“If you want a thing—truly want it, want it so badly that you need it as you need air to breathe, then unless you die, you will have it. Why not? It has you. There is no escape. What a cruel and terrible thing escape would be if escape were possible.” – Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Talents
Recently some friends and I have been talking about the function of dystopian thinking. Why do we find it so appealing to imagine that our world might fall apart? Dystopias appear in countless imaginaries: evangelical Christian films imagining an Antifa overthrow of society, young adult novels considering the prospects of what reality television might become in the ruins of late capital (this is, at least, my read of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels), and myriad science-fiction (or what Margaret Atwood terms “speculative fiction”) graphic novels, films, and video games depicting the collapse of our world for technological, political, economic, ecological, or religious causes. When I think about the dystopian imagination, I see not predictions of some future catastrophe but instead amplifications of the present. Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents do not show me a world ten, twenty, or two-hundred years from now; instead, they present a perspective on the world today, if we only had eyes to see. Although Butler’s fictional President of the United States boasts the slogan “Make America Great Again”, it is not because of the eeriness of this coincidence that her novel so strikingly resonates with contemporary sensibilities, but because of its reflection of how it feels to live in the year 2020 – a time marked by political, economic, and environmental collapse. I do not want to survey dystopian art and literature, but instead consider why this sort of thinking is popular and useful in our present moment.
Another way of asking this question about dystopian thinking is this: In our current context of “fake news” and near-constant deception and self-deception, why might we be willing to hear the worst about ourselves through a dystopic imaginary? At the most superficial level, I think dystopias often allow us to do some scapegoating work; they permit us to blame conservatives, liberals, communists, religious fanatics, corporations, or tyrannical despots for destroying the world as we know it. We grieve our status quo and we look for who is responsible. When the dystopia is imagined by those with a great deal of political and economic power, it often entails perversely blaming the marginalized and oppressed for the breakdown of society. But dystopic thinking is not always so self-serving. At its best it can hold up a mirror to show us what we are most afraid of, which often is also that thing about which we are most ashamed.
It seems that dystopic thinking does not move most people. Instead, imagined dystopias usually reassure us that things could be so much worse. So, no matter how much we may obsess over the latest television show, movie, or novel that predicts some future fallen world, it does not appear that dystopic thinking leads to action and change. What then makes for moral and politically useful dystopic thinking?
To answer this question, I want to talk about the nationwide protests that began in Minneapolis on May 26, 2020 in response to the police’s killing of George Floyd the day before. These protests did not really begin on May 26; we can trace their origin back to the killings of Breonna Taylor (1993-2020) or Ahmaud Arbery (1994-2020) this year, or to Jocques Clemmons (1985-2017), Terrence Crutcher (1976-2016), Bruce Kelley, Jr. (1979-2016), Korryn Gaines (1993-2016), Alton Sterling (1979-2016), Philando Castile (1983-2016), Abdullahi Omar Mohamed (1998-2016), Mario Woods (1989-2015), Jamar Clark (1991-2015), Walter Scott (1965-2015), Freddie Gray (1989-2015), Sandra Bland (1987-2015), The Charleston Nine (d. 2015), Laquan McDonald (1997-2014), Eric Garner (1970-2014), Tamir Rice (2002-2014), Michael Brown (1996-2014), or Trayvon Martin (1995-2012). While this abbreviated list of names is certainly worthy of launching a movement, if not a revolution, the reason for the Black Lives Matter movement goes back further than 2012. We could talk about Rodney King, the war on drugs, the police bombing of MOVE in Philadelphia (1985), the assassinations of Fred Hampton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, and Medgar Evers, the history of lynching, or the fact that modern policing in the U.S. can be traced back to slave patrols. Even this abbreviated list does not do justice to the dystopic levels of violence meted out to black life in the brief history of the United States.
Is it inappropriate to call this anti-black violence dystopic? What else should one call a world in which the color of your skin could be the reason for instant death at any moment, whether you are sleeping, driving, walking, jogging, selling cigarettes, playing in a park, or simply trying to draw one more breath? It may feel odd to call this racial caste system a dystopia because it applies unevenly. I am myself a cisgendered, heterosexual, white, middle-class man. I do not live under the same conditions that killed George Floyd. Then again, our lives are bound together; black death and white life have always been entangled in a unilateral war.
In the minds of many white people, it is a cold war with eruptions of violence intermittently flashing up to remind us that the race war has not actually ceased. Whiteness depends upon the creation of an underground dystopia, one that we think we know about for it is in our history textbooks: slavery, the Civil-War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. But the secret America so badly wants to keep hidden is that the dystopia remains.
