If you ever want to spark an argument with Americans, mention communism or, just be in the vicinity when some newscaster mentions it. The response is quick and reflexive, like a “bless you” after hearing someone sneeze. Scoffs abound and there’s normally some grumbling and muttering about communism “killing more people” than any other system of government (wiseacre response: I thought that was religion?). Should you bring up capitalism/democracy in this conversation (using their proposed metric of awfulness: numbers of people killed), you will get even more scoffing and sputtering about how that is “different.”

I happened to be standing next to my boss once when someone on t.v. mentioned communism. His reflexes took over. “Ha!” he scoffed. “Let that be a lesson that there is no such thing as communist utopias.”

I smiled, “I don’t think there are any utopias, communist or otherwise.”

He conceded the point with a nod, so I took it one step further. “They’re all dystopias,” I said.

His rejection of my proposal was quick and resolute. “No, that’s not true,” he said. “I don’t want to discuss politics at work, so maybe we’ll have this conversation over a beer one day, but they are not all dystopias.”

I smiled again and the conversation shifted to something non-political.

I’ve thought about that conversation often as I revise my own dystopian novel. As I draft one horror after another, I reply to my boss on the page: Oh really? name something — anything –that would happen in a dystopia and I can point to it already happening right here in our non-communist country:

  • Sexual violence and breeding like in the Handmaid’s Tale? Check, already happened. 
  • Forced sterilization of “unfit” and undesirable populations? Check and Check.
  • Arbitrary forced internment of citizens based on race? Check
  • Authoritarian government where constitutional rights are withheld? Check mate

American history offers a veritable smorgasbord of dystopic events that have dominated the majority of the country’s relatively short existence. Yet, the history that makes up more than 80% of our time as a nation, is invisibilized via  the language of universalism (it’s our ideals that matter most, not our practices, stupid) and disavowal.

I was recently listening to a podcast about dystopian literature and author N.K. Jemisin said “Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder.” She continued, “dystopians are constantly happening all around us.” Her quote perfectly encapsulates the point I was trying to get across to my boss re “they’re all dystopias.”  Whether or not your country is a dystopia depends very much on your location, perspective, and historically-informed context. Universalizing experiences (well, it’s never happens to *me* or it’s been great for *most* people) erases and ignores the very real dystopias (and aftermath) that many lived and are living in.

Maybe this New Year, we can look outside of our own experience and see the ways in which dystopias continue to surround us.

Now back to writing..

 

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