Dystopia is in the air these days. George Orwell's "1984" is selling like hotcakes -- if hotcakes still sold well in this low-carb world. Is the president to blame?
I think historians, no doubt working from their subterranean monasteries, bunkered from the radioactive wasteland above, will note that dystopianism, apocalypticism and other forms of existential paranoia actually predate the Trump presidency. It's a fever that passes from one subset of the population to another and occasionally blows up into a full-scale pandemic. We all carry the infection in us, sometimes slow-simmering, sometimes in remission and sometimes in extremis.
Indeed, end-of-the-worldism is, and has long been, a lucrative market niche. To believe that, one need only catch a "food insurance" ad on TV.
Under President Obama, survivalists and other tribes of doomsday preppers were the stuff of late-night comedian mockery and daytime
Shortly before the Trump inauguration, The
Madonna has a new little film out in which she declares we live in a "new age of tyranny" where "all marginalized people are in danger" and "where being uniquely different might truly be considered a crime."
So an insanely rich, decades-long global media icon is claiming the mantle of the marginalized and oppressed. Where does she find the courage to speak up?
While it's always easy -- and often fun -- to point out the irrational paranoia in others, I generally like this tendency in American culture, so long as it's kept reasonably in check. The founders were terrified of tyranny. "The Federalist Papers" name-checks one tyrannical cautionary tale after another, from the "tyranny of Macedonian garrisons" to the "elective despotism" of the Venetian republic.
The framers' genius lay in their observation that the greatest check on unbridled, or "concentrated," power was the fear it aroused in competing factions.
In other words, fear gets a bad rap.
Apathy is the practical opposite of fear. Given that tyranny, going by the historical and evolutionary record, is the natural state of humankind, the greatest bulwark against it is a highly cultivated, deeply informed but nonetheless instinctive fear.
Apathy is the grease that makes slippery slopes so treacherous.
One of the things that make our politics so ugly isn't fear, but a lack of sympathetic imagination for the fear of others. Under Obama (and FDR and others), many conservatives articulated thoughtful, informed and rational fears about where his policies might take the country. Other, often louder conservatives offered barbaric yawps based on some of the same fears. The standard liberal response was undifferentiated scorn and mockery. Today (as under Reagan and others), the tables have turned, and the roles have been reversed.
It's far better to cultivate mutual understanding of each other's fears than try to smooth away the fear of tyranny with the grease of apathy.