In our “lockdown,” recently we watched on Amazon Prime PBS’s The American Experience’s look at the life of Walt Disney (1901-1966). He led the way in feature length animation with Snow White (1937) and followed with so many others and their now famous characters. And there are of course his Disney parks.
The program provided for me an epiphany about the man and his art. What stuck with me the most was his response to critics who dismissed his films as “corny.”
“I like corn,” was Disney’s response.
So you could not criticize him for his films and television being optimistic, dreamy, unreal, and safe… because those were his goals. He made some creative missteps – Song of the South being probably the worst – but his overall aim was always the same. His own childhood had been difficult, his father very strict, and his mother distant. In many ways his real father had been the stern father in Mary Poppins. He despised that. “I want to spoil my kids,” he said.
He felt it is adults who ruin fun. He wanted laughs and joy and safety. When he said to his wife he wanted to build an amusement park where the fantasy of his films would be recreated in real life, she was unenthusiastic: she said to him that those parks were dirty places, staffed by often not nice people, and they were not really for kids. His reply: Mine will be clean and safe and for kids.
Thus Walt Disney was actually very easy to understand. And so is his message. That is probably why his films and television and parks have endured generation after generation.
From that, I found myself reflecting on what we have been doing in recent decades especially to under-18s literature-wise. I always disliked tales that are built upon the murky notion of “dystopia.” Indeed as a teen I utterly hated having to read such books: all they usually did was cause me to roll my eyes in disdain and disgust… and if forced to read any in school I did my best just to get through it to satisfy the teacher.
And that is where I am still decades on: I know what I consider good reading and what I consider junk. As a teen I did not really know why I was so put off by such tales. By now, much older, I have figured out the reason for that distaste.
I consider most of them just personal socio-political soapbox rants dressed up as someone’s idea of fiction. For instance, I read the entire Amazon free sample of one “award-winning” such novel that has even been adapted for television. Frankly I would not pay “10 cents” for it: what I read was as fictionally subtle and inventive as a punch in the mouth.
But I had not thought systematically much about such books until recently. It was when this issue popped up (to me) a couple of years ago. You may remember: the “dystopia” we were told that had been created by US school gun violence:
That had got me thinking. Those teachers teach high school or younger, and their students are under-18s. As that second teacher tellingly notes (and curiously received no response), her students had grown depressed by “dystopian” literature.
That second teacher’s tweet speaks volumes. Those kids feel that way because such books are mostly NOT age-appropriate for under-18s. As teens they usually lack the knowledge base to enable them properly to contextualize what they are reading in terms of how it relates to the real world, and reading them therefore unnerves and even frightens and depresses untold numbers of them.
Under-18s are also largely
having them shoved at them those books’ target audience now; so of course so many are “drawn” – as that first teacher contends – to them: they are told by teachers and friends that they should be. (What a teacher demands is essentially “law.” And what teen wants to look like a “baby” to friends in admitting that a book bothers them?) However, teens are usually also taught such books by teachers who are unlikely to have nearly enough of a grounding in the issues those books raise because those teachers are not social scientists or trained historians; they are education and literature majors who became English teachers.
It is little wonder, then, really, that in 2020 we find ourselves here:
All of the current “dystopia” talk on social media is no shocker given what kids have been told to read for several decades. Naturally so many of them leave school seeming to think the deck is stacked against them and that we are fated to inhabit others’ imaginings jammed into what may well be indifferent, or even just bad, novels. Having been led to believe by teachers that such books reflect “this world” (see again the first teacher above, who apparently just let that student’s opinion stand unchallenged: I’m sorry, but that is NOT teaching) unsurprisingly as adults now they fail truly to see them for what they are: metaphorical and, above all, NOT real.
The word “utopia” first came into general use thanks to Thomas More’s sixteenth century novella describing a “perfect” (which is, upon reading, far from perfect) society: Utopia. It comes from the Greek word literally meaning “nowhere.” Over three centuries later, in 1868, it was British parliamentarian John Stuart Mill who first used the word “dystopia” to describe bad government land laws in then British-ruled Ireland:
“It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable”.
That “dystopia” word has been (too often lazily) seized upon by later-twentieth and now twenty-first century writers and filmmakers. It seems used to describe a dislocated or even apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic world usually set in situations meant vaguely to resemble our own in various, and carefully chosen, ways in order to make some social or political point(s). It is indeed possibly a clever way to offer a commentary; but it must never be forgotten it is merely commentary NOT reality.
2020 is proving a particularly bad year so far? We have had exceptionally bad years before. In, for example, tough years such as 1968, or 1864, or 1793 in the US, the problems stemmed from what Mill might have similarly called bad or mistaken governance.
1968 saw the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, riots in all major cities (and lots of smaller ones), and an ongoing war in Southeast Asia increasingly opposed by the mass of the population. 1864 was per capita the single bloodiest year in US history: hundreds of thousands of men were sent into hellish battle in which tens of thousands were slaughtered or maimed in just the hundred or so miles between Washington, DC and Richmond, Virginia in the American Civil War. The late summer of 1793 saw the Philadelphia city government collapse and the then new US federal government abandon the city in the face of a sudden Yellow Fever epidemic.
None of those, however, became some ongoing “dystopic” “new normal.” The 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak subsided and passed, thanks in part to people fleeing the city (“social distancing” in a sense, although the expression did not then exist) and especially due to the arrival of cooler autumn weather diminishing the infected mosquito population (as no real medical treatment existed for the disease), and the federal government returned to Philadelphia, and the city recovered. In May 1865, the US Civil War ended with the federal government’s decisive victory and in the next few years constitutional amendments officially outlawing slavery, granting citizenship to all born in the US, and enshrining voting rights for black men followed (although that latter, as we know, was repeatedly attacked into the 1960s in the South by whites determined to keep blacks from voting, and women too after all women in the US were given the vote in 1920). The 1968 assassins were caught and imprisoned, the Vietnam war was ended by 1973, and in the 1970s the federal government became more activist in pushing for solutions to racial inequality: helped, for example, by federal laws local black elected officials, who were few in much of the country in 1964 were becoming commonplace a decade later, and black city police officers, who were almost non-existent in 1964 in the South and were few in number elsewhere, were integral to all major city forces across the country by 1980.
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic we face is new to us and of course troubling and even tragic. However, whether the problem is gun violence, or police brutality, or a slow/poor/mistaken government response to a pandemic, or anything else, much like 1968, 1864, and 1793, or any other year, our problems too can be remedied. There is no inevitability about bad or mistaken governance.
This we are enduring now too is temporary. It is not a deranged permanent new disorder of society. We are NOT living a Hunger Games novel.