Let’s face it: right now, we Americans know something about dystopias, up close and personal. And here, I’m not just thinking of the almost 600,000 (or is it more than 900,000?) Americans we’ve lost to Covid-19. What’s on my mind are smaller ways in which so many of us have been working so hard to create what can only be thought of as a future dystopian version of this country.
Take Texas, for instance. The Republican-dominated legislature there has only recently passed a bill that would allow Texans to carry handguns without a license, a background check, or training of any sort. When Governor Greg Abbott signs it, that state will be the most populous of 20 where this is now possible. Think of it as a major triumph for the National Rifle Association in a nation that already leads all others by a country mile in civilian gun ownership, has a remarkable number of mass killings, and has experienced a record surge of gun sales since the pandemic began.
On the other hand, when it comes to teaching or voting, that same legislature has been moving in the opposite direction. Its Republican representatives have been focused on limiting what can be taught in the state’s public-school classrooms when it comes to Texas’s history of slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination. As the New York Times reported recently, in “a state that influences school curriculums around the country through its huge textbook market,” the latest moves “amount to some of the most aggressive efforts to control the teaching of American history. And they come as nearly a dozen other Republican-led states seek to ban or limit how the role of slavery and pervasive effects of racism can be taught.” In other words, a version of white supremacy is being legislated into classrooms in various Republican-controlled states.
And don’t even get me started on how the Republican legislatures of Texas and other states have been moving to restrict voting both by mail and in person in all sorts of ways (even though that effort in Texas has, at least temporarily, been blocked by a last-minute walkout of Democratic lawmakers). So, carrying guns, no problem, no restrictions; teaching American history and voting in a democracy, not so much. And consider that just a small snapshot of a country, significant parts of which thank you, Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, among so many others! are working hard to turn the U.S. into a kind of hell on earth (except for the billionaires they love and cherish). And if that isn’t a dystopian version of America, what is?
With that in mind, let me call on TomDispatch‘s dystopian specialist, John Feffer, whose book Songlands, the final volume in his compelling Splinterlands trilogy of novels on this endangered world of ours, has just been published. (Order it now! You won’t regret it!) Let him take you on a little tour of dystopian America. Tom
Twilight of the Pandemic?
Bracing for a Surge of Trumpism or”
By John Feffer
I went to a birthday party recently.
The celebrants greeted each other with hugs on the patio. After an outdoor barbeque dinner, we stood shoulder to shoulder around the island in the kitchen, eating cake from small paper plates. We sang “Happy Birthday.”
Ordinarily, an event like that wouldn’t be worth noting, but these aren’t exactly ordinary times. In this twilight world of ours, half-in and half-out of a pandemic, hanging around without masks and within spitting distance of vaccinated friends should be considered just this side of miraculous a combination of luck, privilege, and a stunning series of events on a national scale that would strain credibility in a work of fiction.
To get to that birthday party required, first of all, surviving the pandemic, which has so far killed somewhere between 600,000 and 900,000 Americans, while infecting as much as one-third of the population (including, months earlier, a couple of the guests at that very birthday party). No foreign enemy has ever inflicted such casualties on America, and never in our lifetimes have American civilians faced such a catastrophic breakdown in homeland security.
Nor has the international scientific community ever responded with such dispatch and efficacy to a global crisis. Less than a year from the date of the initial outbreak, not one but several Covid-19 vaccines had been developed, tested, and approved. Then came the anxious wait for eligibility and the constant refreshing of vaccination websites to try to schedule an appointment. Only when enough people like me had gone through the extended regimen of inoculation and after the infection rate had begun to fall rapidly did officials in my home state of Maryland begin to lift quarantine restrictions.
Even though everyone at that birthday party was fully vaccinated, I still felt uncomfortably vulnerable without my mask. I hesitated before hugging people. My hands itched for a squirt of sanitizer. It was, in other words, a celebration tempered by uncertainty. We were navigating new rules of social discourse: Handshake? Bear hug? Peck on the cheek? And no one dared jinx the celebration by saying, as we normally would have, “Next year, same time, same place.”
By temperament, I’m an optimist. By profession, however, I’m a pessimist. In my day job as a foreign-policy analyst and in the speculative realm as the author of the dystopian Splinterlands trilogy of novels, I’m constantly considering worst-case scenarios.
So, yes, I’m well aware that Covid-19 infection rates have dropped to levels not seen in a year and that the United States may indeed be on track to reach a 70% vaccination rate among adults by July 4th, which could, as the president has promised, offer us a new version of “Independence Day.” But this country is still experiencing the same number of infections (tens of thousands) and deaths (hundreds) as it did during the lull following the first outbreak last year. More infectious variants of the disease continue to emerge globally, most recently in India, where the numbers have been horrific, as well as in Vietnam. The current vaccines reportedly stave off such variants, but what about the next ones?
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