Passing glances: Jill Lepore on a particular temptation to escape

Are you weary of contemporary American politics and taking refuge in dystopian fiction? In a recent New Yorker essay, historian Jill Lepore, after surveying dystopias old and new, gives no direct advice but effectively tells us, “Don’t.”

You may already have heard that Orwell’s best-known book has done well lately, but Lepore found a similar phenomenon from the previous administration. Late in her article, she reports, “In the first year of Obama’s Presidency, Americans bought half a million copies of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ In the first month of the Administration of Donald (‘American carnage’) Trump, during which Kellyanne Conway talked about alternative facts, ‘1984’ jumped to the top of the Amazon best-seller list.” Our reading has become, she says, “yet another place poisoned by polarized politics, a proxy war of imaginary worlds.”

Then comes this, from her final paragraph:

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more.

You may think quoting her conclusion spoils the fun. It doesn’t. Seeing how she got there is the fun.

On the question of despair, about which we might think we have little choice, it can be argued instead that our attitude remains, when almost all else has been taken from us, open to our determined choosing. Buck up, bucko. In the fifth play of Shaw’s Back to Methuselah cycle, one of the characters observes, “There is a deadly disease called discouragement.”

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