Dystopian fiction and radical politics
Monday, November 5, 2018
Supergirl: Man of SteelThe CW's Supergirl has taken a dystopian turn this season, in an admirable attempt to say something meaningful about America's current tilt toward xenophobia.
Unfortunately, it's a bit of a mess, and it reinforces some pernicious myths about extremism.
In a recent episode, "Man of Steel," the show's writers tried to flesh out a major villain for the season, Ben Lockwood, aka Agent Liberty, an anti-extraterrestrial-alien extremist, or an anti-immigrant Earth Firster. The episode hits you over the head with the metaphor, which is fine, except that people might think this is what radicalization actually looks like.
All of the problems below are fairly common to fictional stories about terrorism and extremism, and they are understandable, given the need to tell a dramatic story with an interesting villain. But particularly now, as America is grappling with a wave of real-life xenophobic radicalization, it's important to understand where fiction fails.
"Man of Steel" perpetuates three major myths about radicalization, all of which serve to legitimize extremism in an effort to humanize its villain.
MYTH ONE: The True Grievance
It's common knowledge that extremists have grievances. What is less well-understood is whether those grievances are legitimate. While some extremists are, in fact, radicalized by genuine grievances, it's also very common (particularly in the xenophobic style) for those grievances to be exaggerated at best, and imagined at worst.
Not so Ben Lockwood! His grievances are right out there and real. His house was burned down and his family nearly killed by aliens! His company was put out of business by aliens! Unlike most extremists, he has been directly negatively impacted by aliens.
These events are writ large in part because it would be a pretty boring story if Lockwood was radicalized by memes on Twitter, but nevertheless, it distorts the narrative. This is a common problem in most depictions of terrorism, of course, most recently seen in Amazon's Jack Ryan series. Fictional terrorist villains are forged in fire, rather than being, say, rich kids with too much time on their hands.
MYTH TWO: The Elites Don't Care
Catco Editor-in-Chief James Olsen meets with Lockwood (because "he always has times for subscribers," which is actually the least realistic thing in this episode). Lockwood wants Olsen to do a story about the impact of aliens on ordinary people. Olsen is completely tepid about a story that any real-world newspaper would totally do, and then he tips his hand at the end by revealing that alien-loving Lena Luthor now owns Catco. Any extremist narrative worth its salt warns that the elites are working with the out-group and oblivious or even hostile to the extremists' in-group. It's true in this case! Both Lena and Olsen really are aligned with the aliens, and Olsen is really indifferent to how current events are affecting the in-group. Lena is seen to be similarly indifferent in various scenes, although she eventually makes a day-late-dollar-short effort to do lip service to Lockwood's problems.
MYTH THREE: The Otherness of the Other
This is a perennial problem when using extraterrestrials as an allegory for human conflict, and one reason I really don't like it when creators do this.
Extremists believe that their out-groups -- whether religious, racial or national -- are not really human. Sometimes they see out-group members as less than human, akin to animals, sometimes they see them as more than human, usually in demonic terms, as in the case of Christian Identity, whose adherents believe non-whites are literally descended from Satan. Because their enemies are not fully human, the extremists feel justified in opposing them, often with violence.
But aliens really aren't human! It's hard to argue with the fact that bullets bounce off of Supergirl or that aliens with super-strength can do heavy labor more efficiently than humans. Extremists create a narrative that out-group enemies are not human, but it's not true. Aliens are really, incontrovertibly different and, in the world of superheroes, they are usually physically or even mentally superior to humans. Klingons really are warriors! Cardassians are devious! Wookies are really strong! Predators really are violent predators! Protomolecules are... well, it's kind of hard to say, but they're definitely different.
While the more thoughtful works peel back these assumptions a bit (as Star Trek sometimes does with Klingons, and sometimes really fails to do), fictional depictions of aliens tend to paint with a broad brush that validates stereotyping of the other. That doesn't mean it's OK for characters in these stories to hate aliens, but when you use aliens as an allegory for racism or xenophobia, you reinforce the idea that the subject of the allegory (in this case, immigrants and refugees) really is different from the human in-group.
All of this might be seen as nitpicky and unfair, and maybe it is. No one wants to watch a story whose archvillain's backstory is that he was an ordinary middle-class kid who spent too much time on 4chan. But these misconceptions undercut the good intentions of shows like Supergirl, and the claims to authenticity made by shows like Jack Ryan.
