Polish playwright Janusz Glowacki recalls visiting a “This Is America” exhibit in Warsaw during the darkest days of Stalinism. While listening to a decadent boogie-woogie soundtrack, he gravely filed past displays of loud ties, gaudy billboards, KKK crosses, and even insects from Colorado that were supposedly dropped from planes at night to devour socialists’ potatoes. “The exhibition was meant to evoke horror, disgust, and hatred,” he says. “It had, however, the opposite effect. Thousands of Varsovians, dressed in their holiday best, waited every day in lines as long as those to see Lenin’s Tomb and in solemn silence looked at the display, listened respectfully to the boogie-woogie, wanting in this way, at least, to manifest their blind and hopeless love for the United States.”
Now, thanks to the astonishing changes in Europe, Poles and even Russians can freely design their own loud ties and gaudy billboards and compose their own boogie-woogie. Against all odds, Western culture has triumphed, with very few shots being fired. With the U.S. no longer defining its identity in opposition to communism, what lies ahead?
Author Neil Postman suggests that though we seem to have escaped George Orwell’s 1984, we are still in peril from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Those two books actually present quite different visions of the future—the difference between Big Brother and Big Nanny.
Orwell warned against an external enemy that relies on violence and propaganda to impose its will. In contrast, Huxley warned against a more subtle enemy from within. People will gladly trade away their freedom and autonomy for a technology that promises comfort, safety, and amusement, he predicted. Orwell’s villains used a pain machine to enforce their decrees; Huxley’s villains relied on pleasure. Orwell’s regime banned books; in Huxley’s fantasy, books are plentiful but no one wants to read one.
Since 1984 has come and gone, perhaps it is time to update Huxley’s gentle nightmare. What would a “Brave New Society” look like?
1. A Brave New Society repairs the defects in human personality. Neurophysiologist José M. R. Delgado made a splash a few years back when he brought a charging bull to a dead stop by pressing a button on a radio transmitter. (He had implanted an electrode in the bull’s brain.) The title of his book describing this and other experiments says it well: Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society.
Open the spigot of government funds, say the behavioral scientists, and we will identify the physiological bases of addictions or sexual and personality disorders. Then we can repair them through drugs or surgery.
Admittedly, a defect-free society would forfeit potentially valuable contributions from deviants. Would Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms have bothered with their music if their personality disorders had been repaired? We might have lost Jerome’s Vulgate translation that served the church for 1,000 years (he worked on it as a means of sublimating sexual desire), and Augustine might have watered down his Confessions. But just think how Abraham Lincoln—who rarely smiled, struggled with depression, and was married to a probable psychopath—might have been improved!
2. A Brave New Society simplifies morality. The new society dispenses with such notions as absolute truth and “inalienable rights.” Only two principles matter: kindness and tolerance.
Politically correct thinking, based on kindness and tolerance, will insist on certain cultural adjustments. Huckleberry Finn and the Brothers Grimm will need reworking. Anti-Semitic passages in Shakespeare must be excised. Can a Politically Correct Bible be far behind? (Zacchaeus was, after all, not “short,” but “vertically challenged.”)
3. A Brave New Society solves problems through technology. C. S. Lewis wrote, “For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern mind, the cardinal problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.”
We apply the criteria “developed, less-developed, underdeveloped” to Brave New Societies, avoiding such value-laden words as just, moral, good. Sad-eyed prophets like Solzhenitsyn used to argue that the suffering East could teach spiritual values to the materialistic West. I haven’t heard that argument lately; the East is too busy trying to catch up to the economic standards of the West.
Africa and parts of Asia seem beyond our technological capacity to fix. They will have their place in the Brave New Society, too: we’ll watch two-minute reports on the devastation, sandwiched in-between the sports and weather.
4. A Brave New Society elevates entertainment above all other values. George Orwell feared a Big Brother whose projected image would intrude in every home. The screens are in place now, but we choose the images we want, and the bottom line is entertainment.
American families watch television five to seven hours a day, demonstrating an obsession with entertainment unmatched in history. Naturally, the medium affects the message. Watch “Sesame Street” for three minutes and you’ll see what education looks like when forced through an entertainment grid. Or, compare the successful televangelist programs with the average local church service. Television is not the only measure of how much we value entertainment. Consider that a good baseball pitcher earns twice as much for nine innings’ work as a high-school physics teacher earns in a year.
How close are we to achieving the Brave New Society? A recent visit to the British Museum Library gave me pause. One room displays original letters and manuscript pages from great authors, arranged chronologically. I spent several hours there, proceeding from Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf. Finally I reached the most recent manuscript collection. There, displayed in a formal wooden case with gold-leaf lettering, was the scrawled original of one of the most famous songs of this half-century: “Oh yeah, oh yeah, I wanna hold your hand.” The poet had captured the spirit of the age precisely.
Eugene H. Peterson is pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, and author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity) and Answering God (Harper & Row), both of which are about the Psalms.
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