A favorite theme of science fiction has always been the “alternate-Earth” theory. Somewhere out there, it goes, there is a planet that is virtually identical to ours: size, composition, everything. Same continents, same amount of water, same history of evolution for its flora and fauna. But there’s always one thing that’s noticeably different, and that’s the people. To be more specific, it is the civilization the humans on this mirror-planet have built, or destroyed, as the case may be.
The original Star Trek series explored this theme at least twice. Once, the planet discovered by the spacefaring crew of the USS Enterprise had been devastated by a man-made plague, a disease that infected people in childhood but manifested itself only when the carrier reached puberty. Then it became fatal. So, the only people left alive were children, who had somehow survived years in a Lord of the Flies kind of scenario. The other time was when Captain Kirk and his crew visited a world in which the Roman Empire never fell, and now its 1960s-era society was a totalitarian state, a logical extension of what the Romans might have done with our own Earth had their empire survived beyond the 5th century and gone on to subjugate the entire world.
Neither world was too terribly pleasant, and the lesson–the kind Gene Roddenberry always intended to teach with his innovative and ahead-of-its-time series–was that we’d better do something about our problems here on the real Earth before they overtake us. The theme was touched on by many other writers then and now, for novels, TV shows and movies. One that I was thinking about the other day was a 1973 TV-movie titled The Stranger. Like other productions in this genre, it showed us a world that is like ours but also significantly different, and not in a good way. Many times the writers of these novels and shows were seeking not just to entertain us, but to warn us, and in the case of The Stranger, we’re now closer to its reality than we might care to admit.
What’s on the far side of the sun?
Back in the early days of space exploration, some scifi writers postulated that there could be an identical Earth on the far side of our sun, in the same orbit but exactly opposite us, so that we would never see it. Since then, our interplanetary probes have proven beyond a doubt that such a planet does not exist, but it was fun to toy with the idea for awhile. One movie that was made about such a discovery was The Stranger.
The star of the film is veteran actor Glenn Corbett (1933-93), who appeared in a number of TV shows (including an episode of Star Trek) and movies over a 26-year-long career. He plays Neil Stryker, an astronaut whose one-man space capsule goes off-course. Stryker is rendered unconscious and comes to just in time to guide the capsule to a splash-landing off the coast. But when he swims ashore, he discovers that while he’s apparently in the United States–everybody speaks English with an American accent–some things are different.
For one thing, nearly everyone is left-handed. By itself that wouldn’t be a problem, but he discovers other things that don’t add up. Nobody seems to know who he is, and there’s been no news at all about his space flight. There’s a much more significant police presence than he’s used to, and he notices one publication that refers to the planet not as Earth, but as “Terra.” Finally, he finds a bookstore and asks for a volume about world history. He’s directed to a book and on the first page is this ominous sentence:
It all began with the Perfect Order.
Confused, Stryker asks the clerk if that’s all there is. “This only goes back about sixty years,” he says. And the clerk, now suspicious, says of course, that’s when the Perfect Order began. Nothing else before it matters anymore.
Finally, Stryker finds some people who can give him some answers. There was a war, he is told, a world war, and the victorious powers set up the Perfect Order so that peace could be maintained. Religion has been outlawed, civil rights suspended, and of course dissent is not tolerated. On the plus side, there is virtually no crime, scientific advancements are several years ahead of what Stryker remembers, and the people generally seem content, if less than enthusiastic about their condition. Still, he finds this all hard to believe. Is he trapped in some sort of elaborate psychological experiment? Is he going crazy? He wanders aimlessly until nightfall, when he looks up in the sky and sees convincing evidence that he’s no longer on his own planet: there’s not just one moon up there, but three.
The authorities quickly become aware that Stryker is out there, a potential threat. Who is he? Where is he from? Why is he here? He must be apprehended and interrogated, and so they begin the hunt. Stryker finds temporary safety with a group of people who form a sort of loose underground, among them a scientist who works for the Terran version of NASA. The Terran space program is slightly ahead of Earth’s, although they have not yet discovered their twin. There’s a ship preparing to launch in a few days, the scientist tells the fugitive, and if you can get aboard and replace the astronaut, you might be able to make it home. Stryker is all in for that, but since the movie was the pilot for a potential series, he has to fail, and he does. So now, Stryker is alone, a man wanted by a modern-day Gestapo, with few friends and even fewer prospects to get home.
