The Merriam Webster dictionary define dystopia as “an imaginary place where people are unhappy and usually afraid because they are not treated fairly.” It is also used to describe a society where the negative forces have the upper hand, for example dictatorship, crime and environmental collapse. Dystopa is often used in socially critical novels and films (that deal with for example racism or social injustice) to warn against a possible development and as a satire of existing features in a society.
I’ve written a lot about what I see as a dystopian development lately. As a fan of science fiction literature I have read about this since childhood (authors like Madeline L’engle, Isaac Asimov, Octavia Butler, Philip Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Piers Anthony). Many of these books deal with the concept of good and evil, and the choices we make. They require critical thinking and you learn to think critically when you read these books. But dystopia is not as distant as many think. We don’t need to look for evidence in the literature because there are plenty of signs in real life.
We often think of others when we speak of dictatorship and environmental breakdown. It doesn’t apply to us, but I occasionally hear about disturbing things in the West as well. Not necessarily major, dramatic change, but we see small changes all the time. In the USA for instance, there is a lot of evidence that many of the rights that blacks fought for for so long are under attack today. I have previously written about US election laws that require voters to present a photo id. According to The Guardian there are 600 000 voters without an acceptable form of id in Texas, and 300 000 in Wisconsin. Reforms like this have strong support among conservative Republicans because they affect a type of voters that are more likely to support the Democrats, poor minorities. I have previously also written about states being allowed to change the elections districts, which could give minorities less influence.
I think a lot of what is going on around the world is tied to the US. Not because they are necessarily the direct cause, but because they might have to concentrate on conflicts at home. I have written some about the security situation in Europe, and I’m thinking especially about Northern Europe. There are many countries that have abandoned their defense budgets over the last few decades. The super powers started to disarm in the late 80’s, and the rest of the world felt that they had to do the same. In 1990 Norway had 156 000 soldiers in the army alone, but the whole defense consist of 24 000 active soldiers and 45 000 reserves (with very varying quality) today. The recent submarine hunt in Sweden (they had strong suspicions that the Russians had violated their territory in the Baltic Sea) have revealed the same problem there. The public debate in our neighbouring country is currently dominated by the many critics of the country having downsized the military, and of the NATO debate (they still think they are neutral).
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that both Norway and Sweden have focused on outside help (Norway depend on NATO, Sweden on EU and both probably on the USA). The armed forces in both countries are in fact unable to perform the tasks the governments have imposed on them. I have no doubt that we can count on the United States when this union of 50 states is strong, but it may not be in the future. The newspaper The Guardian recently wrote that many people in Detroit can’t afford drinking water. The waterworks in the city have decided to turn off the water to those who can’t pay.
I wrote in the post Rats in a cage that many large cities may experience riots due to water shortage. There are 18 million people living in Greater Los Angeles, but the region can at best provide 1 million people with drinking water. They have to get the water from elsewhere. This is a challenge for many large cities, but what if the infrastructure breaks down or if they for any other reasons don’t get the water they need? Furthermore, most of the drinking water in the United States contains hazardous substances. Even the sea is toxic. US authorities have, for example. warned pregnant women against eating tuna and animals living on the seabed. The reason is that they contain too much mercury. Water is only one of many sources of potential conflict in the United States. This is the case all over the world. We focus on whether or not earth can provide for more than 7 billions people. The question is how many can afford to pay for clean water.
If we think democracy there are hurdles in Europe as well. We like to point out that our neighbour to the east, Russia, is anything but democratic. Among the newest members of the European Union, we find Cyprus, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Some of these countries were probably not ready to make the move from communism to democracy, and the EU is still forced to work quite actively to combat corruption among its member countries. The best evidence for that is that 4 out of 5 residents in EU countries believe that corruption is a problem in their own country. They are doing something about it, but I’m not sure how solid democracy is in Western Europe either.
In Norway we tend to think we have the strongest democracy in the world, but the problem is we have to accept what we get. Each party have a closed nomination process, and we have to vote for the candidates a few people in the party pick out. It has been working, but during the 8 years of Stoltenbergs socalled red/green-coalition government, two small parties that had a total of 15.3 and 12.4% of the votes in the elections in 2005 and 2009 got a lot of power. The Progressive party (Frp) landed on over 22% in both elections, but were left outside.The coalition even said they planned to do everything in their power to keep Frp away from power.