It's more challenging to create stories that deal with extremism as it exists in the real world, but it's certainly possible. For instance, It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis captures a lot of dynamics about how society falls into extremism and conveys less kinetic concepts like feelings of helplessness through superior craft. The Expanse does a pretty good job with these issues, by incorporating terrorism, extremism and identity politics without necessarily making them the main focus of the story. For other types of shows, and Supergirl is definitely one of those types, the challenge is much greater. It's worth undertaking, perhaps, but some nuance and authenticity would make the allegory more effective.
A lot of people, both in and out of the extremism studies and practitioner communities, feel like radicalization is a process that can be explained intuitively, but intuitive explanations of extremism are often wrong. If you want to use art to send a message about extremism and its causes, it's probably a good idea to push past these seemingly obvious tropes in search of something deeper.
Sunday, April 15, 2018
Deliver Us From Dystopia
Much has been written about Lord of the World, a 1907 religious-dystopian novel about the fall of Christianity, the coming of the anti-Christ and the end of the world, which has been touted as prophetic by the last two popes and a variety of other Roman Catholic luminaries over the years.
The book is sometimes credited as being the first modern sci-fi dystopian novel, a claim that is easily dismissed. Even allowing for some vagueness around the word “modern,” Lord of the World has many obvious forebears, such as The Angel of the Revolution (1893), The Last American (1889), the unpublished 1863 Jules Verne novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century, and more than a dozen novels about the Chinese conquest of America. Some of these included fantastic or science-fiction elements, while others were set in the not-too-distant future.
More significantly, given its notoriety, Lord of the World is not the first dystopian novel to address the decline and fall of Christianity, and elements of the book are suspiciously similar its predecessors in this subgenre. Fictional accounts of religious apocalypse (as opposed to prophetic or scriptural accounts) first started to appear in significant numbers after the 1805 publication of Le Dernier Homme by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville, which is believed to be the first clear example of the science-fiction subgenre named after the book’s title, “The Last Man” – the extinction of humanity as seen in the story of its last survivor. de Graineville’s book inspired a number of direct imitators on the topic of the last man in fiction and poetry.
Le Dernier Homme contained many elements of modern dystopia, including the description of a futuristic human race with great technology, but cursed by declining fertility, but its structure and plot are much more reminiscent of religious apocalypse writing. As the 19th century progressed, the classical dystopian genre—stories of a broken or irretrievably corrupt society—exploded into popularity. Many of these were racial in nature, describing the decline of white supremacy to competing demographics, but some waded into more complex technological, political and religious waters. British authors produced a number of religiously oriented dystopias during the late 1800s, such as 1891's The Christ That is to be, which describes the Second Coming of Christ to a decaying Britain that has been overrun by socialism.
The Rev. Annabel Lee was an early example of Christian dystopia, describing a futuristic world in which the old religions have declined in favor of a new religion called Humanity, and therein lies an interesting question, because while the two books are wildly different, Lord of the World (published almost 10 years later) describes a very similar secular religion unfolding in roughly the same time frame. The similarities suggest that the author of Lord of the World, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson borrowed the outline of the religion of Humanity, as it is called in both books, from Robert Williams Buchanan, the author of The Rev. Annabel Lee.
Buchanan was a Scottish poet who wrote extensively, and sometimes critically, about Christianity. The Rev. Annabel Lee is half frivolous romance-story and half polemic about Christianity. Its protagonist, Annabel Lee, is a woman of the 21st century who diagnoses the inadequacy of the official world religion of Humanity and leads a movement to revive Christian belief. The book ends in tragedy, but with a promise that Christianity is on the rebound.
In contrast, Benson was an Anglican priest in England who had scandalously converted to Catholicism. His novel is a far cry from Buchanan’s—grim and extreme. While the setting is very similar, a 21st century world in which the religion of Humanity has replaced dying Christianity, the storyline is very different. In Lord of the World, the anti-Christ arrives and precipitates a global genocide of the world’s few remaining Catholics, a campaign that culminates in the end of the world.
While there are similarities between the two books in their science fiction elements (airships, wireless communications), the more important meeting is over the religion of Humanity.
