Out of Joint
By Raul Groom
redoubtable Philip K. Dick published a novel in 1959 that
very few people read called Time Out of Joint. It's the story
of a group of suburbanites who slowly begin to realize that
the world they live in is not completely real. The book has
elements that would later show up in movies like The Matrix
or The Truman Show, but it wrestles mightily with the question
that these lesser stories paper over what happens to the
human mind when it begins to realize that it has been deeply,
even fundamentally, duped?
Dick didn't come up with the idea of an artificial universe,
of course. It appears for the first time (that anybody knows
about) in Plato's Republic, in the form of Socrates' story
of the prisoners in the cave, told to Glaucon and Adiemantus
and the whole fun-loving gang about 2500 years ago. But the
extended treatment Time Out of Joint gives to the psychological
implications of waking up from The Big Dream is, if not unique,
at least remarkably rare. Many of us, I am beginning to suspect,
would benefit greatly from a trip to the library to grab a
copy of the novel, if only to brace ourselves for the coming
And it is coming. Like thundersnow sneaking over the Allegheny
mountains and barreling down the Potomac Basin to slam into
the unsuspecting residents of the nation's capital, a day
of reckoning is fast approaching. We felt it all summer, that
gnawing, uneasy intuition that there was something big and
dangerous over the horizon, a leviathan lurking in the waters
just beyond the limits of our visibility, waiting for just
the right moment to gobble us all up in its dripping, mephitic
The summer kept us warm, and in our sweaty bliss we were
able to ignore our instincts, for the most part. We pranced
and frolicked and cheered the forces of good as they haplessly
but merrily dashed themselves against the rocks of greed and
tyranny. Progress is being made, we told ourselves, and if
it's not enough to really bring down the whole terrible machine,
what's wrong with that? We depend, after all, on our illusions.
They are a comfort to us, a key to our survival. We will dispel
them gradually, painlessly. We will confront our fears on
our own time.
But now the cold has come, and with it the sharpness of
vision that transforms an unremarkable Silver Spring office
building into an architectural marvel, crisp angles and clean
lines brought into sharp relief by a bullet blue sky and the
harsh glow of the sterile winter sun glinting off the pedway
over Colesville Road. American culture can't stay in a holding
pattern for very long, and a quick glance at the woeful trajectory
of music since 1991 (note to the industry: I'll start caring
about the plight of the Napster-starved record executive when
you stop releasing albums that are nothing but crappy imitations
of Nevermind performed by your tone-deaf second cousins)
confirms that we've been in one for quite some time.
Last time we stabilized on one artificial, gelatinous vision
of the American Dream, the population discovered mushrooms
and LSD and went off on a crazed experiential bender that
lasted about a decade and produced some cool music, but none
of the "consciousness expansion" we were promised.
In the end, the 1960's were a bust. Meet the new boss, same
as the old boss.
This time, we won't make the same mistake. Honestly, it
isn't available to most of us. Our own experiences with hallucinogens,
uppers, downers, warm beer, dank pot, serial infatuation,
fast cars, big money and every other crazy addiction you can
wag a finger at have left us with an understanding our parents
didn't have all that crap isn't really an escape, just another
way to burrow in deeper and distract yourself from the feeling
that something is rotten in Denmark.
The failure of the 1960's counterculture did more for the
U.S. anti-drug effort than Nancy Reagan and Bill Bennett combined.
Despite oldster propaganda to the contrary, this generation
is shrewder, wiser. We're ready to take another run at this
thing, and this time, the cat at the wheel is stone cold sober.
OK, maybe he's a little baked, when old friends come over,
but nobody's perfect. In any case, we leave all that aside
for now, to return to the matter at hand.
Periodicals play a key role in Time Out of Joint. They help
maintain the illusion, of course, the manufacturing of consent
that is the key purpose of our own "real world"
mainstream press. But they have another important function
as well. Close scrutiny of the materials - or more precisely,
a certain type of scrutiny of certain types of materials
begins to reveal the cracks in the faηade. There may be lessons
here for us in confronting our own fantasy world.
