OCD is a pain. I mean it’s a serious pain sometimes, and I’ve only got a light case in comparison with some people. I’m not germ-conscious like Howie Mandel or…well, really, he’s the only celebrity I know with a bad case of it. Think “Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets (ad)” bad — I’m not that bad.
Instead, my particular manifestation of OCD comes in the disastrously time-consuming form of having to know things. Buy a whole volume of short stories just to read one of them? Sorry, gotta read all of them. Oh, so there are seven centuries’ worth of early Christian writings available for free on the Internet? I must read them all! That link that just flashed by as I was paging down, where that one word might have been either “dork” or “dorm”? Gotta scroll back up and find out what it said. The next X-Men movie shows every indication that it’s going to suck massively? Tough, I’m gonna see it anyway. (And trust me, that last one is not fandom. That’s OCD.)
As you can imagine, this having to know things gets really old really quick. But the absolute worst is when I’m reading a book or watching a film, and suddenly that book or movie references some other book or film that I haven’t yet consumed. For example, one time I was reading the book Blue Like Jazz (ad) (and I’m having to recall this from memory because my copy’s either in storage or lost), but in the very last chapter the author writes something like, “Just as when the therapist in the movie Good Will Hunting (ad) says–”
Stop. Full stop. Hadn’t seen that movie yet. Had to put the book down. Had to find an actual brick-and-mortar video store that had the movie in stock and get a 1-day rental so I could see it. Only then was I able to return to the book and finish the last few pages. Practically a 24-hour delay just so I wouldn’t have the ending of Good Will Hunting spoiled for me.
For a long time that was my worst example. But last year I got hit with a double-whammy: A book that referenced another book…that referenced another book!
The book that spawned the domino chain was Robert Heinlein’s classic time-travel novel The Door Into Summer (ad), which relates the tale of an engineer cheated out of the business he helped create. Desiring to leave his bleak present behind, he buys a one-way ticket to the future via suspended animation. While contemplating his plan, the engineer thinks about how his remaining money will be multiplied by the power of compound interest while he sleeps: “Oh, I had read H. G. Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes (ad)…when it was just another classic novel; I knew what compound interest and stock appreciation could do.”
Stop. Full stop.
He had read H. G. Wells’ classic novel…but I hadn’t read it. Which meant I was going to be taking a detour. (Sigh)….
So I set aside Heinlein and picked up Wells’ novel. Here is the tale of a man who through a strange combination of drugs unintentionally puts himself into a coma lasting two hundred years. During that time, his wealth has accumulated such that he could buy and sell the world if he wanted. In fact, his controlling interest in the world’s economy is so large that, well, he really shouldn’t have woken up — at least, that’s what the world’s ruling elite believe.
So I’m making stout progress through this fascinating novel, when in Chapter Seven I suddenly find myself tripping over these words: “He thought of Bellamy, the hero of whose Socialistic Utopia had so oddly anticipated this actual experience.”
Who? What? Huh? I had no idea what this meant. But a little internet searching led to my discovery of another book, this one by Edward Bellamy, called Looking Backward from 2000 to 1887 (ad). Just as Wells’ narrator described it, this book is basically a pro-socialist polemic detailing the experiences of yet another Rip Van Winkle (ad)-ish character who finds himself waking from a centuries-old sleep. Only in this case, the future’s so bright, the main character’s gotta wear shades: The country is a socialist paradise, the likes of which even Bernie Sanders would think is a stretch.
Thankfully, I enjoy polemics, especially when they are clothed in works of fiction. It doesn’t really matter what side of the argument the polemic is advancing, either: I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged (ad) in all its anti-communist polemic glory, but I also enjoyed the pro-communist polemic The Iron Heel (ad) by Jack London (who more famously wrote The Call of the Wild (ad) and White Fang (ad)). Telling stories to get your point across is a tool at least as old as the book of Genesis.
So I made speedy work of devouring Bellamy’s novel detailing a socialist utopia, and then I made equally good time consuming Wells’ novel about a socialist dystopia, and somewhere along the way it hit me: These books were basically telling the same story, with the same premises, but coming to radically different conclusions. In Bellamy’s book, everyone is well-provided-for and happy to live under socialist control. In Wells’ book, a civil war erupts the moment the people have a taste of freedom. Why the difference? What is the “X-factor” that makes these two fictional worlds turn out so drastically different?