In The Rev. Annabel Lee:
For it was the twenty-first century — measuring the period by the chronology of the Christian Era — that is to say, from the birth of Jesus Christ onwards — and Humanity, the Great Being, the God whom the great scientists and philosophers of the last decades of the nineteenth century had prophesied, had at last come to his throne. All the prophecies indeed had come to pass. Man was master of the world and of his own destiny, and Science, by abolishing nearly all the evils which had devastated the earth for so many centuries, had produced an almost perfect race. …We should grossly libel the spirit of the twenty-first century if we described it as either grossly material or openly irreligious. The City had its Churches and Temples of Humanity, and therein men and women worshipped all that was best and beautiful in human character all that shed peace and happiness on the human race.In Lord of the World:
… "God" was the developing sum of created life, and impersonal Unity was the essence of His being; competition then was the great heresy that set men one against another and delayed all progress; for, to his mind, progress lay in the merging of the individual in the family, of the family in the commonwealth, of the commonwealth in the continent, and of the continent in the world. Finally, the world itself at any moment was no more than the mood of impersonal life. It was, in fact, the Catholic idea with the supernatural left out, a union of earthly fortunes, an abandonment of individualism on the one side, and of supernaturalism on the other. It was treason to appeal from God Immanent to God Transcendent; there was no God transcendent; God, so far as He could be known, was man.In both books, the legalization of euthanasia is a key practice of Humanity. In Annabel Lee’s world, euthanasia is tied to a program of eugenics and nutrition, which has produced a “New Race of men and women” among whom “Sickness, Poverty, Disease, and Crime were practically unknown.” In Lord of the World, euthanasia is available for anyone who is sick, aged, gravely injured or simply unhappy.
Another point of overlap between the two books comes in the diagnosis of where Humanity fails, criticizing its goal of assuring secular happiness above all else. Buchanan and Benson both refer to Christ as the “Man of Sorrows” (in Christian theology, an Old Testament reference to the Messiah) and describe how Humanity fails by eliminating the clarifying virtue of suffering.
And it seemed now, since men were beneficent and good, and sorrow almost abolished, and the bread of life a certainty for all who deserved to live, and the sick and foul stamped out almost utterly, that Man could advance no more in happiness, though he might perchance in power and knowledge. … “If there were no pain, no calamity, no struggle, there would be no Love,” [in the words of Annabel Lee.] “The face of Man would be a mask of happiness, but his heart would remain a machine, and his conscience would be dead. The day he arrogates God's Seat and pro claims aloud that he has fully abolished suffering, he will pause upon his upward way and bow the head to Death indeed!”Lord of the World:
…while Humanity- Religion endeavoured to abolish suffering the Divine Religion embraced it, so that the blind pangs even of beasts were within the Father's Will and Scheme; or that while from one angle one colour only of the web of life was visible— material, or intellectual, or artistic— from another the Supernatural was as eminently obvious.Finally, and relatedly, Humanity is depicted by both authors as successful in eliminating most war, disease, crime and human misery. This is one of the classic scenarios of the dystopian genre—what would you exchange for an end to crime, poverty, sickness? How far would you go? As in many dystopias (such as Rollerball and The Purge), the regime succeeds in meeting many of the long-imagined goals of society, enforcing law and order and ensuring a form of prosperity.
But this classic proposition typically fails when confronted with its shortcomings, and in both books, Humanity shows its true colors when confronted by Christianity. In Annabel Lee, Humanity’s commitment to freedom of thought gives way to persecution, although the book ends before that conflict is fully realized. In Lord of the World, a similar dynamic plays out, with Christians tolerated at the start of the book, but met with oppression and finally genocide, as the anti-Christ leads an all-out military assault on the last strongholds of the Catholic Church, killing almost all the believers.
Buchanan died on June 10, 1901, on the same day as Sir Walter Besant, another early British dystopian author. In an unkind double obituary, The New York Evening Post wrote that “The death of Sir Walter Besant and of Robert Buchanan in one day can hardly be called a great loss to English letters, for neither man stood in the first rank.” Reviewers of the day panned The Rev. Annabel Lee, finding its writing flighty and its female protagonist improbable.
But both were important early British authors in the dystopian genre, and given their geographic and thematic proximity, it’s very possible than Benson was acquainted with the work of both authors. According to his biographer, Benson was directly acquainted with Besant’s sister-in-law, a prominent Theosophist and Freemason. Benson’s version of Humanity was closely tied to Freemasonry, which is cast in a very negative light.
While Benson does not directly lift any lengthy passages from Buchanan, it’s hard to conclude that Benson was not familiar with The Rev. Annabel Lee when reading the two books side by side—although it should be stressed that I haven’t found any evidence aside from the textual similarities noted above. Further examination of both men’s bodies of work might offer more insight.