In 1984, Orwell tells us that “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” So, we participate in massive propaganda campaigns to conceal ourselves from ourselves. Cops are the heroes in countless television shows and films. We are told that the police are our city’s “finest” who “serve and protect.” The U.S. military—our police force writ large across the globe—are venerated as heroes who make the “ultimate sacrifice” on our behalf. And even though these institutions are heavily funded and protected against virtually all accountability, they must also be seen as the most vulnerable among us; “Blue Lives Matter” and the “Thin Blue Line” tell a delusional story about how those with all the firepower are really the least of these. But this fantasy about “the troops,” be they the NYPD or the Marines, who are simultaneously armed to the teeth and also America’s suffering servants, does tell us something about the white American psyche: it is incredibly fragile. Writing during the Vietnam War, the philosopher Stanley Cavell described America as a nation, “killing itself and killing another country in order not to admit its helplessness in the face of suffering, in order not to acknowledge its separateness. So it does not know what its true helplessness is.”1
I think it is when we feel our most helpless—even if we cannot name what this helplessness is—that we turn to dystopic thinking. We feel our powerlessness to address the crises before us, be they political, economic, ecological, or existential. So, we imagine a world so much worse than our own, as though the grim states we see in 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale were not just our reflections in a mirror. But dystopic thinking does not have to remain so superficial. I might offer that the representation of nightmarish worlds is most impactful when we are able to see the way that a dystopic imaginary and the headlines in the newspaper intersect. The dystopic must be brought out into the open, it must become quotidian for us. Only then can we learn that the violence inherent in our institutions, systems, and ourselves is not as Claudia Rankine puts it “a snafu within the ordinary.2 Racial violence is not a break with the status quo; it is the very air white America breathes.
It is this reality that Black Lives Matter has brought to the forefront of our national consciousness. Unsurprisingly, however, much of white America takes it as an affront. To learn that your white American utopia is built upon a dystopia for black and brown people is certainly destabilizing. Many take even the phrase “Black Lives Matter” to mean “White Lives Don’t Matter.” Obviously, this is nonsense, but those invested in whiteness should be scared of BLM. J. Kameron Carter suggests that blackness is “a fugitive announcement in and against the grain…of the modern world’s orchestrations of value, rule, and governance (i.e., sovereignty) in the project or the ongoing exercise of inscribing pure being.”3 Put more simply, blackness resists the economic, juridical, and political world that whiteness attempts to create and purify. If you are invested in this project, blackness is bad news.
For this reason, many will look at the nationwide protests following George Floyd’s death as the real dystopia. Target stores and other places of commerce are looted and burned. Cop cars and city buses are exploded. Outside agitators have somehow infiltrated all 50 states (hell, they’ve gone global). The police and the national guard are doing their best to return us to the peaceful world we all lived in on May 24. As we saw with white armed-occupations of many state houses during the COVID-19 pandemic, for some people the most patriotic thing you can do is shop.
But some people are awakening to the realization that the U.S. American utopia never existed. Some white people are coming to see the dystopia that has existed all along and it is not an easy lesson to learn. This is not only because anti-black violence is so disturbing to see but also because it is built into virtually every part of American life. Everyone loves honesty in theory, but learning to honestly see yourself at your worst is awful. Those things that you have been taught to esteem and love will not lose their allure easily. This is not because institutions like the police or the military are beautiful, but because they are so deeply engrained in us. They are us.
So, to learn that we are white supremacists—not because we necessarily have emotional investment in hating black people (though this may also be true) but because our political economy is built upon the segregation, brutalization, and domination of black and brown people—is to have a mirror held up to the very worst in ourselves. As a Christian theologian, I think about this type of horrible but necessary self-knowledge through the encounter with the crucified Jesus. The theologian James Cone wrote his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree to explore the fact that “Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists have explored the symbolic connections.”4 White Christians cannot see the connection between the cross and the lynching tree because they do not know what they are seeing in either phenomenological site, not out of ignorance but rather a sort of learned blindness.
The Benedictine theologian Sebastian Moore explains that, “Jesus on the cross represents an identity which I am crucifying rather than entering.”5 To see the crucified is to see myself at once at my best, in Jesus’ perfect humanity, while at the same moment witnessing myself at my worst, as crucifier. This paradoxical vision, Moore thinks, is the only way we are able to handle the truth about ourselves. We must learn that worst about ourselves at the very moment we learn that we are most loved.
When I look at the protests happening every day across the country, I feel as though I am having this encounter with Jesus over and over again. I am encountering myself at my worst in the form of unrelenting police brutality. But when I see the power, bravery, courage, and love of the organizers, activists, artists, and prophets calling us to defund the police, I learn from them that my life can be more than the dystopia that whiteness creates. This movement erupting around us is not a vehicle for white self-discovery; it is demanding real, material, institutional changes to our society. The question that remains is: Will white Americans let go of their worst selves in the form of the police, whose purpose is to dominate life, and embrace a new vision of who we could be? Or, will we refuse to see the dystopia so as to go on believing in our American goodness for perhaps another day?
- Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 345.
- Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis: Gray Wolf Press, 2014).
- J. Kameron Carter, “Paratheological Blackness,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 112:4, Fall 2013, 590.
- James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), xiii.
- Sebastian Moore, The Crucified is No Stranger (London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 1977), 21.