“O brave new world, That has such people in't!” ~ Miranda, Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
I made a comment recently on Twitter that, lately, I feel like an alien observing a strange world not of my previous acquaintance, and I cited Philippians 3:20 which reads, in part, “But our citizenship is in heaven…”
I know I’m not alone in that disquieting observation, as the world seems hell-bent on discarding every restraint and celebrating a rampant libertinism in some areas of their lives, while embracing the paternalism of the state in others. That this is all happening as an expression of the people’s will makes it all the more baffling, especially for a culture such as ours, built uniquely from its first days on a foundation of ordered liberty.
That said, however, I couldn’t help but think I’d “seen” this before.
A few months ago, an old high school reading assignment drifted up from the depths of my subconscious mind, and I began to recall why what we’re seeing in today’s world seemed oddly familiar.
British writer Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, written in 1931, was not well received when it was first published because of its dystopian view of the future. In the aftermath of World War II, one of its successors in the genre, George Orwell’s 1984, received wider acclaim and has had a greater cultural impact, perhaps because it was published in the wake of global conflict, the horrors of fascism, and the looming Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
While Orwell’s work has become a measuring stick for the descent of governments into authoritarianism, some literary critics, most notably educator Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, have suggested that Huxley’s magnum opus is proving to be more prescient.
Postman, in his eerily prophetic work, posited, and I’m paraphrasing, that Orwell’s book presumed authoritarianism at the point of a gun, while Huxley predicted a willing submission on the part of a populace whose minds were addled by entertainment and various distractions. As Postman wrote in the foreword to his book, he believed that Huxley was more on point:
Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
Neither Huxley in 1931 or Postman in 1984 could foresee Google, smartphones, streaming media, Facebook or Twitter, yet they were dead on in their premise that people would become so enamored of diversions from life that they’d be easy pickings for the elites seeking to impose their will on society – and they would willingly stagger toward their own irrelevance. Not a single shot need be fired.
Interestingly enough, Huxley himself, in a thank-you letter to George Orwell after he directed his publishers to send Huxley a copy of 1984, offered a critique in which he said “the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”
As my personal recollections of Brave New World came flooding back to the forefront of my consciousness, I resolved to re-read the book, and it just so happened that my wife had a copy of it from her college days, which she’d purchased to read for pleasure. Who knew that French college students were into English literature?
After finishing the book for a second time, and with different eyes, I am persuaded that the brave new world is not just a matter of speculation, but that it has risen. No, it may not resemble the specific incarnation presented in the book, but the outcome is roughly equivalent. Here’s what I discovered.
Sex is decoupled from commitment and procreation, rendering romance, monogamy, marriage, natural pregnancy and childbirth, parenthood, and family useless. In Huxley’s World State, human reproduction is accomplished in “Hatchery and Conditioning Centres.” Not only are children reproduced in test tubes and bottles, they are altered through the use of alcohol, radiation, oxygen deprivation and the like so that some are born with lesser capacities than others, essentially creating castes through genetic engineering. After “birth,” the engineering is augmented by “sleep teaching” and conditioning exercises where children are artificially terrorized or encouraged over certain behaviors, according to their caste. A lower caste, for example, is subjected to loud noises and electric shocks whenever they are around books or flowers, creating in them a lifelong fear of reading or botany. All members of a particular caste wear the same color to distinguish themselves from other castes.
The social conditions which allow this elaborate system to exist, however, are where the parallels with our times are drawn. With sex and procreation no longer linked, frequent sex with multiple partners is encouraged. Children engage in sanctioned “erotic play” at as young an age as possible. Adolescents and adults, raised under the mantra, “Everybody belongs to everybody else,” are expected to be promiscuous, and romance and monogamy are considered “odd.” More ominously, pregnancy, childbirth, parenthood and marriage are considered “smut,” and “living with one’s family” or having a “home” are unknown concepts to the general population.