Benson’s vision was grimmer than Buchanan’s, and far more Catholic. Lord of the World is, in many ways, a book about Catholic faith, belief and practice, delving into esoteric and mystical reflections, sometimes at the expense of plot. The book’s story is often sketched very broadly, and conventional details frequently
Nevertheless, the novel has had an impact over the years, including on the last two popes, which may offer some sobering insight into how they see the current state of the church and its prospects for the future. Reportedly, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger cited the book in a dire speech decrying the rise of a secular “New World Order.” This claim is repeated on a number of apocalyptic-leaning Catholic sites and is cited on Wikipedia, as well as in promotional materials for a recent edition of the book, but I couldn’t find a primary source for this online and in English.
Pope Francis’s interest in the book is somewhat better (or at least more copiously) documented. Francis has said that anyone who wants to understand him should read the book. In a 2013 sermon, he pointed to the book as “almost a prophecy” of how pressure to compromise with the secular world can lead to “apostasy.” In a 2015 interview, he said:
There is a book, excuse me but I'll make a commercial, there is a book that maybe is a bit heavy at the beginning because it was written in 1903 in London. It is a book that at that time, the writer had seen this drama of ideological colonization and wrote in that book. It is called "The Lord of the Earth," or "The Lord of the World." One of those. The author is Benson, written in 1903. I advise you to read it. Reading it, you'll understand well what I mean by ideological colonization.For a pope who has been lauded by some as progressive, Francis’s recommendation should offer a note of caution, or at least of counterweight. Lord of the World is apocalyptic, reactionary and paranoid, depicting a church under final, bloody assault from the forces of Satan. Although its Catholic protagonists engage primarily in passive resistance, the lessons of the book are explicitly geared toward Armageddon.
Monday, April 17, 2017
When? A Prophetical Novel of the Very Near Future
Strategic Counter-Terrorism Communications project. The paper examines the evolution of the white supremacist ideology Christian Identity from its roots in British-Israelism, a historical theory claiming that Anglo-Saxons are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. The excerpt has been lightly edited to remove first references. The paper is expected to publish this week, and this post will be updated with a link.
When? is a dystopian/apocalyptic novel about the End Times as seen from a nominally British-Israelist perspective, but in fact, “the work stands as one of the first statements of what was to define Christian Identity doctrine, the belief that the Jews are the offspring of Satan,” according to Michael Barkun.
The book opens with a stipulation from the author:
Do not let the reader be deceived into believing that this book is anti-Semitic. Actually it is just the opposite, the writer himself being of Semitic Judah, and therefore wishing to point out that there are two types of so-called Jews, the real Semitic Jew and the Ashkenazim so-called Jew who is a convert to Judaism only, ostensibly by religion, but not by blood.The protagonist of When? is Brian Benjamin, a British secret agent of Sephardic Jewish descent, engaged in spying on Magog, an enemy state led by Gog, whose intelligence apparatus has infiltrated the West and who is now preparing to wage war for the Holy Land. Benjamin makes the mistake of asking his superior officer questions about who the real Jews are, resulting in an epic amount of exposition that one of the characters even concedes is a “long rigmarole and not very much to the point.”
In the style of other political dystopias, When? features lengthy Socratic dialogues at the expense of plot, in this case including extensive bibliographies from the voluminous output of past British Israelists, as well as race theorists and anti-Semites.
Published in 1944, When? is overwhelmingly concerned with discrediting the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to Palestine on the grounds of race, religion and politics. It does so by citing a torrent of British-Israelist authors—the characters at times literally read books to each other—and the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which moves in this text from being an influence on British-Israelism to being a primary source.
When? introduces a new and important thread to British-Israelist thought. The author reiterates previous claims that Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of Esau/Edom, but adds two crucial new elements to the story—first, that the Edomites are descended from Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, and second, that Cain is not the son of Adam, but rather the son of Eve and the serpent from the Garden of Eden story—Satan himself. Thus, the author argues, Ashkenazi Jews are the “seed of the serpent,” literally Satanic in their origin.
The author’s argument states definitively that Cain is “spiritually” the son of Satan, and leaves open the strong implication that there is more to the story.
