Political Talk as Totalitarian Distraction

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is the kind of book that should be read several times throughout one’s life and for a variety of reasons. Most people who read it do so as assigned reading in High School or College. They then apply it to history and politics, respectively, seeing the themes and connections that Huxley is presenting throughout the story. What I would propose, however, is applying it not simply to politics, but to society itself and indeed ourselves, to human nature. While a much better book, Brave New World is less iconic than Orwell’s 1984 and so it does not contribute to our common parlance in quite the same way. Everyone knows what “Big Brother” is, but hardly anyone in the general population would know what I meant if I referred to soma, Fordianism, or “the feelies.” This is too bad, because Huxley much more accurately foresaw the condition of the middle-to-late 20th century, and what he saw continues today. In fact, I think it is a book with immense pastoral value. (Pastors: read it next to Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos and for the same reason.)

The difference between Huxley’s vision and Orwell’s lies in the nature of coercion and repression. Orwell’s presentation is of the classically totalitarian sort: traditional-style propaganda, the military-industrial complex, and top-down control. Huxley sees things from the opposite direction. True, there is still a “program” which is enforced on society, but in Brave New World, the powers that be have figured out how to make the people impose this program on themselves, voluntarily and without ever feeling discomfort. This is achieved through a strict class stratification, the disestablishment of the family, free sex, ubiquitous prescription drugs, and an entertainment industry which keeps everyone constantly distracted. Where Orwell depicts the old-style statism of Nazis and Soviets, Huxley captures liberal-progressivism of the sort that the modern West, including the US, embodies today. We have largely entertained and distracted ourselves to death.

But to leave it here would actually still be incomplete. You see, in addition to entertainment– the “feelies”– distracting us to the point of being unable to meaningfully produce and critically interact with our socio-political world, we also now have the news-journalism-infotainment industry colluding in this distraction. And the utopian novel that most accurately predicted this was neither Brave New World nor 1984 but, instead, C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. I wrote an extended summary of the political critique made in that book here, and I will not try to say it all again now. What Lewis gets absolutely correct, however, is that journalism is itself in the service of the dominant powers, and it can be so in a crass government-propaganda way and it can be so in an “alternative news outlet” sort of way which poses as the voice of the people or the voice of educated experts in various fields. These outlets are much worse than the typical news paper or nightly news, and they are so precisely because of their perceived specialty status:

Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything (That Hideous Strength, Scribner 1996, p 99-100)  

And it is also important to remember that for Lewis, the real “conspiracy” is never actually political or economic but, in fact, spiritual. Demonic aliens– powers and principalities of the air, to use the language of the New Testament– are actually tempting, motivating, and even controlling many of the great men on earth who then orchestrate political, social, economic, and cultural movements. And so this too has to be a part of our response to the world we live in today.

Now that was really all a long introduction, though it helpfully contextualizes things in such a way that I won’t have to go on and on below. These two books, Huxley’s Brave New World and Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, work together to highlight one of the great threats to conservative Christians today, and that threat is “political talk” in the form of TV news, talk radio, and online media. Instead of enabling greater and more productive civic participation among our communities, this “talk” has a real potential to stunt and even snuff out meaningful contributions. The outlets mentioned serve as both intellectual propaganda and emotional therapeutics, though of an odd kind. They don’t make us feel better, certainly not calmer or more satisfied. No, they keep us jumpy and ruminative, always thinking about our great problems, dangers, and enemies, and they do so in a way that also keeps us from being able to disconnect and go back to our lives. In short, the political talk takes over our lives. 

It does this in a number of ways. The first is through sheer pervasiveness. The talk is simply everywhere and at all times. We wake up and check facebook. We read our favorite blogs and news outlets. We listen to talk radio in the car. Our smartphone chimes. After work we come home to watch the news again. I have seen many many senior citizens who literally dedicate the hours of 6-10pm to non-stop FOX News. The time-commitment itself is staggering, but it goes deeper. 

Secondly, this political talk stays with us even when we aren’t reading, watching, or listening. It affects our thoughts and emotions. It gets into our spirit. This can be seen by the fact that we are angry about politics for large amounts of the day. We can’t seem to put it out of our minds. Instead of focusing on our families or even hobbies and other joys, we think about, talk about, and argue about the various news items of the day or week. We basically live our lives through proxies. 

