Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Drowsing toward fascism

In John Neufeld's novel Sleep, Two, Three, Four!, the United States has become a fascist dictatorship, run by President Wagenson, who had at first been elected legitimately but then refused to step down at the end of his term.  A complicit Congress confirmed him as president-for-life, with the argument that rampant crime, lawlessness, and illegal immigration rendered it dangerous to switch administrations.  Wagenson and his cronies made sure that the justification never went away by engineering unrest, including raids on people's houses where anything, short of rape or murder, was permitted.

Keep people afraid, and you retain the support for those who claim to know how to fix it.

Along the way, fundamental rights were suspended one by one.  The press went first; news media fell under state control, so that the government had a stranglehold on what the public learned.  Any media outlets that objected (or refused to comply) were labeled as enemies of the people, and were closed down.  Other types of media had to have state approval as well; books, movies, and music that were "degenerate" were banned, their creators blacklisted or even sent to "re-education camps."  Schools were the next thing to be clamped down on -- students received approved curricula, history rewritten to sing the praises of the straight White Christian supporters of the president, and to denigrate (or ignore entirely) the contributions from other parts of society.  Immigrants, especially, were reviled, rounded up and sent back to their place of origin even if they'd immigrated legally.

Many simply "disappeared."

Dissenters were jailed, student protestors at colleges arrested and sent to detention centers, children removed from the homes of "unfit parents" (i.e. those who opposed the president).  But during the lead-up to all this, surprisingly few people had objected; no one seemed to believe where it all was headed, that a dictatorship could happen here in the United States.  Here's how the character of Raph explains it:

"[B]y that time, what was left [of the country] was pretty drowsy itself.  What was left could hardly keep awake long enough to do anything." 

"Exit and entry passes," Gar supplied.  "Special Forces Units, neighborhood guards, curfews, censorship."

"Right," Raph said.  "It's just like being put to sleep...  At some point, it's too late.  You're nearly there, and there's nothing you can do to keep yourself awake.  You just stop struggling, give up, and drift off."

"Marching to sleep," Gar said wonderingly.  "Left, right, left, right, hup two three four."

"There's one thing else, boy," Raph said.  "It couldn't have happened if the people hadn't let it happen.  When the Government asked them to give up something like freedom of the press, for instance, because of an emergency or some national security problem, why, people just good-naturedly gave it up.  They figured the Government must know what it was doing.  If the Government said it was okay, why, since it didn't seem to affect them any, it was okay by them, too...  Wagenson said, 'Let's build a wall to keep the bad people out.'  And people said, 'Well, we don't want bad people here, after all.  Sure, go ahead.'  And when Wagenson said, 'Listen, folks, you don't mind if we come in and search your homes and offices, just in case we find something illegal, because there's so much illegal around' -- why, the people just nodded and smiled and said, 'Sure, if you really think it's necessary, you must know what you're doing, go ahead.  As long as it doesn't seem to bother us none, why you just go right ahead.'  And when Wagenson said he couldn't control crime and violence and the students who were protesting unless he had special powers, like putting people away just because they looked suspicious or because once before maybe they'd fallen into trouble and might get into it again, why everyone nodded and said, 'Why not, if that's what'll get the job done?'"

The story centers around six teenagers who -- for varying reasons -- join a nascent resistance movement.  They are declared enemies of the state and forced to go on the run, pursued by pro-Wagenson armed units increasingly desperate to capture them, or to silence them in any way they can.

It's a gripping story, and surely by now you must be seeing all the dozens of parallels to the current situation in the United States.  But there's one thing I haven't told you.

Sleep, Two, Three, Four! was published in 1971.

John Neufeld was frighteningly prescient.  We have a multiply-indicted wannabe dictator running for president, who already once refused to accept having lost an election and who will certainly do so again if he loses this one.  One state after another are passing laws banning books, removing them not only from schools but from public library shelves, often for no other reason than featuring racially diverse or LGBTQ+ viewpoints, or casting the history of the United States in a light critical of the straight White Christian hegemony.  College protestors are being rounded up and jailed, some evicted from their dorm rooms indefinitely for participating in their Constitutionally-protected First Amendment right to assemble and state their views publicly.  And we have a party whose platform hinges on keeping people afraid, painting The Other as something fearful, whether it's immigrants, people of other religions or races, queer people, trans people, the disabled, atheists, freethinkers, or dissenters.

If Neufeld wrote his book today, it would be considered a heavy-handed and obvious parody of the people currently in elected office (or running for it).  As it stands, it's a fifty-year-old warning; a terrifying vision of where we could all too easily end up.

Let us hope that enough of us are not, in Raph's words, "too drowsy to do anything."  Oscar Wilde famously said, "Life imitates art more than art imitates life;" but I pray that in this case, the great man's words prove wrong.


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