“…Who do you think was the father of Cain?”The When? author stops short of unambiguously stating that Cain is the genetic son of Satan, but he strongly implies it and documents biblical accounts of interbreeding between “fallen angels” and Cain’s progeny. Whether or not Cain was Patient Zero for the demonic seed, the phrase “seed of the serpent” has literal, genetic meaning here.
The theory that Cain was the son of the serpent (whether physically or spiritually) was not new. It had originated in Jewish and Gnostic writings in antiquity, and enjoyed somewhat of a revival in the 19th and 20th centuries. The When? author combines this idea with British-Israelist genealogies to create the foundational claim of Christian Identity—that modern Jews are descended from Cain and from Satanic supernatural beings. The author further claims Satan’s conspiracy against Anglo-Israel— explicitly referencing the Protocols—originated with Cain, who is cast as the founder of the “synagogue of Satan.”
The argument mounted in When? incidentally opened the door to designating all non-white races as the progeny of Satan, as Identity ideologues would later do, but the author did not press that claim directly. And despite their demonic bloodline, the author leaves open the possibility of redemption for the serpent’s seed: If Jews accept Christ, they can still join the kingdom.
After almost 100 pages of dialectic exposition in the pages of When?, the battle of Armageddon finally takes shape, as the armies of Gog take Jerusalem. In an inexplicable narrative choice, the author inflicts a concussion on protagonist Brian, who literally sleeps through the apocalypse, waking up weeks later to have events described to him by another character.
While Brian slept, the forces of British Israel formally prayed to God for deliverance, and Gog’s forces were immediately struck down at their moment of triumph by a supernatural “holocaust” that kills thousands of enemy soldiers, swallows their leaders whole, and destroys the Dome of the Rock and other Muslim structures. 
The Second Coming follows. After the earlier success of prayer, the King of England broadcasts a statement to the British Commonwealth and America acknowledging their true identity as the nation of Israel, urging all subjects to give thanks and pray for the return of the kingdom. Fire falls from the sky to destroy the “synagogue of Satan,” as well as any Nazi, Fascist or Communist sympathizers.
Christ returns as king of an Anglo-Saxon empire on earth. This kingdom is explicitly millenarian, again advancing ideas that had mostly been left implicit by earlier British-Israelist authors. When? concludes with the beginning of Christ’s 1,000-year kingdom on earth, after which the Final Judgment would eventually be carried out.
This millenarian utopia is described at some length. Christ racially purifies the United States and Canada by “removing” (through unspecified means) the “seed of the serpent” races. These races are not exterminated, but they lose all of their military and political might. Christ takes up the post of King of Israel and restores “Natural Law,” while reforming man’s banking, currency and tax laws, which are discussed in some detail. Many of these seemingly irrelevant details would become doctrinal tenets in later iterations of Christian Identity.
From start to finish, When? reflects and illustrates the challenges facing contemporary British-Israelism. In addition to his primary focus on rebutting Zionism, the author repeatedly lashes out at the historians and theologians who undermined British-Israel theories, bemoaning the fact that “British-Israel theory is scoffed at by most people.”
When Christ returns and smites the seed of the serpent, he also vengefully strikes down “those who rejoiced the pride of their scholarship and had taught that the Bible was not true.” Among those blamed for leading Israel astray are the Roman Catholic proponents of replacement theology, perhaps the oldest thorn in the side of British-Israelist doctrine. Critically, the author reclassifies many Christian critics from being misguided members of the in-group to vilified members of the out-group – dupes or willing participants in the Protocols conspiracy, spreading the “Zionist scholarship” of the “seed of the serpent.” Those who reject the truth of British-Israelist teaching are repeatedly deemed “apostates.”
While presented as a work of British-Israelism, When? is instead the start of something new—a full-fledged extremist movement, Christian Identity.
 Judah, H. Ben. When? A Prophetical Novel of the Very Near Future. British Israel Association of Greater Vancouver. 1944.
 Barkun, Michael. Religion and the racist right: The origins of the Christian Identity movement. UNC Press Books, 1997. p 51.
 Judah, op. cit., p 3.
 Berger, J.M. “The Turner Legacy: The Storied Origins and Enduring Impact of White Nationalism’s Deadly Bible”, The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague 7, no. 8 (2016). pp 14, 19, 23, 33.
 Judah, op. cit., pp 21-31.
 Judah, op. cit., 69-75.
 Judah, op. cit., 68-69.
 Judah, op. cit., 72-74.
