Several years ago my daughter was studying Brave New World in her secondary school English class and she told me about an exercise that the teacher conducted with the class. For those of you who may not be familiar with the Aldous Huxley novel, it imagines a future in which people are ostensibly free, but where babies are selectively bred to be in one of five classes, from the Alphas - the ruling elite - to the Epsilons - the worker drones. Parenthood has been abolished and children are incubated and raised by the state, and sex is seen as a transaction - a source only of mindless relief, along with Soma, the state-sanctioned narcotic that everyone is encouraged to consume.Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. ~ Ronald Reagan
The exercise that my daughter's teacher gave the class was to write about which of the classes you would want to be in - the Alphas, who have the greatest abilities but also the greatest responsibility, or one of the lower classes. My daughter, I am proud to say, wanted to be an Alpha. What surprised her and me was that the vast majority of her fellow pupils wanted to be in one of the lower classes, living in (what they imagined to be) blissful ignorance. And this wasn't some lower-decile school where the children came from working-class families, this was a private school comprising the offspring of some of the country's intellectual and social elite (but perhaps that is not surprising).
I didn't think much of it at the time, but in the present world of Covid lockdowns and the reintroduction of discrimination by inherent characteristics such as race in name of "equity", the lemming-like preferences of my daughter's classmates don't seem so bizarre. We are turning into a society where people prefer to be locked up in their houses and subject to all manner of social restrictions than to be free to determine their own actions and to take responsibility for their choices. And if you think that the selective breeding in Brave New World is a little too fanciful, bear in mind that studies in America show that assortative mating (i.e. selecting a long-term partner from within your own social class) is increasing and may be a contributor to increasing economic inequality.
The other great dystopian novels of the 20th Century, 1984 and Fahrenheit-451 are coming true in their own ways too. Monopolistic, state-sanctioned control of the electronic media that pervades our lives, the labelling of dissenting opinion as "fake news", and the creation of a whole category of oxymoronic expressions such as "free speech doesn't include hate speech", are surely blatant examples of 1984's Telescreens, Thoughtcrime and Newspeak. The censorship and withdrawal of books because their authors have said something that doesn't accord with the political orthodoxy makes the book-burning world of Fahrenheit-451 look remarkably prescient.
Eighteen months ago no one predicted that we would respond to a pandemic by locking down healthy people in their homes. It had never been done in history - not for the Black Death, the 1918 influenza pandemic, the repeated polio epidemics of the early 20th Century, or SARS-1. We looked aghast at China locking up entire cities in early 2020 and said such an authoritarian response would never fly in Western countries. And yet here we are.
I hear you say that this is all just a temporary blip on the trajectory of ever-increasing liberty and prosperity. We had to give up a little freedom for Covid, and if the mainstream media is complicit in controlling opinions that are not conducive to "social cohesion" (to use an expression that has been used to justify the Ardern Government's proposed hate speech laws), well, that is not a bad thing. Besides, everything will all be back to normal once Covid is conquered, won't it?
If you think that, you haven't been listening. Just this week there have been stories about how we won't be returning to normal anytime soon, perhaps not ever. Public health experts here in New Zealand are already saying we need to treat influenza just the same as Covid - with continuation of lockdowns, border restrictions and masks in public. New Zealanders overwhelmingly support this, according to research released by the prime minister's office, with 91% saying they do not see things returning to normal even after most of the population has been vaccinated against Covid. Isn't this starting to look a little bit like Brave New World?
For those of us who love freedom, it is hard to know how to respond to this mass Stockholm Syndrome. I am by nature an optimist and console myself with the positivity of The Rational Optimist and Human Progress, but I am also a keen student of history and I see many parallels between our present time and the late 1920s/early 1930s with its cultural decadence, the resurgence of authoritarian regimes to challenge the liberal world order, and the acceptance of extremist violence as a normal part of Western political discourse. In the last four decades we have enjoyed the greatest period of freedom, (relative) peace and prosperity in human history, but I fear that we are about to discover that those words by Ronald Reagan that appear at the top of this post are true.