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A Country Out of Joint
December 5, 2003
By Raul Groom

The 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 storm.

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 jaws.

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 was dead.

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 plunge.

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 to do.

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.

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