Take today's Washington Post, for instance. Fareed
Zakaria, a normally reliable administration apologist, takes
a position quite outside the mainstream view that Bush and
his administration have a "PR Problem" with the
citizens of other countries. He argues eloquently that in
fact, the problem is one of substance, not of packaging.
This in itself wouldn't be too shocking toadies go off
the reservation occasionally, and are usually brought back
into the fold quickly but I happen to know that Zakaria
was merely the most recognizable name to submit an Op/Ed with
this thesis. The editors could have chosen other articles,
just as well-argued, that took the same position. One in particular
was penned by a respected Washington PR professional, fed
up with his colleagues in the industry constantly droning
on about how to fix the President's "image problem."
Zakaria only gave voice to a feeling that's breaking out all
over that Dubya's troubles, and those of the state he heads,
may go a bit beyond the superficial into the substantial,
and even the structural.
Disoriented readers, upset at having their reality-tunnel
unexpectedly breached, might head over to the New York
Times looking for a comforting Safire column about why
the terrorists are evil, but the situation in Big Apple newsstands
is even worse. Paul Krugman shed some light on why he's increasingly
labeled "partisan" and "extremist" with
an audacious new piece on every hardcore DUer's favorite subject,
Diebold Systems. If you haven't read it, go
do it now. Done? Good.
If what Krugman is saying is true, it makes crystal clear
why words like the ones his critics hurl at him have no real,
useful meaning. If Diebold, the manufacturer of a large percentage
of our country's voting machines, is openly shilling for the
Bush administration, working actively to get him and his cronies
reelected, and designing voting systems that can easily be
manipulated for that purpose, there is no way to approach
this subject from a measured, objective position. It leads
us to an important question can facts themselves be partisan?
Is the truth sometimes so damaging to one side of an argument
that it should be suppressed in the name of fairness?
Perhaps what Krugman says is not true. However, in some
cases it is not necessary to believe an argument or set of
assertions in order for them to have the necessary effect.
Indeed, in this case, and in the case of a great many troubling
realizations that are now breathing down the necks of the
American electorate, it is only necessary to accept that something
could be true for it to exercise a rejuvenating effect on
a person's mind.
And so we provide ourselves with an endless stream of reassurance
to buttress our belief that the picture we hold in our minds
of the world around us is not fundamentally flawed, despite
a possible loose end here or paradox there. We do what we
must to maintain our privilege, the ability to survive without
having to think.
Conduct an experiment with me, though, for a moment. Look
at the thousand or so words that follow not as a description
of our own world, but of some other world. Think of the people
in the story as little green men from far away. They are not
like us. We needn't bother to look for parallels between what
happened to them and what could happen to us. Just sit back
and listen to a story. Where could be the harm in that?
"Dig, if you will, the picture."
- Prince, "When Doves Cry"
It was the fourth year of a new age. The planet was dominated
by a lone superpower, whose leaders adhered to the Nennak
Doctrine. This doctrine, created decades before by Terry Hruman's
Minister of Foreign Affairs, held that the Amelian military
must intervene regularly around the planet in order to protect
a socioeconomic order under which a tiny percentage of the
planet's population (the richest Amelians) consumed a huge
percentage of its resources.
For fifty years, this doctrine had gone unchallenged. It
had barely even been understood, except by those who executed
it at the highest levels of government. But suddenly, at the
dawn of a new millennium, as the planet's population became
increasingly involved in managing its own affairs, the doctrine
came under attack. It came under attack not only from other
governments, no longer easily bought off by providing a few
dictators with some shiny perks, but from Amelia's own citizens,
who had emerged from the nightmare of a bloody, dirty war
a generation before with the ultimate heresy on their lips
are we the good guys?
