April 18, 2020 I’m in a dystopia again
There’s a short-haired woman with lots of freckles and a red puffer jacket who lives around my area. I see her out with her hunky pitbull. We have met before, before all this strangeness began. I ran into her at the vet, and I also saw her in the train station with a folder full of papers and a starchy outfit that made me think “city employee.” Now I see her outside and I think to myself, well, she’s not wearing a mask, so maybe she is safe?
I really want to talk to someone who will allow me to express my fear of what the world is becoming—a frightened, shut-in society with nonstop news propaganda and radical restraints on our freedom the likes of which humanity has never seen. I feel a chill run down my back when I walk on Church Avenue, the normally grimy, overcrowded shopping street where Caribbean spices and used clothing are sold. Now it’s all shuttered, the sidewalks bare. A few homeless people, a drunk person, someone—ironically—clearing his throat and spitting while a mask covers only his chin. I count the days of this. It’s now day thirty six. Thirty six days of no schools, no work, no gym, no coffee shop. Our world is surreal. Everyone is in masks. It frightens me.
I want to talk about the way in which it makes me worry that something worrisome, something dystopian is afoot. I want to discuss the tremendous cost to our society and the freedoms extracted from us as a part of a dubious “cure” for a virus which humans can contain as well as they could reach God through the Tower of Babel. I want to ask about loneliness, suicide, tradition, domestic violence, the unimaginable suffering that results from a society in limbo. I want to express my worry that shutting children inside is unnatural, that neighbors spying on each other is awful, that blaming the Hasidic community is dangerous. I want to say that when Hasidic weddings and funerals and holidays are treated like a criminal activity, then we lose all perspective. I want to say that when the hate against the Hasidic community becomes “valid,” because Hasidim are supposedly endangering all of the world, then that’s our canary in the coal mine. Or maybe we are already at the point where the coal mine is collapsing.
I want to express what C.S. Lewis so eloquently wrote:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”
I start to say to a friend, “Crazy, huh?” But the friend tells me it’s temporary. He says, “I’m worried about you.” Another tells me, “I personally know two people who died, it’s not a joke.” A friend warns me that I’ll come off sounding like a conspiracy theorist. I bite my tongue. I don’t want people to misconstrue what I’m saying, so I say nothing. I recall the many times I did this in my childhood. I remember how carefully I read social cues to see if Gelly or Chumy or Malka’la would get scared if I said something a little outside the lines. Their faces would register a bit of alarm. The non-verbal message I got was: You’re-crazy-how-could-you-say-such-a-thing. The point of saying things was to be validated by someone. But sharing with someone who thinks you’re crazy, dangerous, worrisome has the opposite effect. It’s better not to share. That’s how I came to hold in so much and twist myself into a pretzel to fit in.
I left the Hasidic community to get away from the benevolent dystopia. I know what a dystopia looks like and can feel one encroaching again now. In the Hasidic community, I had to wear all the prescribed clothing or else god would send cancer; now too, the security guard at the grocery tells me to put on this mask and those gloves even though no one is sure if any of it works. In the Hasidic community, I couldn’t shake hands with men and I couldn’t hug men, and now the park has a big sign announcing “No HUGS.” In the Hasidic community, I was afraid to say something lest I be called a heretic, and now I’m afraid to say something because I’ll be called a denier. In the Hasidic community, fear caused people to suppress doubt, which stifled our critical thinking and dumbed everyone down; well, same here. In the Hasidic community, the media just parroted the official line. Now, the secular media does that twenty four seven and with shocking graphics, injecting steroids into our amygdalas. In the Hasidic community, I couldn’t make decisions for my child’s education, and now I can’t make decisions either, even though it seems cruel and inhumane that my son should go thirty five days without physically seeing a friend. In the Hasidic community, I was terrified of saying what I think, and so it is now. In the Hasidic community I felt alone, and so it is again.
How did we get here? I always think of Neil Postman, who in the 1990s was already a prescient prophet who could see that “Amusing Ourselves to Death” could come around to the same dangerous places as not amusing ourselves at all. He compares the dystopia depicted by Orwell—one that looks very much like the Hasidic world—to a dystopia depicted by Huxley—which is a lot like our modern world. Postman writes:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
Both these dystopias produce the same dumbed down and paralyzed populace; Postman warns that,
“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
Postman wrote this all before the internet entertained us at all hours, before the sensorium became three dimensional and virtual reality, before the like button hacked our dopamine system. Yet he was right that turning everything into entertainment would destroy our society. Now we have mods addicted to Twitter who get highs from retweets and shares and take to Twitter in a frenzy to demand compliance from their followers, to shame those who dare go to the park on a lovely spring day, to abuse those who don’t step in line by calling them “murders.” People get reshared for these sentiments thousands of times, and the fights that break out are cruel and meaningless and childish and egocentric enough to put Narcissus to shame. The whole thing is entertainment, and it is not without its consequences. Never before has groupthink been so fast, so powerful and so much fun for those who go along for the ride. The masses cry, “It’s just entertainment!” and, “Let people have some fun!” and, “We know the difference between fantasy and real life!” The claims are absurd on their face, but they have six thousand likes in a blink. In this entertainment reality, what’s popular becomes true.
So I try to stay out of the sensorium and encourage my son to do so too. I go out with the dog and wave to the girl in the red puffer coat, and ask her if my dog can say hi to hers. I ask her if she wants to walk down Ditmas Park with me, and we both make a show of being far apart. My hypocritical gestures remind me of the ways I used to negotiate in the Hasidic community; I’d pick my battles and be extra good about the meaningless things in order to have cover for when my mouth popped out heresy. I learn that her name is Anne, and I offer her some of my expensive, handmade, made-in-Monroe matzahs. She’s not Jewish but I’m a pro at this type of culinary missionary work, so I quickly have her hooked.
We do a little dance where I say Come by my house and I’ll give you matzah but then quickly add that she only should if she feels comfortable. I feel scared to hear myself speak as if visiting my place is some act of treachery. She says she doesn’t mind but that she needs to warn me someone has had the virus in the building. “Just want to be frank.” I say that’s fine, I’ll take my chances. And slowly we egg each other on and feel each other out to see how far the heresy can go.
It’s a familiar dance. It’s the dance of my life. I comfort myself; at least this time, I have experience.