In this case that may not have been a bad idea because it is a party with some racist ideas, but I still think it’s a bad idea to put democracy aside even if we think we have the best ideas. I don’t think Norwegians gave these 3 parties majority in Parliament for 8 years to do that. Incidentally, Stoltenberg, is the new Secretary General of NATO. Frp is now in a coalition government with the Conseravtive party, and they are respecting the democratic principles.
I read a new article today that made me think of dystopia again. There are many books that are illegal in US schools. It often has to do with sex and racism, but in many cases it means censoring the best, most positive ideas we have. There is, for example. many students who are not allowed to read Huckleberry Finn, because the word nigger is used in this description of the slave era in the South. Mark Twains point was to show the evil in a society that didn’t consider Africans as human beings, and therefore believed that torture and murder was okay.
The annual Banned Books Week was recently held for the 32nd time in the USA. The American Library Association collects information about the books that some see as objectionable, and these are highlighted during this week. Topics such as religion, race, gender and sexuality usually top the list, but a new trend is trying to ban books that address poverty and social class. It doesn’t mean that these books are illegal, but there is no doubt that children who are neither permitted to read these books at home, or at school, are less likely to receive this positive influence in their lives. If we don’t read these kinds of books while growing up and developing empathy, it is actually difficult to develop empathy for these groups.
We probably haven’t come this far in Norway, but it is still important to be wary. There are many people with an agenda. There are, for example, some that are so afraid of religion that they want to keep religion and philosophy entirely out of public schools. I believe this increases the likelihood of children growing up to teens/young adults that can be fooled by someone who presents a quasi-philosophy based on a mixture of a lot of things (for example a spiritualism that is exclusively about what gives yourself pleasure; others don’t matter).
There is no doubt that there is less and less solidarity in the world. It has never been more dangerous to be poor, and that includes the social democracy of Norway. It is thus legitimate to speak of a growing dystopian world. I think we are taking a lot of things for granted, from a local level to the relationship between the political world powers. Many people believed in a change when Barack Obama became president, but it turns out that he has not changed anything in terms of torture, Guantanamo Bay, surveilance, poverty etc. I end this post with a video that illustrates one of the major debates in the USA, how wealth is distributed. Comedian Bill Maher had some comments at the end of his show once:
There are many who try to disprove this type of argument. They argue that it is important to look at mobility. A large study from this year shows that it isn’t harder getting out of poverty in the United States, or to put it another way, it is just as hard as it used to be. Read about it in The Economist. An article in The New York Times confirms the impression of the American dream being more Canadian and Western European today.
But that doesn’t mean we get to keep this privilege, because life is tighter in Europe too. Politicians like to talk about free flow. Both in early 1990’s when we had a referendum on whether or not to join the EU, and today when we as an EFTA-country have a trade agreement with the EU, politicians love seducing us with positive talk of free flow of goods, services, capital and labour. It is, however, mostly money and businesses that are easy to move. There are restrictions on people who want to go elsewhere. I am one of those who have taken a reverse class journey. My parents were factory workers who could afford an apartment in a low-rise, and later a semi-detached house. I am at the age of 46 still not close to owning anything, and my rent is more than twice the amount I’d be paying on a loan. There is a something called a start loan, which is supposed to help people that can’t get a bank loan. I can’t even get this despite having a stable income.
But society is officially perfect. Those who express dangerous ideas, those trying to change peoples thinking, are often ridiculed or attacked with aggressive means. Such dangerous ideas range from vaccines and genetically modified food to skepticism towards the government. The authorities only want what is best for you. I have written extensively about the Child Welfare Service, which frankly is nothing less than a statesponsored child trafficking-organisation and systematic child abuse. Unfortunately many don’t see this. They only see people in positions of power, especially those working for the government, as their best friends. If you are one of them I have no idea what world you grew up in. It certainly wasn’t this one.
But it is more comfortable not dealing with the dangerous ideas.