When will the aliens come to rescue humanity? How will the revolution start? Why don’t those few leaders with a moral compass stand up to speak truth to illegitimate power? Where is that flashing beacon of hope?
The Beacon that is Literature
I see little on the horizon to answer these questions. So, I turn to literature. And having neglected some literary landmarks over the years, I dove into Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 “ambigous utopia,” The Dispossessed. A tale of two worlds cut off from each other by centuries of distrust—the larger planet, Urras, resembling earth with its wars and extreme inequality between rich and poor; and the other, Anarres, a bleak and impoverished moon settled by utopian anarchists—it is a timely story, indeed.
Told through the philosophical voice of Shevek, a physicist from the moon who endeavors to reunite the worlds, it is impossible not to apply its lessons to the current state of affairs in the world. The riots that took place in Hamburg during the G20 summit this last week (anarchist driven perhaps, but also the expression of ordinary people looking for their own beacon of hope) aptly illustrates the anger and frustration.
Freedom and Responsibility
I’ve only just begun the book, but a passage struck me last night, compelling me to ponder the relationship between “order” and “orders,” between freedom and responsibility. The scene involves an argument the young Shevek has with a friend (Tirin) over the reasons why no one from the moon has visited the mother planet, Urras. “We are forbidden,” Tirin, says. To which Shevek replies:
Forbidden? . . . Who forbids? . . . Order is not ‘orders.’ We don’t leave Anarres because we are Anarres. Being Tirin, you can’t leave Tirin’s skin. You might like to try being somebody else to see what it’s like, but you can’t. But are you kept from it by force? What force? What laws, government, police? None. Simply our own being, our nature as Odonians, responsible to one another. And that responsibility is our freedom. To avoid it would be to lose our freedom. Would you really like to live in a society where you have no freedom, no choice, only the false option of obedience to the law, or disobedience followed by punishment? Would you really want to go live in a prison?
Certainly the book strikes a chord with me now. I still suffer a deep distress and pervasive melancholy over the election results of last year. And the ongoing assaults to our collective sanity and well-being from the current administration only amplify those feelings. Like others, I threatened (however hollowly) to move to Canada once the “Orange Menace” took office. But echoing Shevek above, I am America. I might like to see what it is like to be Canadian, but I can’t, really. The laws of either country notwithstanding, America is the skin I wear, no matter how deplorable I find nationalism.
Our Responsibility to Others is Our Freedom
Sadly, as Samuel Johnson said in 1775, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” My deeper distress comes not from the fact that such an unabashed scoundrel operates in the world, but that so many of my fellow Americans voted for him. Sure, his followers saw him as the law-and-order candidate. The candidate who would protect our freedoms. But “order” in this case comes down to “orders.” And what a slew of executive orders we have seen. I don’t believe those “patriots” most given to “bullhorning” our freedom—those for example, who flaunt giant flags on their pickup trucks—take freedom to be the same thing I do…or patriotism for that matter.
Not that they don’t make a connection between freedom and responsibility. Not that we don’t have to fight for our freedom godammit. But what that brand of American seems to care about most is the infringement of their particular freedoms: to own assault weapons; to remove regulations that interfere with their own financial gain; to use the excuse of “religious freedom” to deny services to groups of “others”; to secure their own piece of the pie even if it means others get none. It’s a freedom enforced by law, not one defined by our responsibility to each other.
Freedom or the Totalitarian State?
These themes are nothing new of course. In thinking about all this, I pulled from the shelf Erich Fromm’s psychoanalytical classic Escape From Freedom. From the back cover of my husband’s 1967 Avon edition:
If man cannot live with freedom, he will probably turn fascist. . . Using the fundamentals of psychoanalysis as probing agents, Dr. Fromm reveals the illness of contemporary civilization as seen by its willingness to submit to totalitarian rule. While the rise of democracy set certain men free in a political sense, it has simultaneously given birth to a society in which the individual feels isolated, dehumanized, and alienated. This situation has frequently resulted in blind devotion to a Leader, abject submission to an all-powerful State, and barbarous politics of aggression and mass murder.
Is this where we are in the United States at this moment? On the brink of fascism? Or have I overindulged in “fake news” put out by the “false media”? Considering that de-legitimization and restraint of the press is a common tool of despots, (witness the now closed White House press conferences), I don’t think I am overreacting.
So, I look for a beacon of hope. While our would-be fuhrer tweets his messianic diatribes to the angry dispossessed, I throw my lot in with the thinkers: with the writers and artists and filmmakers and educators who keep the intellectual flame alive. At least we are not burning books…yet.
As for beacons, thanks to Charli Mills and Carrot Ranch for provoking these thoughts with her prompt of beacon for this week’s flash fiction challenge.
I search the night sky. As if the answer were there. As if science fiction were true and benevolent aliens could save us. Why bother? I see nothing. The stars are snuffed out.
Here below flames rip at cars and barricades and shop fronts—bonfires of fury and pain. The undercurrent of violence deafens me, pulls me down on streets wet from water cannons. My hands bleed from the bricks I have thrown.
You pull my arm. You scream. The maelstrom snatches your words and eats them.
But I follow at last—you—a brighter beacon than the flames.