The Stranger was not picked up as a series, although one can see the potential. It has elements of the classic novels Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, with a touch of The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive. But the production’s relatively low budget may have doomed the hopes for a series. By keeping the show located in what appears to be a modern American coastal city, with little outward indication that it is not the good old USA, production costs could be held low. The police officers and their vehicles look just like the ones on “our” Earth. There are few propaganda banners, in fact very few signs that anything is terribly different. If the producers had spent a few more dollars and jazzed things up with propaganda signage and SS-style uniforms for the cops, it would’ve made for a more compelling story. Viewers of the modern Amazon series The Man in the High Castle know how that works. Set in an early-sixties America that lost World War II, the show is not shy about giving us real SS troops and Nazi flags everywhere, not to mention other signs of authenticity, including a 73-year-old Adolf Hitler giving a speech on TV. The first season has some references to how the Germans won the war, basically by developing atomic weapons first and using them, and explains that they now control two-thirds of the United States, with Japan occupying the West Coast. The Rocky Mountains separate the two suspicious powers, and comprise a sort of neutral zone where fugitives from both sections can seek refuge.
The show also posits an interesting concept that The Stranger touched upon only briefly. In the first season of High Castle, set in 1962–fifteen years after “V-A (Victory in America) Day”–we see that these people are well ahead of where we actually were, technologically. Color TV is commonplace; it was rare back in the real ’62. Supersonic passenger aircraft are in wide use, years ahead of the Concorde, and it is mentioned that a moon landing is imminent, or has already occurred. The scientific advances seen in the Nazi-dominated society have come about because the government can pour resources into technology and research that we in our world devote to things like eradicating poverty and caring for the elderly and infirm. In the High Castle world, there’s no such thing as disability benefits; if you can’t work, you are taken away and never seen again. I would also imagine nursing homes are no longer available. Children who are born with disabilities, or who develop life-threatening illnesses (like the teenage son of a major character, an American-born SS officer), are gone, too. Think for a moment, if you can be dispassionate about it, and imagine what we might accomplish–those of us able-bodied and thus allowed by the government to stick around–if we didn’t have to spend so much of our time and resources on caring for those who can’t care for themselves.
But I digress. I remembered The Stranger because of that opening line in the history book Stryker reads with alarm: “It all began with the Perfect Order.” Are we anywhere close to that, here in 2019 America? I think we’re starting to see some signs of it.
Is there a Perfect Order already?
If any modern society can be said to be close to the fictional Perfect Order, it would have to be China. My visit there in 2016 was eye-opening. Sue and I had a wonderful time and everybody was friendly to us, but there were very few outward signs that we were in a totalitarian state. And that’s what was eye-opening. I expected propaganda signs all over, big banners of Chairman Mao and so forth, extolling the revolution he led seventy years ago. We never saw one. The police presence, at least in uniform, was much less on the streets of Shanghai than you would see in a large American city. The only military troops we saw were guarding the Communist Party headquarters in the city of Lanzhou.
Everybody appeared to be busy, and certainly there was an awful lot of money being made. Construction cranes were everywhere. The subway we rode on in Shanghai was the most modern I’d ever seen. So was their superhighway system. We saw showrooms featuring glistening, ultra-modern Chinese-made cars. In the upscale parts of the city, everybody had a cell phone and dressed stylishly in Western clothing. On the subway we saw teenagers with ear buds and ball caps with American sports logos, just like here.
Where was the oppression? The menacing presence of Big Brother, watching everybody? There were no signs of it, at least where we went, and it wasn’t as if we were prohibited from going anywhere. But there were hints of it, and if we’d spent more time and delved a little deeper, certainly more would’ve been evident. In Tibet, we learned that the nomads who herded sheep and yaks in the mountains were being gradually relocated to cities and towns, but they were resisting this massive lifestyle change. Why the move? The government was concerned that the environmental effects of unchecked grazing were causing problems with the watersheds. We visited a Muslim mosque in one city and saw no signs of any persecution, although we’d heard that in some areas of western China, not far from where we were, the government often was clashing with ethnic Uighurs, and it’s reported that tens of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are being herded into re-education camps. When we toured a Buddhist monastery, the monks were reluctant to talk with us. One of them clammed up when Sue and I were asking him a couple of innocent questions; two Chinese men in civilian clothes had walked by the doorway at that moment. Our guide later whispered that the men were likely from what we in the West would call the secret police.
