I saw my copy of A People’s History of the United States the other day, and it reminded me that many of the ‘facts’ we learn in school or read in the media turn out to be false—news & ‘history’ often either lack context or are simply repetitions of propaganda from the government or major corporations.
Sometimes it’s easier to find the truth in a work of good fiction — a good novel or play can give us a sense of what things really were like. Here are a few examples where the fiction may gives us a picture that is more useful than what’s taught as history:
- Storming Heaven – Denise Giardina’s novel is an intense a story of early 20th-century Appalachia. We see the rarely-discussed struggles between workers trying to organize for fair treatment, the mine owners’ use of brutality and murder, and the state’s police & military power used to serve the owners. The violence by owners and police serving their interests occurred time and time again, including attacks on workers at Bethlehem Steel and the Pennsylvania Railroad.
- Mornings in Jenin – Susan Abulhawa’s novel is based on life in Palestine: stories from al Nakba (‘the catastrophe’), living in a refugee camp, and trying to make sense of it all. The popular story of how the state of Israel was founded is quite different, and Abulhawa’s novel give us a lens that lets us realize that much of today’s news is also deceptive propaganda.
- The Blue Between Sky and Water – Susan Abulhawa’s latest novel tells the many stories of people being attacked — and worse — in the original takeover of Palestine and the ensuing separation, grief, and terror. It transcends time as it focuses on women who were strong and influential in spite of their weaknesses.
- The Promise – a fictional miniseries from British TV uses a young woman’s trip to Israel & Palestine today, coupled with the diary of her grandfather who served there in 1947 & 1948, to tell the story of the terrorism used to establish Israel and to preserve the occupation today.
- Little Dorritt – Charles Dickens tells a great story that also serves as an indictment of early-19th-century British society, where debtors were imprisoned—and therefore had no way to repay the debt—and rights were for the wealthy. (Also available as an excellent 5-part BBC Masterpiece Theatre program.)
→ Looking at what’s happening today, we don’t see debtors’ prisons as such, but people of limited means are far more likely to wind up in prison. Even worse, many of today’s systems are even more effective at ensuring an ever-increasing upward transfer of wealth to the already-wealthy; even a casual observation of the justice system shows that justice is routinely denied to the poor.
- The Grapes of Wrath – This well-known Steinbeck novel shows us how the refugees from the dust bowl were treated on the road and after arriving in California, quite a different picture than we see in most textbooks. In this period and afterwards, violence against agricultural workers has been rampant in California and other states. (Also see the Parables books below.)
Looking at ‘science-fiction’, I think the term visionary fiction is often more appropriate. While the writers’ projections may not match perfectly with reality, they often get the key points correct. A few examples:
- 1984 – George Orwell saw a society where those in power liked to distort history and suppress dissent, and he extended this into the future world where Big Brother used high-tech surveillance, reported made-up news, employed people to rewrite history to eliminate any inconvenient history, and used any means necessary to eliminate opposition. It was almost impossible to find out what the government was really doing.
→ While things don’t work quite the way he depicted in the novel, many of the concepts and effects on society are spot on. Like Big Brother, government today has access to all our communications—telephone calls, text messages, tweets, e-mail, & Internet searches—and an ever-expanding network of surveillance cameras, many of which have facial-recognition technology, programs to identify ‘suspicious’ behavior, and the ability to automatically follow a person or vehicle from one camera to another.
- Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, visionary fiction by Octavia Butler, are set in a dystopian California in the 2020s. Chaos reigns in Los Angeles, and the police are more terroristic than protective. Then we see far-right ‘Christian’ groups subjecting some areas of the state to violent enforcement of their beliefs. Lauren Oya Olamina, forms a new belief system, Earthseed, in order to prepare for the future of the human race.
→ Even today, the news is full of disorder, dysfunctional & militarized police, and Christian groups trying to assert dominance.
- The ‘Terminator’ films – James Cameron depicts a future where a high-tech defense system is given the power to undertake autonomous action and quickly determines that humans are the greatest threat to continued existence. The system, known as Skynet, quickly decides that human beings are the biggest threat to life on this planet and must be destroyed; it uses unmanned aerial & ground vehicles to attack civilization and sends autonomous killing machines back to the present time to eliminate potential resistance.
→ While time travel seems impossible, some of the other technologies are in use already — and the military is well on the way to having ‘lethal autonomous robots’—machines that use facial recognition technology and programs that analyze ‘suspicious’ behavior so they can recognize threats—and destroy them—without human intervention.
- ‘Dark Angel’ – This turn-of-the-century TV drama, also done by James Cameron, is set in a post-apocalyptic Seattle. It features genetically-enhanced humans designed and trained to be super-soldiers, while in everyday life, civil liberties are mostly just a memory, the city is divided into sectors with military-style checkpoints, and the police department uses drones & surveillance cameras to make sure people obey. In the series, the leading character and some other GM people reject their programming to take the side of humanity and battle the authoritarian police state—and their creators.
→ Most of the technologies and the authoritarian mindset depicted in this series are visible or in the works today! Surveillance drones are already being deployed by police departments in several cities—including Seattle—and there are plans to arm these domestic drones with shotguns, tasers, and tear gas. The military uses weaponized drones to destroy targets anywhere in the world, with an average of 90% of the dead being innocent civilians. And DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] is currently engaged in research on genetic, pharmaceutical, and other approaches to developing ’super-soldiers’ that can ‘kill without care or remorse, show no fear, can fight battle after battle without fatigue’.
Do we face a future where Homeland Security and the National Security Administration turn out to be an even more powerful version of Big Brother? (One that uses militarized drones & autonomous killing machines instead of just brutalizing dissenters as they do today with sound cannons, tear gas, and false arrest?)
It’s easy to see that our so-called leaders have been very successful in getting people to accept half-truths and pure propaganda. Even more concerning is people’s willingness to censor their own actions and obey without question. (Why bother with martial law or a high-tech police state when you can just train people to do what they’re told?)
I don’t think we can afford to sit around and hope that someone engineers a race of super-humans who then decide to help us; we need to wake up and take action before it’s too late. Would an active resistance help reverse the trend—or would it cause the government to take a harder line and deploy more resources to eliminate dissent?
Let me know or post a comment if you’d like sources or more information on anything discussed above.