 Stroumsa, Gedaliahu A. Guy, and Guy G. Stroumsa. Another Seed: Studies in Gnostic Mythology. Vol. 24. Brill Archive, 1984. pp 48-51.
 Barkun, op. cit., 171-174.
 Judah, op. cit., 90.
 Judah, op. cit., 88-113.
 Judah, op. cit., 118-121.
 Judah, op. cit., 155-156.
 Judah, op. cit., 122-132. Berger, J.M. Without Prejudice: What Sovereign Citizens Believe. George Washington University, Program on Extremism. June 2016. pp 8-10.
 Replacement theology holds that the covenants between God and Israel described in the Old Testament were fulfilled by Christ, thus concluding their validity, or that they were replaced by a new covenant established with the coming of Jesus. Vlach, Michael J. "Various forms of Replacement theology." The Master’s Seminary Journal 20.1 (2011): 57-69.
 Judah, op. cit., 85, 154-155.
 Judah, op. cit., 12.
 Judah, op. cit., 19, 57, 116, et al.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
The Turner Diaries on PBS American Experience
I spoke with PBS American Experience about the impact and origins of The Turner Diaries, as part of their recent series on right-wing domestic extremism, including films on the Oklahoma City bombing and Ruby Ridge.
For more about The Turner Diaries, check out The Turner Legacy: The Origins of White Nationalism's 'Bible', a major research paper I wrote as part of the Counter-Terrorism Strategic Communications project at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism--The Hague.
Related to that paper, I also penned an article for The Atlantic on how The Turner Diaries shaped the direction of white nationalism in the United States, starting an evolution that has culminated in alt-right movement.
And if you're interested in how dystopian fiction interacts with radical and extremist politics more broadly, click around this site, including some "director's cut" material expanding on works that inspired The Turner Diaries, with additional detail that didn't fit into the paper:
Friday, December 23, 2016
Before The Giver, before The Hunger Games, before Divergent, there was Logan's Run.
Most people remember Logan's Run from the extremely silly 1976 movie adaptation, in which Michael York played the titular Logan, a "Sandman" who hunts "runners" in a dystopian future society. The premise of the movie is that everyone gets to live until they're 30 in a hedonistic paradise, and when they turn 30, they are sent for "renewal," meaning euthanasia. Those who don't want to be "renewed," run, which Logan himself decides to do in the course of the story.
This scenario was presented as a solution to overpopulation, a popular dystopian theme in the 1970s, most memorably addressed in Soylent Green, which will no doubt be the subject of a future post on this site. But Logan's Run is more memorable for its role in pioneering the genre it arguably spawned, young adult dystopia.
The relationship is clearer in the 1969 book version of the story, which differs substantially from its better known cinematic counterpart. The terminal age is 21 in the book, more squarely framing the story and the dystopian society around children and teenagers.
In the sense that its protagonists are all young adults, or younger, the book is a predecessor to the current wave of YA dystopian novels burning up the best-seller lists. It is not necessarily a book for young adults, however, given that it deals with sexuality among minors in a way that is uncomfortable at best and would probably create a challenge in getting the book accepted by a major publisher today. (tl;dr version, it turns out if you kill off all the adults, very young people get very busy.)
While I am not going to get into a deep analysis of this topic here and now, it is worth comparing the politics of Logan to The Hunger Games -- namely the former has some, while the latter largely does not. The Hunger Games is smarter and more sophisticated than Logan's Run, but it is very much a blank slate as far as a political message.
The Hunger Games never explains exactly what happened to the previous society, our society. A cataclysm is described in very general terms, and sketchy information about the origins of the Games themselves is provided. But the philosophy of the Capitol is not explored in detail, except for its authoritarian nature. There is a strong implication throughout the series that the 12 districts are segregated along racial lines, but this topic is never explored, and it does not feature as a grievance for the rebellion.
Suzanne Collins has stated that The Hunger Game is intended to convey an anti-war message, and this is somewhat visible by the end of the third book, but much less so in the early going. The cruelty of the Capitol is abundantly clear, as is the social stratification of the nation it oversees, but the particulars do not send an especially clear message.
To a greater or lesser extent, this problem plagues many other contemporary YA dystopias as well. Here, it's worth considering the impact of Logan's Run, the movie, versus Logan's Run, the book.