There are no free elections in China, of course, and free speech is not allowed, either. In an officially atheistic society, religious expression is frowned upon. Tales abound of Christians being forced to worship in secret, and of course the persecution of Muslims has taken a much more strident form. And the memory of the government crackdown in Tiananmen Square is still fresh. That uprising, led by students calling for democratic reforms who were soon crushed by government troops, took place 30 years ago this spring. Some 10,000 Chinese civilians died at the hands of their government, according to most sources. Since then, there’s been very little movement toward any kind of reform, at least from the outside in; within the government itself, various leaders have instituted some changes, but usually designed to maintain their own power and, above all, the primacy of the Communist Party.
The Russians thought they had a Perfect Order. Under the Communists, the USSR became a world power that for a time appeared on the verge of ultimate triumph over the West, at least in terms of ideology and technology. In the 1950s, after helping crush the Germans in World War II, the Soviet Union was riding high, literally–it was the first nation to launch a satellite into space, and then the first to put a man up there. Communist movements guided and funded by Moscow had triumphed in China and Cuba and were on the march elsewhere in Asia and Africa. Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev, while visiting America, boldly declared to us that our grandchildren would live under communism. But then, like dictators throughout time, Kruschev and the Russians overreached. They challenged the U.S. during the Cuban Missile Crisis and found out that our young president, John F. Kennedy, was made of sterner stuff than they thought, and they backed down. For the rest of the sixties and seventies, the Soviet Union focused its efforts on spreading revolutionary fervor throughout the Third World. Their client state of North Vietnam triumphed over the nascent democracy of South Vietnam and its American backers; Fidel Castro solidified Communist control of Cuba, which exists to this day, although Fidel himself departed this realm a few years ago; and neo-Communist regimes took power, albeit briefly, in parts of Central America and Africa. But as an economic system, Soviet-style communism was an abject failure, ultimately collapsing in the face of constant American military and economic pressure, skillfully managed by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The Soviets were nothing if not pragmatic; on Christmas Day 1991, having seen the writing on the wall, the Soviet leadership fired itself and dissolved the Union.
Russia today is still a nuclear-armed totalitarian state, although now it is virtually run by gangsters. Nobody is talking about a Perfect Order in Moscow. It’s very imperfect and everybody knows it, but those in charge can control the imperfections and make them work in their favor to maintain power. Chinese communism, on the other hand, has shown itself to be adept at embracing the more positive aspects of capitalism without yielding primacy over its people. And so far, the Chinese people seem to be good with that. They remember Tiananmen, too. One can imagine them thinking, Ten thousand died, and for what? The Chinese leadership is very smart. They know that wherever you go, people’s chief desires are for security and at least some measure of personal prosperity. A police state, even one as subtle as the Chinese have, provides security in a way that is much more efficient that what we see in the West, even down to the smallest detail. When we were in China, we saw no litter, no graffiti. It’s not allowed, we were told. Well, it’s not allowed over here, either, but the difference is that in China, offenders are caught and punished. If people don’t respect the little laws, pretty soon they won’t respect the big ones, the saying goes. They take that to heart over there. And as for economic prosperity, the average Chinese family is far better off today than a generation or two ago.
Setting the stage for a Perfect Order here.
So, what has to happen for a totalitarian government to exist? Historians will usually say that there has to be a spark, an upheaval of some sort. A disastrous military defeat, an economic depression, a major natural catastrophe, something so serious that the existing government cannot seem to cope, causing people to take matters into their own hands. That opens the door for someone who’s ruthless, well-organized and well-armed, willing to roll the dice and do what it takes to grab the reigns of power. Put us in charge, they say, and we’ll fix this. We’ll need unfettered authority, but we’ll get the job done. And faced with a bleak, even dangerous future, the people say okay and turn over the keys.