As it turns out, the “X-factor” is people: Wells has a keen understanding of what people are naturally like; Bellamy, not so much. Bellamy’s views on human nature are best described through a sermon given toward the end of his novel by a radio preacher comparing the “past” era of 1887 with the “present” era of 2000:
It was the sincere belief of even the best of men at that epoch that the only stable elements in human nature, on which a social system could be safely founded, were its worst propensities. They had been taught and believed that greed and self-seeking were all that held mankind together, and that all human associations would fall to pieces if anything were done to blunt the edge of these motives or curb their operation. In a word, they believed — even those who longed to believe otherwise — the exact reverse of what seems to us self-evident; they believed, that is, that the anti-social qualities of men, and not their social qualities, were what furnished the cohesive force of society….[Only when] the conditions of life for the first time ceased to operate as a forcing process to develop the brutal qualities of human nature, and the premium which had heretofore encouraged selfishness was not only removed, but placed upon unselfishness, [was it] for the first time possible to see what unperverted human nature really was like. The depraved tendencies, which had previously overgrown and obscured the better to so large an extent, now withered like cellar fungi in the open air, and the nobler qualities showed a sudden luxuriance which turned cynics into panegyrists and for the first time in human history tempted mankind to fall in love with itself. Soon was fully revealed, what the divines and philosophers of the old world never would have believed, that human nature in its essential qualities is good, not bad, that men by their natural intention and structure are generous, not selfish, pitiful, not cruel, sympathetic, not arrogant, godlike in aspirations, instinct with divinest impulses of tenderness and self-sacrifice, images of God indeed, not the travesties upon Him they had seemed. The constant pressure, through numberless generations, of conditions of life which might have perverted angels, had not been able to essentially alter the natural nobility of the stock, and these conditions once removed, like a bent tree, it had sprung back to its normal uprightness.
In short, Bellamy believes what progressives even today believe about human nature: that it is essentially good. All the evils that human beings inflict on one another are not the result of anything corrupt or depraved in human nature itself, but rather are the results of the social system in which human beings find themselves. Fix the system so that people need no longer groan under the pressures of having to work and make a living for themselves, and human nature will blossom and bloom like a flower that simply lacked adequate sunlight.
Wouldn’t that be wonderful if it were true? Except…it isn’t true. Anyone with half a brain ought to know that.
I learned that myself while visiting my cousins in Michigan one Christmas. One of my older cousins had a two-year-old boy who wandered off unsupervised to play with some other children down the street. When his mother learned what had happened, she asked her now-in-trouble son, “Who gave you permission to go play with those boys?” You could almost see the wheels turning in the child’s head: “What can I say to get out of trouble?” “Daddy!” he finally replied. “Your father’s not even here!” his mother said, laughing. And in that moment I learned a very valuable lesson about human nature: We humans tend to sacrifice anything on the altar of what benefits ourselves. No matter how important a value truth might have been to that two-year-old before he got into trouble, truth went right out the window once he realized he could benefit by lying.
Now, some might argue, “But aren’t you proving Bellamy’s point? The two-year-old might be 100% truthful when he’s not in trouble, but change his external circumstances so that the truth is unfavorable to him, and only then does he become a liar!” And that’s a reasonable argument, save for one thing:
Who taught him to lie?
Do you know of any parent in their right mind who teaches their children to lie, or that lying is a good thing? Is there any daycare in the land where that two-year-old might have learned the benefits of lying, or been taught how to properly construct a lie? Of course not. Children don’t need to be taught how to lie any more than adults do. For that matter, put an adult under pressure, and that adult will often lie, too. (“Phil! Did you take the last cup of coffee without making another pot?” “Uh…nope!”) It isn’t human nature to tell the truth under unfavorable circumstances — rather, it’s human nature to lie. Telling the truth under all circumstances is a value that human beings must be taught, precisely because it doesn’t come naturally.
Lying, murder, rape, theft — whether human beings are more likely to commit any of these acts under duress isn’t the point. That human beings choose to commit these acts at all despite the fact that society neither approves of these acts nor teaches them to others is what points to the intrinsic depravity of human nature. If human nature truly were virtuous, then even under duress, people wouldn’t be inclined to commit these acts. We all know what we shouldn’t do — the fact that we do it anyway is what marks us corrupt.
And it looks like Wells understood this, as his hero and narrator makes clear:
It astonished him to realise how little the common man had changed in spite of the visible change in his conditions. Life and property, indeed, were secure from violence almost all over the world, zymotic diseases, bacterial diseases of all sorts had practically vanished, everyone had a sufficiency of food and clothing, was warmed in the city ways and sheltered from the weather — so much the almost mechanical progress of science and the physical organisation of society had accomplished. But the crowd, he was already beginning to discover, was a crowd still, helpless in the hands of demagogue and organiser, individually cowardly, individually swayed by appetite, collectively incalculable.