The book is a classical dystopian novel, meaning it's very political. Although the book and the movie are both silly and campy, the book gingerly steps into some analysis of the social dimensions of a society predicated solely on youth. It also explores "the Little War," the crisis that led to the emergence of this dystopian society. While the answers provided are not entirely satisfactory or convincing, they are answers. While its politics are simplistic, they are coherent. Overpopulation plus youth bulge equals purge of the old.
Most of this nuance is lost in the movie, which does not provide a backstory in any robust way and instead presages modern young adult dystopia by casting conflict as the young fighting back against the system. What the movie misses is that the system was created by the young, for the young, in revolt against the admittedly terrible adult society described in the book's backstory.
Logan's Run, the book, is a critique of the youth culture and sense of youthful entitlement that produce the dystopian regime in the first place. The progenitor young adult dystopian novel is about the extremism of youth, rather than the power of the young to save us all.
A postscript: Logan's Run spawned a number of sequels, which are on my reading list, but not near the top. But eventually, I will have some more to say on this universe.
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
Dystopian Robo-CallMy colleague Jonathon Morgan shared the following on Medium:
This week I got another robocall from a white nationalist group, this time claiming to be from the year 2029. Seriously. It describes a world where Hillary Clinton’s actions have led to mass starvation and a world government run by the Jews.The text of the call, as shared by Jonathon, can be found here. This is a startling testimony to the pervasive power of dystopian fiction -- even in short form -- as a radical political propaganda tool, and one with a long history in white nationalism specifically.
Sunday, September 18, 2016
The Spook Who Sat by the Door
One of the more interesting questions raised in my new paper, The Turner Legacy, is whether neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce was inspired to write his infamous racist dystopian novel, The Turner Diaries, at least in part, by a black nationalist novel and movie.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door, by Sam Greenlee, bears more than a passing similarity to The Turner Diaries. Both books describe a racially motivated guerrilla insurgency rising up in the United States, and both books include an element of practical advice in how to make that happen. The blueprints for revolution presented in each book are very similar.
Greenlee’s book is not as clearly documented to have inspired violent actors, but that prospect raised alarms with law enforcement. For a time, The Spook Who Sat by the Door was reputedly required reading for FBI trainees.
William Pierce was directly inspired by The John Franklin Letters, but he began writing The Turner Diaries soon after the film adaptation of The Spook Who Sat by the Door was pulled from movie theaters amidst a national controversy. Although Franklin uses a similar narrative conceit (the "found document" format), Turner is in many ways more similar to The Spook Who Sat by the Door in terms of its action-packed pace and high level of violence, although Turner ups the ante to a genocidal and apocalyptic scale.
For more on the relationship between The Spook Who Sat by the Door and The Turner Diaries, check out The Turner Legacy, my new research paper for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism -- The Hague. And click here for a list of related articles and posts on this site.
RESEARCH STATUSBooks/short stories read: 95
Films and TV series watched: 124
THE TURNER LEGACY
The Turner Diaries, the infamous racist dystopian novel by neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce, has inspired more than 200 murders since its publication in 1978, including the single deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, the Oklahoma City bombing.
The book is arguably the most important single work of white nationalist propaganda in the English language, but it is not a singular artifact. The Turner Diaries is part of a genre of racist dystopian propaganda dating back to the U.S. Civil War. A new paper from J.M. Berger documents the books that directly and indirectly inspired Turner and examine the extensive violence that the novel has inspired.
RECENT J.M. BERGER VIDEO
Supergirl: Man of Steel
Deliver Us From Dystopia
When? A Prophetical Novel of the Very Near Future
The Turner Diaries on PBS American Experience
The Spook Who Sat by the Door
The Turner Legacy
Racism and Radiophones
The Unparalleled Invasion
ABOUTJ.M. Berger is an author, consultant and analyst studying extremism. He is an associate fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism -- The Hague and a fellow with George Washington University's Program on Extremism. For more about Berger, click here.
BOOKS BY J.M. BERGER
"...smart, granular analysis..."ISIS: The State of Terror
"Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger's new book, "ISIS," should be required reading for every politician and policymaker... Their smart, granular analysis is a bracing antidote to both facile dismissals and wild exaggerations... a nuanced and readable account of the ideological and organizational origins of the group." -- Washington Post
More on ISIS: The State of Terror
"...a timely warning..."Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam:
"At a time when some politicians and pundits blur the line between Islam and terrorism, Berger, who knows this subject far better than the demagogues, sharply cautions against vilifying Muslim Americans. ... It is a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective." -- New York Times
More on Jihad Joe