The classic example is Hitler’s rise in Germany in the 1930s, but one could also point to Lenin’s takeover of Russia some fifteen years earlier, and Mao’s triumph in China shortly after Hitler’s reign ended. Perfect Orders are not perfect, of course, as they are comprised of human beings, who are certainly imperfect. Lenin’s dream of a Communist worker’s paradise lasted about 75 years; Hitler was gone only 12 years after his Nazis took over Germany (in a free election, mind you). Mao Zedong’s China, though, is still going strong, seven decades after his revolution, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Why did Hitler’s Nazi movement flame out so quickly, whereas the Soviets got most of a century’s worth of control? I remember discussing that in a class I took in college that focused on Nazi Germany. It was along the lines that Hitler bit off more than he could chew, that he picked fights with too many people and didn’t have the resources to defeat all of them at once. Entire libraries of books have been written about him and his movement, and many discuss the strategic mistakes he made in World War II: allowing the Luftwaffe to try to bomb Britain into submission instead of launching an invasion or starving them out with a naval blockade; breaking his treaty with Soviet leader Josef Stalin and invading Russia; agreeing to an Axis with Japan that committed him to declaring war against the United States after Pearl Harbor. Change one or two of those decisions, and things might have turned out very differently.
The Germans were, if anything, efficient at what they did, and scientifically they were ahead of the rest of the world in significant areas, such as weaponry. They were the first to develop and deploy jet fighters, and were developing strategic bombers that could have reached the American East Coast from bases seized in the Azores or Iceland; they already had what we would call medium-range ballistic missiles and were designing intercontinental versions; and of course they were working on atomic weapons.
Hitler’s failure to subdue the British led directly to his defeat; the Allies, using Britain as one gigantic aircraft carrier, were able to launch relentless waves of bombers at Germany’s industrial and population centers, including their atomic research facilities, which by then were already suffering from a lack of commitment on the part of the government; they were having trouble finding enough qualified physicists to work on the project thanks to its persecution of Jewish scientists, many of whom, including Albert Einstein, had escaped to the West. Our own atomic program was able to proceed unimpeded because there was no threat of attack over here, and we had welcomed some of Europe’s top scientists, like Einstein and Italy’s Enrico Fermi.
But make no mistake, if the Germans had developed the bomb first, they would’ve won. The world of The Man in the High Castle would’ve come to pass.
There has never been any real threat of totalitarianism taking hold here in America, although there were a few times that very serious people gave it serious consideration. Franklin Roosevelt, elected to the presidency in 1932 in the depths of the worst economic crisis in U.S. history, is said to have been told that if he didn’t succeed, he would be the last Democratic president; he answered that if he didn’t succeed, he would be the last president, period.
The most serious constitutional crisis we faced since the Civil War was the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon was revealed to have been intimately connected with a burglary of opposition offices during his 1972 campaign for re-election. After his first election in 1968, running with a promise to restore law and order in America as the tumultuous sixties roared onward, many people on the losing side thought he would become a dictator, using the pretense of lawlessness to send police and troops into the streets to quell protests and restore order. Order was restored, yes, but not at the behest of a dictatorship. When Nixon started winding down the war in Vietnam, which was the catalyst for much of the unrest the country had been enduring for several years, the campus-based protests started drying up, especially after he ended the military draft. He cruised to re-election and appeared on course for one of the more successful presidencies of the century, if not the entirety of U.S. history, when the Watergate revelations started dogging him. What would he do? What could be done? Would drastic measures have to be taken? Would the military step in? I remember reading magazine articles speculating about a possible military takeover of the country. Just a few years earlier, the movie Seven Days in May postulated that very event, brought on by a political crisis that had seriously weakened the president. In the end, of course, drastic measures were indeed taken, although they were peaceful. Our Constitution worked as it was intended. Nixon, facing certain impeachment and removal from office, resigned the presidency, the only one–so far–to do so.
Richard Nixon’s presidency ended more than 44 years ago, and he died in 1994. Ironically, he had more or less rehabilitated himself in his waning years, and was often consulted for his views on foreign policy. He had come clean with the American people about how he “screwed up” over the Watergate mess, and if there’s one thing Americans appreciate, it’s a person who ‘fesses up and tries to make things right.
Nobody ever suggested that the burglary influenced the 1972 election; Nixon won handily over the Democrat, Sen. George McGovern, capturing 49 states. Johnny Carson joked that Nixon would be magnanimous and offer McGovern the job of ambassador to Massachusetts, the only state that voted for him. But in 2016, we had an election that was so tumultuous that it’s still sending shock waves through our society, nearly two and a half years after the last votes were counted. One of the most insidious results of that election, I think, is that it moved us closer to the Perfect Order than we have perhaps ever been.
Ominous rumblings that the Perfect Order isn’t far off.