In his article The New Birds and the Bees, sociologist Mark Regnerus describes sex in our times:
Fully autonomous. In other words, free from embeddedness in relationships. By extension, having little to do with moms, dads, and babies. See what I mean? We’re ambivalent about the procreative aspect of sex. Sex is rather all about pleasure, or, to use the lingo of a public-health friend of mine, all about the…
I’ll leave the ending of that quote to your imagination, or you’ll have to read the article, which I recommend in order for you to fully grasp the point that sex in the modern era is nearly where it was in Huxley’s novel. Without natural procreation, and the lifelong commitment of parents to raise the children they create together, sex is just “hooking up,” and how or with whom becomes irrelevant. It becomes all about pleasure, and the culture’s encouragement to engage in sex without commitment or consequences, reinforced by the words and images of our culture shaping institutions, keeps us focused on the next thrill rather than the affairs of state, or the state of our liberty.
Consumerism is a way of life. “Ending is better than mending,” and “The more stitches, the less riches” are “sleep teaching” phrases in Huxley’s world, encouraging people to buy new things rather than mend old ones to extend their use. The phrase “planned obsolescence” popped into my head as I read these chants. What was it we were encouraged to do in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to show our resolve as a nation, and to put the terrorists on notice that we weren’t afraid of them? To live our daily lives, to show our “continued participation and confidence in the American economy,” which most Americans interpreted as “keep shopping.” Enough has been written about American consumerism to where I don’t think I need to belabor the point.
Sensory and information overload entertains or disarms us. One of the entertainment highlights in Huxley’s “paradise” was the “feelies,” where you could literally feel the sensations of the characters in the movie you were watching. The focus of the movie, therefore, wasn’t the story or the message, but the feelings it creates. That statement could be made about modern entertainment in general – the more bombastic and visually stimulating it is, the better. I admit that blockbuster summer movies are a guilty pleasure of mine, and millions of others judging from the box office receipts. We have video games with force feedback so you can feel the explosions and gunfire while you play, trendy headphones and earphones plugged into portable music players and smartphones which allow the listener to tune out the world even as we work and play, and more means of sensory stimulation than we can absorb.
In the midst of this assault on our senses, we are inundated with so much information from so many sources that we can’t sort the wheat from the chaff. Google executive Eric Schmidt speculated in 2010 that, at that time, we generated as much information in two days as we did in all of human history up to 2003, and that rate of information generation is certainly on the increase. The outcome of this massive cloud of information is “information fatigue syndrome,” described as “a weariness or overwhelming feeling of being faced with an indigestible or incomprehensible amount of information.” The stress of processing so much information, and trying to determine the veracity of the information presented to us, immobilizes us and causes us to retreat to whatever it takes to calm us.
Psychoactive drugs are legal and encouraged. In Huxley’s vision, if indiscriminate sex, incessant shopping, and sensory saturation aren’t enough to satisfy you, there is always soma, a drug described as having "All of the benefits of Christianity and alcohol without their defects." A soma holiday is the World State’s way of raising, in Huxley's words, "a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds." "A gramme is better than a damn," the mantra goes, and this could be the rallying cry of today’s drug culture. Marijuana use, in particular, is increasingly common, with a United Nations report declaring it, in the words of TIME magazine, the "most widely produced, trafficked, and consumed drug in the world in 2010." The states of Washington and Colorado legalized personal marijuana use last year. Of course, alcohol consumption is another form of self-medication which remains prevalent – and legal. "Tune in, turn on, and drop out" - Timothy Leary would be quite pleased.
There are other parallels which one could draw from Huxley’s novel, including the disdain for history as a teacher (Henry Ford is their deity because of his pioneering of mass production, and his statement, “History is bunk,” is the equivalent of holy writ in the World State), the rejection of religion, and the unquestioned trust in and reliance on the state. But I think the main point is valid.
The culture it describes is no longer fiction - we have arrived. Keep the people satiated through casual sex without obligation ("everyone belongs to everyone else"), entertainment which stimulates the senses and dulls the mind ("feelies"), and constant consumerism ("ending is better than mending") and, when none of that works, readily available drugs ("a gramme is better than a damn"). Appeal to our urges and emotions, and numb us to the realities of life, and we're as docile as sheep. Welcome to the brave new world.