In 1971, before he made it big with “Star Wars,” a young George Lucas made a sci-fi film about a young man living in a dystopian future, “THX 1138.” That was the protagonist’s name. He was a cog in the machine. He had no apparent individual humanity, no real name, and the same clothes and appearance as everyone else.
Life for THX 1138 was grim, but bearable. He lived in a pod, was cajoled into dangerous work through constant propaganda, and relaxed at night through the combination of state-mandated drug cocktails and pornography. Sound familiar?
Failing to take the prescribed drugs, he gets out of line and soon finds himself in the grips of the regime’s corrective apparatus. In one particularly chilling scene, two technicians are adjusting the electronic mind control devices that keep the protagonist under control, but in the process subject him to agonizing tortures.
Amplifying the horror is the technicians’ tone. They interface with the main character only through a silent computer screen, adjusting dials that produce appalling pain, and they speak in the same manner one would use in changing a set of spark plugs or tackling some other mundane problem.
The horror comes from their indifference.
Two Nations, Growing Apart
Today, the Right’s passion causes some confusion from the Left’s managerial class, as well as other figures in the “establishment.” The Right says the Left hates them, and the managerial Left and its moderate fellow travelers are perplexed.
They say, we don’t hate you, we only want what’s best for you. Are things so bad for you? And who are things really bad for? Racist trailer-trash in flyover country? Who cares about them?
The basic message is that they’re motivated by altruistic concern for the greater part of the community, especially those historically victimized by racism and other prejudice. Their noble motives are augmented by technocratic credentials and expertise. The only real victims of their system are bad people who deserve their lot.
For the rest of us, including those not quite on board, we’re treated with the same charity one reserves for a toddler who won’t eat his vegetables. Your desires and wants aren’t compelling concerns, even though our regime is supposed to be based on the “consent of the governed.” They’re obstacles to be overcome. In the elite’s self-conception, they’re altruists and capable experts fighting against obscurantism, evangelizing the rest of us with “evidence-based” solutions.
Thus, the conflation of disagreement with ignorance, the mania for censoring alternative views, and the talk of “unity” and “decorum.” Going along with the program is the fastest way to achieve the establishment’s promises of peace, harmony, and efficiency.
The government looks very different to those living and working outside of it. Those inside are often completely shielded from the consequences of their rules. They do not have to worry about layoffs, pay cuts, the cost of insurance, and other burdens on Americans who work in the embattled private sector. They think of government as the land of their friendly, well-paid, and mostly unstressed neighbors. What’s not to like?
But the rest of us, particularly in the middle rungs of society, get little in return. When the federal government shuts down, we wouldn’t know unless we read it in the papers. And we interface with it chiefly by paying taxes and dodging meddlesome inspectors and other forms of harassment.
There is a type of hate, perhaps more accurately called contempt, that manifests as extreme indifference. The individual “human engineering” of THX 1138 is rivaled by the “social engineering” that runs roughshod over the expressed desires of those of us who haven’t asked for these radical and intrusive changes.
The examples are legion and go back many decades. One is the “bombing” of safe suburbs with some undesirable new institution, like a housing project or refugee resettlement facility. Of course, these won’t go up in Chevy Chase, Maryland or in the Hamptons; that would be silly . . . to say nothing of expensive. But they have to go somewhere, and what better place than some middle American backwater, like Minneapolis or Boise. If this means the schools become dangerous, property values go down, or your children aren’t safe on the streets, that’s just the price of progress. You’ll have to manage.
Obamacare had this feature, as well. It essentially was a Rube Goldberg contraption that ended up being a cross-subsidy for poor democratic constituencies from the pockets of the struggling middle classes. At the same time, the government workers’ and unions’ “Cadillac” insurance plans were left mostly untouched.
Gun control also has this feature. It is fundamentally a war against self-defense and self-sufficiency. It deprives ordinary people of the means of self-protection, but the government has no corresponding duty of protection. If things happen—like riots—that’s just life. The cruelty of this policy—pushed often by those with private security and gated communities—is only made worse through hostile plans to “defund the police.”
But nothing has illustrated the divide with greater clarity than the coronavirus hysteria. We now know that lockdowns did not work and were incredibly destructive to the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans. And yet they’re being pushed again, this time on a national level.
It’s not GS-12s, congressmen, and public school teachers who had layoffs and pay-cuts from these “shutdowns.” They had, at worst, the modest burdens of working from home. They still got paid. They still maintained their identities and their titles.
It is the struggling waitresses and hairdressers and hotel desk clerks who have suffered. It’s the small business owners whose restaurants, stores, and gyms have gone belly-up. While the insiders piled up cash and whined about us all being in this together, the rest of us got $1,200—if we even got that.
Fertile Soil for Revolt
One of the most striking aspects of late Soviet times was that the common people were not chiefly complaining about abstract freedom or a desire for more democracy. They complained about the obvious privileges of the party elite, the special stores and nicer apartments and the corruption with which they enhanced their lot, while that same elite preached the brotherhood of man. The common people also were repeatedly insulted by big and obvious lies, such as the scale of the war in Afghanistan or the Chernobyl disaster.
Much of the populist energy in our own country has the same feel. While the Bernie Sanders wing blames big business, the Trump wing is hostile to elites in both business and government—particularly now, when it seems an election may have been stolen. But the impulse comes from the same place: a sense that we’re not all in this together, that we don’t have the same struggles, that we don’t have a voice or a means of changing anything within the system, that the policies that benefit those in power come at the expense of the rest of us, and that the people in charge fundamentally do not care about us.
The center-Left managerial elite don’t imagine themselves to be the party of hate. They believe themselves to be the party of progress, human rights, equality, and science. Even “love.” But their frequently expressed indifference to the fate of their fellow citizens echoes the hate-as-indifference so chillingly portrayed in science fiction dystopia.
In the movie at least, humanity triumphs.