Some would say that the first real sign of an American Perfect Order came early in 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide. In Hitler’s Germany, abortion was allowed under certain circumstances in conjunction with the regime’s eugenics policies. As for those already born and deemed by the state as people who were “Lebensunwertes Leben” (“life unworthy of life”), euthanasia was authorized and widely practiced. Over 400,000 Germans were sterilized against their will to prevent their allegedly imperfect genes from spreading, and under a program that was known as Aktion T4, as many as 300,000 people were euthanized. Before Germans could marry, they had to be tested for hereditary diseases or defects.
Today, abortion is legal virtually everywhere in Europe, as well as the U.S. and Canada. The easy availability of the procedure, often paid for by taxpayers (whether they want to or not), has led to a serious decline in the number of children born with hereditary diseases or disabilities. In the case of Down’s syndrome, for example, it is estimated that about two-thirds of American pregnancies involving a Down’s child are aborted. In Europe, the percentage is higher, up to 98% in Denmark, 100% in Iceland. Without acknowledging it or even recognizing it, modern Western societies are following right along with what the Nazis ramped up: purification of the race through eugenics. When pre-born humans can so casually be discarded because they don’t measure up to someone’s idea of healthiness or perfection, can the elimination of already-born “defective” humans be far behind? It’s not. Human euthanasia is already legal in Canada, Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia and Luxembourg. The laws, as currently written, pertain almost exclusively to people suffering from terminal illness who wish to commit suicide, and thus can be legally assisted in doing so. But it doesn’t take much to see what’s next. What if Dad has terminal cancer but refuses to pull the plug himself, and his adult children can make a case that letting him linger on will cause the family serious emotional and financial harm? Right now that’s the reasoning many women use to justify abortion, even if their child is perfectly healthy.
There is, of course, another side to the coin of abortion. Many women feel it is their right to do whatever they please with their bodies, and they consider the fetus part of their body, because it’s connected to the mother via the umbilical cord. Many men agree with them. The purpose of this post is not to debate the morality of abortion, or try to convince you that one way is preferred over the other. But the issue has come to the forefront again recently, as some laws have been proposed in cities and states that would allow, in some circumstances, infants who are delivered alive to be euthanized at the behest of the mother. If such laws stand, how far are we from the point where the state will make a decision about whether or not a certain infant lives or dies? Pro-abortion advocates will say that there is no slippery slope, that one thing does not necessarily lead to another, but history tends to prove them wrong. Indeed, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), the founder of Planned Parenthood, which performs about one-third of the nearly one million abortions per year that happen in the U.S., was a believer in eugenics. She wrote and spoke openly about it many times. Among the quotes one can cull from her various writings:
Birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defective. “Birth Control and the New Race”
On its website, Planned Parenthood says that Sanger’s history is “layered and complex,” and that she “was a true visionary.” PP on Sanger
One thing is for sure: in every society on Earth that has tried to instill its version of a Perfect Order, selective breeding–eugenics–has been an important part of the state’s program for its people.
Another important goal of the Perfect Order: thought control.
The fact that the Terran history book had no information whatsoever about events prior to the Perfect Order’s founding is indicative of what the government wanted its citizens to think: nothing before its arrival mattered anymore, as the bookstore clerk told Stryker. Even those old enough to remember society before the Perfect Order were strongly encouraged to forget all about it. Certainly the history textbooks used in Perfect Order schools would have nothing about that time, so by the time of Stryker’s arrival, two generations of Terrans had been raised without any direct knowledge at all of what existed before the Perfect Order.
History textbooks are written by historians and educators, who of course have their own opinions about what should be included in the book and how it should be presented. Objectivity is desired, but almost impossible to achieve. The mere exclusion of certain events or historical figures, or the marginalization of same, reflects a bias on the part of the writers. Now, of course not everything that has ever happened can be included in one book. Decisions have to be made. How much space should be devoted to the Revolutionary War? To Reconstruction? To the Great Depression? To the antiwar movement of the 1960s? How should controversial figures like George Armstrong Custer or Huey Long or Malcolm X be portrayed? My younger brother told me once that he looked at his sons’ U.S. history books when they were in high school, not that long ago, and he found much more space devoted to Cesar Chavez and his farm labor movement than to the Second World War. Clearly, the writers of that textbook thought Chavez and his times were much more important than the most cataclysmic war in human history, and the school that bought the textbooks evidently agreed with them.
