Yesterday, I heard my ten-year-old son, Li’l D, attempting “negotiations” with my six-year old son, Littler J.
I paused my laundry-folding to say, “How very big brother of you!” Hearing these words spoken, I added, “That’s lower-case ‘b,’ lower-case ‘b,’ to be clear.”
Despite Li’l D’s utter lack of interest in any clarification, I took the opportunity to clarify. “In 1984, author George Orwell described an overtly repressive, oppressive government represented by kindly sounding Big Brother—capital ‘B,’ capital ‘B.’”
Since Li’l D is already well acquainted with my love of author Neil Postman, I added a note about Postman’s take on Orwell. “There’s another author, Aldous Huxley, who wrote about a different version of a repressive government: one that represses–constrains the ranges of possibility–through pleasure and amusement that don’t require or permit critical thought. Postman thought Huxley’s Brave New World was closer to the world for which the foundation had been laid—that its repression was what we’d end up experiencing.”
My husband, Anthony, had first introduced me to Postman. He thus joined in the conversation—wait, no. More accurately, he helped me convert monologue to dialogue.
As we chatted, I thought about protests against police brutality currently sweeping the United States. At these protests, police have brutally attacked thousands of protestors (and even, repeatedly, reporters, medics, and legal observers), sometimes responding with shocking force to heckling and other times themselves wholly instigating any violence. This brutality has not gone unnoticed by USians: Members of communities from all fifty states are now taking to the streets daily.
In my June 6 post, I mentioned an attorney who’s “aggregating these incidents into one Twitter thread.” His documented-incident count has, two days later, risen to over 400 … with a backlog of 2,000+ unread DMs yet to review and, for those containing non-duplicative videos, add to the thread.
Reflecting on these protests with Neil Postman also in mind, I exclaimed, “Postman said Huxley got it right, but that wasn’t quite right, either! What the U.S. has grown into is a world where many people get Huxley’s gentler vision of repression: endless amusement and diversion meant to tame and neutralize them. For the better off folks who get this smiley repression, even politics is treated as sport instead of a life-and-death matter.
“Then, there are the folks who live Orwell’s vision of an oppressive government: people of color who are highly policed and actively, overtly oppressed. That many people today live this more Orwellian oppression has been lost to folks who get the shinier, happier repression, who see so little of Orwellian America that they’ve mistakenly believed it didn’t exist. What incidents broke through their soma comas have seemed like anomalies, not the system functioning as it was built.
“So what we’re seeing now, in these protests, is a dawning understanding: a falling away, for many, of Huxley’s version of repression.
“What happens when the soma stops working? You stop getting Huxley’s pleasure-dazed repression and start getting the much more apparently overt kind. You start getting Orwell.”
I added that I never did finish reading 1932’s Brave New World. It was so creepily accurate in thematically predicting then-future America, I felt both horror and hopelessness growing with each page I read.
As I typed this, I recalled a post I began writing in April. I’d set it aside when, after two or three hours of typing furiously, I realized I had no idea where I was going with it.
Happily, its opening sections fit perfectly within this post. To use this post’s language, they document how I went from living
in a variant of Huxley’s envisioned future to, beginning with the murder of Trayvon Martin,
with eyes and ears attuned to the Orwellian one pressing in.
Then, I described it as Becoming
(and later un-Becoming)
I have always been white,
but I only Became White half my lifetime ago,
a fact my Black husband pointed out to me, with love, a couple years ago.
I grew up white in poverty and violence.
In my childhood, I could not escape either poverty or violence. Nor could I escape awareness of the many intimate relationships between poverty and violence.
My husband, Anthony, grew up middle class, and did not know as intimately as I the many violences that flow from and with poverty. He did, however, know intimately the many violences that flow from and with racism.
His experiences with violence led him to say many times, only half-joking over the course of our many years together, that I grew up a poor Black woman. The statement was so obviously wrong to me on its face, I instantly dismissed it wholly each time he said it.
One day, sitting at our kitchen table reading a book of essays by a Black woman, I read a passage about systemic violence aloud to my husband. I told him I used to understand everything she wrote about violence in my bones. I couldn’t, I mused aloud, understand how I came to forget everything I knew about it.
Anthony was not at all confused about this point. Without pause, he said he could: “You went to college and became white.”
Before college, he explained, everyone around me knew me as poor. Knew from my clothing as well as my mannerisms that I was poor, even if many didn’t know as fact that I lived off other people’s garbage.
Before college, he explained, my poverty was always visible. It was inescapable. It made me an easy target for abuses on many scales outside of as well as within my home.
When I went to college, though, I was surrounded by people who came from less provincial places. They didn’t care how I used to dress or see anything worth noting in my lack of refinement.
So I got jobs, and credit cards, and Gap clothes I supplemented with endless platitudes to conceal my shame-filled origins.
I had the option to become white, and, explained Anthony with empathy, I seized it with gusto.
Revisiting that conversation today, I see that my Becoming White was being able to choose—and then actually choosing—to live in Huxley-described dreamier repression.
It was with Martin, and, later, Michael Brown, that I found an Orwellian reality co-existing with my later Huxleyan one,
though I did not then have the words to explain the uncomfortable collision.
Today, I’m glad Li’l D happened to try negotiating with his little brother where I could overhear;
that Anthony, who introduced me to Postman and whose American Studies degree he’s used in ways that have helped me learn to see and speak so much more clearly (if not yet with actual clarity, though I aspire to that!) about USian political life, stepped away from cooking to talk Huxley versus Orwell;
that hundreds of thousands to millions of USians long living the Huxleyan version of repression saw signs that other USians were living—were they lucky enough to live—a much starker, Orwellian repression, and did not look away;
that, far from simply not looking away, many are taking to the streets en masse, even in the face of militarized police attacking them with tear gas and tanks, flash bombs and rubber bullets;
that, thanks to all this not-looking-away, all this action, we might together build a future where we’re not left debating whether Huxley or Orwell got this dystopia more right,
but instead building the better world all our kids deserve, one in which we all take part in defining
what it means to protect and serve …