Thirdly, the news-entertainment industrial complex is salacious. This can be seen by the obvious examples of “Anchor babes” on nearly every channel, but it also shows up in the fixation on outrage, violence, and sexuality. These stories dominate the headlines regardless of their actual relevance of importance. I remember one news show actually using the following hook: “Can you believe MTV would air this raunchy video? Let’s go to the footage!” And this same vulgar motivation can and does apply to issues involving money, violence, and even policy. The libido is not actually limited to sex. To again use the old biblical language, it applies to all of the sins of the flesh.

Fourthly, this same phenomena has a tendency to form our communities. Research shows that people are moving into ideological silos. Liberals move to urban centers, while conservatives target the Southern and Mountain states. Now, while intentional communities have long existed, usually held together by churches or other civic associations, they have never been as consumerist and designer as they are today. And the negative effect of this is that the less and less people interact with ideological diversity, the less and the less they are able to imagine having meaningful and loving relationships with people who hold different ideas. And still worse, due to some dark inertia, the amount of tolerable diversity tends to continue to shrink over time. I believe that this can be attributed to the psychic anxiety mentioned earlier, and it seems to be one of the most ingenious ways that Satan attacks the Christian community: from the inside out and wholly in accord with their preferences and biases. He doesn’t have to tug. He just gives a slight nudge. We do the heavy lifting.  

All of these factors combine to produce a totalitarian effect. “Politics” devours the church and the family. The constant debate and anxiety breaks down the traditional humane bonds of those communities, leaving them weakened, divided, and bewildered. With two estates down and out, the third is able to reign supreme. And this all happened while we thought we were being independent-minded and on guard against encroachments from the State. In the effort to fight off totalitarianism, we allowed politics to have a totalizing effect on us. We dealt the blow to ourselves. 

I am not exaggerating for effect here. I have seen families deadened by their supposed awareness. I have seen churches derailed and nullified by their own agendas. I have seen young men, full of potential and virility, made socially useless through their pursuit of worldview. Instead of reconstructing a society, they never learned how to have an enjoyable dinner with the neighbors, and, as a result, they experience increasing frustration and stultification and finally become angry and cynical. I have seen and continue to see broken relationships and even broken homes over this. 

And so we need to stop allowing ourselves to be fooled. Don’t believe the hype. Snap out of it. Wake up. We’ve got to put politics in its place. 

But what do I mean exactly? While aware of the irony of presenting my own “program,” let me nevertheless give you a few points of action:

1. Be Still (Psalm 46)– Justification by faith alone means that cosmic vindication does not come about by works. This means that it is not in our hands to achieve it or fail to achieve it (Rom. 8:18-25, 12:9-21). And that means we can and must reject anxiety (Matt. 6:34). “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). 

2. Take Dominion– Contrary to some popular assumptions, the dominion mandate is actually not about sophisticated social and political strategies. It is about living your life. “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Get married, have kids, build a house, learn a trade, go fishing, and get a dog or two. Read fiction. Make bread. Start a family. Put down roots. Build a community. Get a job and go to work. 

3. Recover Vocation– “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3). “But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all the churches” (1 Corinthians 7:17). These verses do not forbid social mobility or even the desire to make structural changes in society, but they do forbid a rootless ambition that declines to locate one’s calling and stick to it. For Luther this doctrine meant that we all have a job and a life that we are called to by God and that our duty is to identify it, sanctify it through our faith, do it as unto the Lord, and stick with it.

Remember, our weapons are not carnal. We do not wrestle according to the flesh. We don’t actually pull down strongholds with arguments either. No, we cast down arguments as we put on the whole armor of God. If you win an election but lose your children, the kingdom does not advance. If you find the perfect church and then blow it up through strife and infighting, the kingdom does not advance. If, instead of being persecuted for the gospel, you just kind of have a way of being obnoxious in the name of Christ, the kingdom does not advance. And if your joy and hope is seemingly hidden behind a wall of anxiety, the kingdom does not advance. 

Do you want to defeat the conspiracy? Then don’t give it mastery over your life. Go out and do something important instead. Don’t try to be all-knowing or all-competent. Just be yourself. Do your thing and live your life. Love your kids. Kiss your wife. Enjoy good wine around a table of laughter. Cultivate joy and satisfaction in your life, and connect with other families who are doing the same. Through the construction of joyful families and joyful communities, the kingdom of God will make itself more and more visible. And in this way, the powers are being defeated. 

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