Are We Happy Yet?

Toward the end of that incredibly prescient novel, Brave New World, the Controller is having a discussion with Helmholtz and the Savage who have come to the point where they cannot accept the Brave New World and are about to be shipped off to an island where other malcontents live, though the Savage will hang himself before that can happen..

The Savage has been brought up in a reservation as an outcast reading, of all things, Shakespeare and he has been asking the director if such books are read any more in the Brave New World. Of course, they haven’t. Folks like Shakespeare simply don’t happen in the Brave New World. This world, the world Huxley sees as our future, has traded great artists and creative minds for “happiness.” As the Controller says:

“. . .our world is not the same world as Othello’s world. You can’t make [fast cars] without steel — and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they are safe; they are never ill; . . . they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. . . . that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed high art.”

Hopefully the reader will recognize the allusions to what is going on in Huxley’s dystopia. But there are several points I want to make that do not require any familiarity with the novel. To begin with, we might note the comment at the very end of his snippet: “we’ve sacrificed high art.” I used to assign this book to my students many of whom simply could not see what it had to do with them. But it has everything to do with them, because in so many respects ours resembles Huxley’s world. We have, consciously or not, traded high art for what we deem to be happiness. But, then, we have no more idea what happiness is than do the citizens of Huxley’s world. We think it’s all about pleasure as we live our hedonistic lives eating, drinking and making merry (or Sally or Ruth, or Ben) while our minds atrophy on the constant bombardment from television and electronic media and we gleefully replace the real world with social media. We even have soma — or any number of reasonable substitutes.

Huxley’s world is based on the premise that stability is better than unrest and discontent. Those who are discontented are simply removed. We haven’t gotten to that point yet — certainly not the elimination of discontented people. But if one of the two principals running for president of this country has his way we will get there. The man is deluded, of course, and wouldn’t recognize high art if it bit him in the butt. But he’s all for stability and insularity, getting rid of those who just don’t fit — i.e., those who would disagree with him and his insane policies.

It is, of course, discontent and even resentment that have formed the warp and woof of this country since a group of rebels got together and threw off the yoke of British rule and then declared their independence and wrote a constitution which is, for the most part, one of the truly great documents created by the human mind. But since that time we have seen the country gravitate more and more in the direction of Huxley’s dystopia. We seem to want to rid ourselves of those who would disagree with us or who are simply different. We certainly won’t listen to them. Rather than embrace difference and dissent, which are the lifeblood of any democracy, we seem to be content to see the country head further and further down the road toward oligarchy: let the rich buy the country and tell us what we want. After all, they are the ones who provide us with entertainment and keep our minds off real problems while, with their other hand, they rake in the profits. If this means that a great many people will die from guns going off haphazardly it matters not as long as they don’t go off in my direction. If it means that the wealthy will continue to suck the life out of a dying planet, so be it, as long as the planet lasts long enough for me to get in another round of golf.

Like the denizens of Huxley’s Brave New World, we know about diversions and having fun. We avoid strong feelings of love and affection — though we allow hatred to run rampant. We don’t have any Shakespeares any more, or any Beethovens, or build buildings that inspire deep feelings, such as the Cathedrals of old. Instead, those few with creative minds invent and tinker with inventions, ways to make our lives easier, make sure we don’t have to suffer or do without.  What is left of the arts is largely ignored in our haste to get back to our iPads. We no longer have the attention spans or the imagination necessary to engage art fully.

The fact that so many of my students couldn’t see what Brave New World had to do with their world is the thought that shakes me the deepest. We cannot possibly address our problems if we refuse to admit that  they are there, and we seem perfectly content to be….content..

Bang You’re Dead!

Just when you think you’ve heard about the most absurd human behavior —  a contest to see who can eat the most worms and cockroaches in order to win a python — you read a story like the one in a recent Minneapolis Tribune article that tells about a couple in a Minneapolis suburb who are making money from having created a “simulated killing of Osama Bin Laden experience.” (Seriously, I did not make this up!) Let’s start with a couple of paragraphs from the story itself:

Six AR-15 semi-automatic rifles are loaded with paint bullets. The Kevlar vests are 25 pounds of light body armor. And the nondescript industrial park in New Hope sits 6,900 miles from Osama bin Laden’s former compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

But the mixture of fear, adrenaline and smell of gunpowder was real enough to jump-start the heart rates of five mock Navy SEALs who cashed in Groupons for this simulated adventure that has transformed a firearms studio north of Minneapolis into a gung-ho war-game night out.

Eighteen months after a team of SEALs killed the world’s most-wanted terrorist, everyday folks like these guys can plunk down $150 for their own vicarious shot at Operation Geronimo.

The story attempts to make the project seem quite reasonable — giving a struggling business in a Minneapolis suburb a boost while helping people learn how to protect themselves under simulated conditions that make the adrenalin flow and the palms sweat, just like the “real thing.” Participants wear plastic body armor and use paintball rifles. But this is not Sheldon Cooper and his nerdy friends shooting paint balls at the pseudo-scientists in the geology department. This is supposed to simulate real life with real villains. The bottom line is that we have people pretending they are Navy SEALs, shooting cardboard cutouts of women who represent Bin Laden’s wives –“who might be carrying a bottle of kerosene” — or they might not. And, of course, there’s the fact that the real-life character they shoot in the end  — a former police sniper disguised to look like Bin Laden — constitutes a racial profile if there ever was one. Needless to say, there are minority groups in the Twin Cities who are deeply disturbed by reports of these goings-on.

So we have several interesting moral issues here in the name of teaching people how to protect themselves: racial profiling; acceptable “killing” of persons who might well be innocent bystanders in the name of “self-defense”; and fostering aggressive impulses in ordinary people who have a spare $150.00 to blow on playing a war game, of sorts. One of the participants was Ben Leber a former Minnesota Viking whose wife bought him a gift certificate for his birthday. Seriously?

I have blogged before about our limitless appetite for distractions, which Aldous Huxley noted many years ago. And to be sure, we need distractions in our stressful world. But isn’t there a point when these distractions start telling us something deeply disturbing about ourselves? Just when you think you have heard the most bizarre example possible you read about this newest attempt to give bored folks something to do in their spare time that will give them an adrenalin rush and make them feel like they have actually accomplished something important. Apparently, participants get so worked up they have trouble sleeping the following night. It does give one pause.