Why is it that lifting the daily cares and wants from mankind’s shoulders produced a utopia in Bellamy’s fictional world but a dystopia in Wells’? Because Wells understood that no matter what the external circumstances of the world are in any given century, people are still people — they don’t change from essentially self-serving creatures into selfless angels just because you supply them with all their basic necessities. The selfish drive continues to exist, and it ruins everything without a higher ethic to rein it in.
Wells’ narrator continues:
…he knew something of the history of the intervening years. He had heard now of the moral decay that had followed the collapse of supernatural religion in the minds of ignoble man, the decline of public honour, the ascendency of wealth. For men who had lost their belief in God had still kept their faith in property, and wealth ruled a venial world.
And in this we see the removal from Wells’ fictional society of any higher ethic that could have restrained selfishness. Neither regard for God nor regard for human beings had survived into the future, which made wealth, as the supreme expression of individual desire, the only lodestone for governing one’s life.
Interestingly, Bellamy did not see the growth of socialism to be mutually exclusive with faith in God. Instead, he claims of his utopia:
It [was] very easy to believe in the fatherhood of God in the twentieth century….The means of subsistence — no longer doled out by men to women, by employer to employed, by rich to poor — was distributed from a common stock as among children at the father’s table.
Do you notice the catch, though? It is only “very easy to believe in the fatherhood of God” because the government is acting as God. Take government’s mighty hand out of the picture, and see how humans think of God then:
…men lived together solely for the purpose of overreaching and oppressing one another, and of being overreached and oppressed, and…while a society that gave full scope to these propensities could stand, there would be little chance for one based on the idea of cooperation for the benefit of all….Feeling that the condition of the race was unendurable, they had no clear hope of anything better….Despising themselves, they despised their Creator. There was a general decay of religious belief. Pale and watery gleams, from skies thickly veiled by doubt and dread, alone lighted up the chaos of earth. That men should doubt Him whose breath is in their nostrils, or dread the hands that moulded them, seems to us indeed a pitiable insanity….
Bellamy appears to believe that a lack of basic necessities discourages belief in God, while government provision of mankind’s needs actually encourages it. But has that ever been true? Jesus Himself famously remarked on how difficult it would be for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. The Apostle Paul noted there were “not many mighty, not many noble” among the early Christians. With the sole exception of the heavily religious United States, the more wealthy a nation is, the less religious it is.
Moreover, government tends to be a jealous god. Homeschooling is under attack both here and abroad, lest parents teach their kids values or perspectives inconsistent with those espoused by the government. Many affluent governments are cracking down hard on private possession of firearms, and the U.S. is rapidly approaching that cliff as the Supreme Court threatens to shift liberal (which would bring it into alignment with Bellamy’s world, in which the preacher boasts that there is “little provocation to violence where men were disarmed of power to injure one another”). There is a growing desire to see private and religious property confiscated for the use of performing irreligious ceremonies, and to have religious organizations violate their moral beliefs for dubious “healthcare”. It seems that whenever government seizes the ascendance in anything, it rapidly becomes the only game in town, squeezing out any other gods a person might hold more sacred.
Thus, despite Bellamy’s desire to see freedom of religion and government dominion naturally commingle without conflict, the facts on the ground declare otherwise, and historically always have — hence the explicit protections of religious liberty included in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
And this is really the overall problem with Bellamy’s work: an inability to see the workings of the world, and especially human beings, for what they are rather than what he would like them to be. Wells suffered under no such delusions, which is why his vision of the future is much bleaker than Bellamy’s.
Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that what Wells’ narrator desires at the end is the same thing I wish Bellamy had received — and what all those who today think like Bellamy would receive before they push America firmly and finally over a progressive cliff: a wake-up call.
Why? Because we human beings are simply not the angels you think we are, and the more power you aggregate to a government run by human beings — the more you put government in control of our lives by making us more and more reliant upon it, even for basic necessities — the more we find ourselves in danger of seeing a very human devil take control of all that power.
And then we’ll be the ones begging for a wake-up call, to release us from the nightmare we’ve created.
- “Alarm Clock” at http://bit.ly/1Sxp2RA
- “Door Into Summer” at http://amzn.to/1q2QDBi (ad)
- “When The Sleeper Wakes” at http://amzn.to/1RyJuPI (ad)
- “Looking Backward” at http://amzn.to/1RLlCaM (ad)
- “Angelic Children” at http://bit.ly/1WY4zqC
- “Sneaky Kid” at http://bit.ly/1UULac7
- “Angry Mob” at http://bit.ly/1Y158QD
- “Riot Police” at http://bit.ly/1q2QfTs