Lacking the background, as a result of their early upbringing
in the bosom of the Amelian Dream, to give voice to the question
themselves in any meaningful way, these fine citizens nevertheless
raised a generation of children who could ask, finally, why
exactly their military invaded all those little countries
full of poor people. And at the dawn of this new age, at long
last, they were asking.
Fortunately for global order, the Masters of the Universe,
as they were fond of calling themselves, were ready. Over
many decades, they had created a media machine that functioned
so perfectly that they did not even have to exercise any direct
control over it. People had become so accustomed to hearing
the story the way it had been told for years that they ran
screaming from anyone who tried to say anything different.
Reporters and editors who told a pleasing, comfortable tale
were rewarded with wonderful careers and plush assignments,
while those who tried to print other things found that their
affairs did not prosper.
But the plan was not a perfect one. The man who had been
chosen by the architects of Amelian policy to lead the country
into the new age was selected because he was pliable, and
none too bright in other words, among the least likely people
to one day realize that his picture of the world was based
on sweet-smelling lies.
While he proved his masters right in this regard, they had
not anticipated the difficulties this pitiful leader's obvious
unfitness would pose. With each passing day the people came
to understand more and more that he was not in charge. Slowly
but surely, the people began in increasing numbers to cry
out for answers. TV, the very apparatus that had been most
instrumental in creating the alternative reality in which
the average Amelian citizen lived and worked, revealed too
honestly the falseness and ridiculousness of their supposed
President. A time of Revelation was at hand.
Seeing that people were on to them, the true leaders of
the planet tried one last gambit to secure their power. They
created a voting system that would tip elections to their
own hand-picked candidates, even if the other guy won a close
victory among those polled. They staked their plan on the
belief that no one would ever be able to find out the truth
about the machines, because the machines left no record when
votes were cast. The machines had made it through one election
and had done their job the entire government was finally
in the hands of the men who had believed all along that the
world was theirs to rule as they saw fit, without the interference
of the "little people."
But there was another election coming up, in the fifth year
of the age, and some of the candidates in the opposition party
who still believed democracy could work were beginning to
get suspicious. Newspaper columnists, instead of doing as
they were supposed to do and calling anyone who cried foul
a fraud and a crank, started to write stories asking uncomfortable
questions about the new machines. Why isn't there a paper
trail? Why are politicians allowed to own companies that make
the machines that count the votes in their own elections,
as Chak Hegl of Nu Raska does?
Meanwhile, the latest Amelian military adventure, which
had started out just like all the others as an easy victory
over a pathetically overmatched opponent, was turning into
a nightmare. Unease and uncertainty that had taken half a
decade to develop in the previous generation now spread over
the phone lines and computer connections like wildfire. People
began to wake up. People began to see.
The comfortable world they had known - in which Amelians
had better lives because they were better people, and the
rest of the world just hadn't quite caught up - began to fall
apart. The Amelians saw, finally, their own complicity in
the horrors and tragedy that beset the less fortunate citizens
of their planet.
The Amelians retreated back into their homes and glued themselves
to their televisions, where reassuring images were being broadcast
in an attempt to stave off disaster. But it was too late.
The Amelians weren't ready for what they saw, but they couldn't
unsee it. The news anchors who had once seemed so distinguished,
so authoritative, now only seemed ridiculous and foolish.
The stories of their great leader doing heroic things were
transparent and hollow. Everything the citizens had held dear
Amelian society continued like this, for a time, as the
elections approached. No one knew how things would turn out
the opposition promised only more change, and even some
within the opposition party cried out that it was too dangerous,
that life under the Masters of the Universe was better than
the great unknown abyss into which they were all about to
But even as they argued, and fought, and cried out in pain
at the death of their treasured illusions, time marched mercilessly
onward. The elections approached, and no one knew quite what
What did the citizens do, dear reader? I would like to know,
if only to slake my own curiosity. It is a good story, after
all, is it not? Silly, perhaps, to care about the fate of
some imaginary race of little green men on a faraway planet,
but such is the curse of the science fiction lover. I do hope
the Amelians work it out, in the end. I sincerely do.