a renaissance of the spirit of humanism and dignity” all will be lost. The spirit of humanism.

Fromm was writing during the nuclear fear that I recall very well from childhood. As soon as I was old enough to comprehend what we had created, I feared we would eventually loose it upon ourselves. I was hardly a humanist at the time, but I was, even in my young days, an unwitting advocate of its spirit. I believed all people had a chance, or should have a chance. Foreign evil, as it was being presented by Ronald Reagan, seemed more fictional than Orwell. The average person didn’t want war. It was the Party that needed our fear. I graduated from college, seminary, and my doctoral program, eventually forgetting Fromm’s words. The Whitehouse had finally found its way out of the Bushes and into moderate humanism. Then Fromm came back.

Making Prophets

I first read 1984 around its eponymous date. The context is informative. I was a student at Grove City College, a conservative, Reagan-esque school of strong free-market inclinations. Being a first-generation college student I knew nothing of choosing a school, and since my upbringing was Fundamentalist, and since Grove City was a place I’d been many times, it seemed the natural choice. As my four years there wore one, my conservatism became effaced before what should be the effect of higher education. I was reading and learning new things—ideas that in the pre-internet days were simply inaccessible to someone from a small town which had no library, no bookstore, and, to be honest, no charm. How was someone supposed to learn in those circumstances? Largely it came down to high school (for those who finished) in a nearby town, and television. George Orwell saw the potential of the latter far too clearly.

It was in this great conservative bastion that I read 1984—I don’t even remember what course it was for. I do remember vividly the discussion of the Appendix on Newspeak—that it was a danger, a very real danger, to engineer language to prevent free thought. That was conservatism in the literal era of 1984. When that year passed we breathed a collective sigh of relief that Orwell’s prophecy hadn’t happened. Maybe Orwell wasn’t a prophet after all. The thing about prophecy, however, is that it unfolds slowly. Trump may have caught the world by surprise, but the evidence is there that the Orwellian groundwork was being consciously laid from the time of the Clinton Administration onward. Those who seemed to think Ingsoc was onto something good began working in local politics—the level of school boards and state elections, to build a strong conservative bloc. How many states have Republican governors? Go ahead and look it up, I’ll wait.

Progressives blithely moved ahead, making real ethical strides. One problem that they’ve always had, however, is believing that Evil is real. It’s an outmoded idea, fit for Medievalist thinking only. There are, however, very real racial supremacists out there. And avowed, unrepentant sexists. They feel that the great white way has been slighted and they are itching for revenge. Don’t believe me? Turn on the news. This is not your father’s Republican Party. In 1984 the Republicans were warning us about 1984. By the next decade they were actively emulating it. Orwell died paranoid and the world was relieved as his prophecy was harmlessly classified as fiction.

Beat the Press

Like many people, I’ve been re-reading 1984 and wondering what’s going on in a country I thought I knew. With clear evidence of wrong-doing on the part of the chief executive, Republicans have been closing ranks to ensure that bullies rule the playground. It couldn’t have been clearer than it was in Montana this past week. In a special election to replace one of Trump’s few appointees, Republican Greg Gianforte won the election the day after being charged with assault. This, despite being unendorsed by major Montana newspapers after attacking a reporter. In this world of alternative facts, the press is the real enemy. Those who support what’s going on in Washington are either badly deluded or unable to understand how proposed budgets will effect them. And the idiocy goes rolling along.

Our nation is weary. Headlines that could be pulled from MAD magazine appear and we count on our fingers the days until the midterm elections to try to introduce some kind of balance to this wildly yawing ship of government. You get the sense that newspaper editors are looking for anything to say that makes sense. Totalitarian governments always seek to discredit the free press. I learned about propaganda in high school, but apparently that lesson has been missing from the curricula of many schools where one man’s lies are as good as the facts of an entire nation. I admit to being a bit disoriented myself. I’ve got a life to lead and I can’t trust my government—I know, welcome to the Stateside Bloc. Can someone tell me what’s really going on?

Perhaps the most disturbing element of all of this is that the GOP is showing its true colors. Democrats aren’t perfect—not by a long shot—but they have never tried to rob the electorate of their rights and obfuscate to the point that the Father of Lies himself could take early retirement. There are books that explain this, but the Republican Party doesn’t like books and discourages reading any literature that it doesn’t sanction. Trump can completely contradict himself in Tweets and his handlers say “No, he didn’t” and that’s good enough for pushing an agenda through. Even Spicer’s lies aren’t extreme enough. We’re mainlining deception and can’t stop. Reporters can be thrown to the ground and the electorate stands and cheers. Tell people what they want to hear, and since facts are the same as opinions casting a vote is the same as throwing a punch.