CLARENCE PAGE: Why dystopia has an odd appeal these days

On the day before President Trump hit his first 100 days, I woke up to a CNN headline saying that we could end up having “a major, major conflict with North Korea.”I was tempted to go back to bed, but I persisted.I could not help but draw a connection between this news and another story I was working on, an announcement by George Washington University that Sen. Rand Paul will be teaching a class in the fall. The subject? “Dystopian Visions.”Is that an appropriate topic for these times or what?In the relentless crush of daily news, I am not surprised by the notion that many readers would seek refuge in the works of writers whose perspective is not limited to the factual world.Think of dystopia as the opposite of utopia, a very unpleasant place where people lead dehumanized lives under the heel of autocratic elites who profess to be creating a utopia.After Trump’s election, booksellers reported a surge in sales of such perennial favorites as “1984,” “Brave New World” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” — a movie version of which happened to begin streaming on Hulu this past week. Recent years have seen a wave of new dystopian fiction, such as “The Giver,” “The Hunger Games” series and the “Divergent” series in the young adult book and movie markets. Novelist Junot Diaz calls dystopia “the default narrative of the generation.”Yet the dystopian wave began long before Trump’s election. As John Feffer, author of the dystopian novel “Splinterlands,” recently wrote in The Nation, there was an apocalyptic mindset on both sides of the recent presidential election. On one side, Trump “tapped into the end-of-days impulses of Christian evangelicals, anti-globalist and white power enthusiasts.” On the other side, Hillary Clinton supporters warned of a “Trumpocalypse” with more severe climate change, economic collapse and the outbreak of race wars.But Sen. Paul’s interest began long before the recent presidential race.In a 2013 Vice interview he revealed, “I think dystopian novels are a discussion of politics, and sort of what happens if you let a government accumulate too much power.” New presidents or kings think that they’re too good and smart to abuse their power, Paul said, offering President Obama early stand against indefinite detention for prisoners in Guantanamo as an example. Obama reduced their numbers but politics prevented him from closing the place down as he had promised.Good intentions, Paul said, are “not good enough. It’s like when Madison said, If government were comprised of angels, we wouldn’t have to worry about how much power to give the government.”Having been immersed in reports of widespread intolerance for conservative speakers on campus, I feared that the announcement of Paul’s new teaching gig would send angry letters and petitions flying like snowflakes. But initial reaction, at least, was quite the opposite. Available seats went quickly, despite its early 8 a.m. time slot, which touched off unconfirmed reports of left-out Paul fans offering cash bribes to would-be seat scalpers.The genre’s appeal to the libertarian-minded Paul is easy to see. Dystopian fiction tends to cast bold, courageous individuals against big government, glorifying the smarts, skills and tenacity of its heroes and heroines. Its anti-authoritarian sentiments have instant appeal to rebellious teenagers whose central theme in life is the oppression imposed on them by their elders.With that in mind, it is not surprising that the libertarian Paul is quite popular among students, as his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas libertarian Republican, was, too.Yet we also need to be cautious about which lessons to take away from dystopian narratives. They often turn on an individual savior who steps up and leads the masses in messianic fashion out of a crisis. Real life usually doesn’t work out that easily.Many of the same people who support Trump today ridiculed Obama supporters for following a “savior,” until they had a savior of their own. Democracy calls for an electorate that remains conscientiously involved and refuses to pass the buck to others. Otherwise, just when you think “it’s not the end of the world,” it is.