In our society, cultural icons and political leaders are often the tone-setters for what the rest of us think and do and say. Sometimes it’s relatively unimportant and transient things like fashion trends. Remember Beatle boots? Tie-dyed shirts? Pet rocks? But sometimes these folks, nowadays dubbed “influencers,” have impacts that are more far-reaching. Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, in 2008, was a watershed moment in U.S. history, and not just because he was the first African-American to be nominated by a major party. Not only did he defeat Sen. Hilary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, something that would’ve been unheard of just a year before, he inspired millions of young Americans to get involved in the political process, and they did it largely by utilizing their greatest weapon, social media. Obama’s soaring rhetoric was inspiring, to say the least, and his administration wasted no time in moving America leftward in its public policies. “We are the change we’ve been waiting for,” he famously declared during the campaign. He rode the wave to re-election in 2012, but there was another election just four years down the road. Could the trend toward the left in American politics and culture be changed? Turned around, even? No way, they said, those other people are on the wrong side of history. We’re the good guys. Many people in politics and the media and popular culture who supported Obama openly touted their bona fides: they were more intelligent, more socially aware, and more motivated than all those misguided folks who had voted the wrong way in ’08 and ’12. In 2016, it would be onward and upward, especially since they now had a woman to lead the way. It was their time, and now it would be her time, too.
But, shockingly, it wasn’t.
The reaction to the 2016 election by the losing side was like nothing we’d ever seen in this country. There were protests, angry social-media postings and declarations that the country was going to hell in a hand basket. About the only thing that didn’t happen was that the Hollywood glitterati who had vowed to leave the country if Donald Trump was elected stayed put, to nobody’s surprise.
What has happened since the election, though, has brought that book from The Stranger back to life, so to speak, over and over, often on a daily basis. The underlying principle of a totalitarian movement is that everybody has to be on the same page. Dissent is not tolerated. If there is dissent, that means the movement has trouble moving forward, achieving its goals. Everybody has to be on board. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. It’s very black and white, with no middle ground, room for debate, consideration of alternative points of view. The people in charge, perhaps just one person, decide what the movement will stand for, what it will tolerate and what it will not, and how it will walk the path toward its ultimate goal, which is power. Because make no mistake, although totalitarians talk nice sometimes, making flowery speeches about how their goal is to help everybody, to right old wrongs, to restore the strength and respect and prosperity that the nation once had, it’s all about power.
A vital initial goal of a Perfect Order-like movement is to control the narrative. How is history to be interpreted? How are current events going to be reported? What kind of discussion will be allowed? Moving forward, what can be done to control the dissemination of information, and how that information is used? One of the first things Hitler and the Nazis did was take control of newspapers and radio, often by force, so that moving forward, only information that supported the Nazis could be given to the public. As to history, Germany’s defeat in World War I was explained by shifting the blame to a preferred scapegoat, in this case the country’s Jewish residents, who were said to have somehow undermined the proud German military from the rear. In reality, of course, the causes for the calamity had virtually nothing to do with the Jews, many of whom fought and died for the German cause in the war.
Libraries and bookstores were ransacked, and books with questionable themes were confiscated and put to the torch, often in public. Many of these incidents were carried out by schoolchildren, because Hitler realized that one way to grab power and hold onto it was to win over the youth. Young people are susceptible to messaging and imagery, they tend to think their elders are stupid and out of touch, and so they’re more than willing to latch onto a worldview that is contrary to that held by their parents. The Nazis went after Germany’s young people with great vigor, and those kids from the mid-1930s grew into the soldiers that fought their war in the ’40s.
In modern America, we have been witnessing an organized movement to rewrite important parts of our own history. It is accepted by virtually everybody today that slavery is wrong, but there was a time when a lot of Americans thought it was okay, or at least ignored it. Then the Civil War was fought to free the slaves and the Constitution was amended to ban it forever from our shores, and again to ensure that former slaves, and their descendants, would be allowed full participation in American society, on an equal legal footing with whites. Nobody today is saying that slavery should be reintroduced here, although it is still practiced in some parts of the world. But what a significant number of Americans are saying today is that anything connected to slavery in our country must be either re-imagined or eradicated altogether, except for educational displays and writings that follow the preferred narrative: slavery was evil and everyone who practiced it or supported it was evil, too.
