America the Brave New World: The United States Is Realizing the Dystopian Nightmares of Our Best Science Fiction
American society has been sliding toward the realm of dystopian science fiction — toward a nightmarish mishmash of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Philip K. Dick — since at least the early years of the Reagan administration, and arguably a lot longer than that. (Since Watergate? The Kennedy assassination? The A-bomb? Take your pick.) We may have finally gotten there. We live in a country that embodies three different dystopian archetypes at once: America is partly a panopticon surveillance-and-security state, as in Orwell, partly an anesthetic and amoral consumer wonderland, as in Huxley, and partly a grand rhetorical delusion or “spectacle,” as in Dick or “The Matrix” or certain currents of French philosophy.
Let’s step away from the brainiac analysis for a second and give full credit to the small-town Republican and war hero who warned us about what was coming, more than 50 years ago. In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower spoke gravely about “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” that lay in the coming coalition between “the military-industrial complex” and “the scientific-technological elite.” It would require “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry,” Ike cautioned, to make sure this combination did not “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” As we say these days: Our bad.
I can’t find any direct evidence that Eisenhower had ever read Orwell’s “1984” or Huxley’s “Brave New World,” let alone that they shaped his insights into the heretical possibility that the alternative to Soviet-style Communism might turn out to be just as bad in its own way. Ike wasn’t the country bumpkin that many East Coast intellectuals of that era assumed him to be (English was his best subject at West Point), but he favored history and biography over literature and philosophy. His dire and all too prescient vision of the American future was no doubt drawn from the cultural climate around him, so perhaps he can be said to have absorbed the Orwellian vision by osmosis and made it his own. (Intriguingly, his granddaughter Susan Eisenhower, an eminent foreign policy expert, seems aware of the connection and cites “1984” as a formative influence on her own career.)