Thus it is that schools and buildings and streets and even cities that were named after slave-owners, or soldiers who fought for the slave-holding Confederacy, must be changed. Statues of Confederate politicians and soldiers must be removed, by force if necessary. Even the graves of Confederate soldiers should be moved so that they are out of sight, which means out of mind.
But the nascent American version of the Perfect Order has run into a roadblock in its effort to rewrite this portion of America’s story. Quite simply, there are too many important people from early American history to simply write off and ignore. A total of 12 presidents were slave-owners, the first being George Washington and the last Ulysses Grant. Others included Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and virtually all presidents in the 18th and 19th centuries enacted or enforced often-brutal policies toward Native Americans. We’re not talking about a relative handful of statues and street signs here.
Some of those slave-holding presidents are on our currency. Monuments to Washington and Jefferson are prominently displayed in our nation’s capital. Their homes in Virginia are preserved as museums. A whole state is named after Washington, and Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. In fact, the state of Virginia was named, when it was a British colony, after Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen,” and during her reign (1558-1603) British merchant ships and companies took part in the African slave trade with the consent of the Crown, which sometimes shared in the profits. British subjects began holding slaves themselves in overseas colonies beginning with 1619 and lasting until well into the 19th century. The state of Georgia got its name, as a British colony, from King George II, and during his reign (1727-1760) slavery was widely practiced in his empire.
And what about Mount Rushmore? Two of the four presidents depicted there, Washington and Jefferson, were slave-holders, and the other two, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, had views about African and Native Americans that would today be called morally questionable at best. So far nobody of any prominence has seriously suggested blasting any of those images off that South Dakota mountain. But certainly some of the neo-Perfect Order folks have thought of it. The Taliban, after all, showed how it could be done when they took over Afghanistan.
A day hardly goes by without an example of thought control rearing its dangerous head. Everyone from college professors to actors, from comedians to cake-bakers, are called to account. Did you tell an off-color joke years ago? If you posted that on social media, and now you’re a prominent person, someone will find it, post it and cue the Twitter mob. Entire companies exist with the sole purpose of digging up dirt on people whose political philosophy they disagree with. Tucker Carlson, the popular evening host on the Fox News Channel, is now battling for his professional life against a thought-control outfit, Media Matters for America, which has found decade-old audio recordings of Carlson making remarks about ethnic groups and women and gays that are certainly boorish and out of line, but are they worth destroying someone’s career over? Media Matters says yes, certainly, although a year ago it declined to take similar action against Joy Reid, whose own show is on the liberal network MSNBC and who had published homophobic remarks on her blog about the same time Carlson was riffing on a shock-jock’s radio show. On and on it goes.
Will the Perfect Order take over America?
It’s hard to see where this will go. Much has been written and said about the partisan divide in America, although like the weather, another thing everybody complains about, nobody seems to be doing anything about it. Presidential candidates from both parties in recent years haven’t seemed too terribly interested in bridging the gap. Members of Congress talk a good game, as always, but talk is cheap. Action matters. And taking action always means opening yourself up to criticism and even attack by those who disagree with you. Anyone who stands for public office these days has to be ready for that, and there are a lot of well-qualified, decent and honorable people who won’t throw their hats in the ring because they don’t want to subject themselves and their families to the inevitable abuse. That is a great loss to our society.
What will be a greater loss, though, is if our fundamental values of free speech and expression fall to the wayside, crushed under the heels of righteous mobs. The ones that marched over Germany in the 1930s aren’t much different than the ones seeking to roll over America eighty years later, only in those primitive pre-internet days, the marching was done by people wearing real boots. Today it’s more of a virtual stampede, but make no mistake, it’s just as real and just as ominous as it was back then.
If free speech goes, our other freedoms will surely follow. The student who is afraid to challenge a professor in a college class will later be the adult who doesn’t stand up to the mob that marches down Main Street to force its way into City Hall. How much longer after that will it be before that same mob demands that this particular citizen’s church be closed because of what the pastor may have said in last Sunday’s sermon, or even what the church’s founder might have said centuries ago?
When I visited FDR’s home in New York a few years ago, the bookstore at his library had a fascinating collection of World War II propaganda posters, and I bought one, to hang in my workout room. The message it had back then was about Axis spies lurking around the corner here in the homeland. The message it has today is in many ways more ominous, because those keeping an eye on us now are our fellow citizens, the ones who want to tell the rest of us what to think, how to vote, what to believe, even whether we can live or die. Whether we let that vision come to pass is up to us.