Saturday, May 19, 2012

"The city will never be the same"

There is a definite vibe in Chicago's air this weekend.

The NATO summit is being held at McCormick Place.  The city has been transformed into something of a fortress.  Overflights of fighter jets are not uncommon and large numbers of protestors have already arrived.  These protestors range from the mostly harmless National Nurses United to Occupy Wall Street then all the way over the the anarchists called Black Bloc whom many associate with violence.  Police arrested three members of this organization.  The men are alleged to have planned attacks on several locations in Chicago, vowing that "this city does not know what it is in for and it will never be the same."

I know that this little potboiler of ours just a microcosm of politics in America right now.  Yet it also has a distinct apocalyptic bouquet.  As a fiction writer, it makes me think of two works, recalled from my memory by a post on Chris Helton's Google+ wall.

The first is DMZ by Brian Wood.  In the Vertigo comic book series, a second American Civil War has broken out.  Yes, something I've been harping about since I started this blog, so you can probably see why I enjoyed the series.  As the name implies, the island of Manhattan is sealed off from the rest of New York City a la Escape From New York and turned into a demilitarized zone between the United States of America and the secessionist Free States of America.  Those who are left behind in Manhattan are few in number but are very poor.  Wood was said to have been inspired by equal parts 9/11 and New Orleans after Katrina.  The key character in DMZ is Matty Roth, a reporter who enters this no man's land and his run-ins with both sides of the conflict as well as those who still struggle to survive on the island.

Second is the 2005 concept album Year Zero by Nine Inch Nails.  The storyline for the record takes place in 2022.  The U.S. is a dystopian society ruled by a dictatorship.  While set in the future, the record is an obvious criticism of Bush (the second)-era policies.  For example, Americans in this future society are required to be Christian.  As one of the song lyrics go, "down on your knees or get left behind."  Brilliant play on words.  Trent Reznor, the man who basically is Nine Inch Nails, said that the songs were meant to portray a sense of our current state of militarism, how we treat the world, and the erosion of personal liberties by actions such as The Patriot Act.  Bioterrorism and nuclear war with Iran are thrown in for good measure.

Year Zero was promoted by a very ingenious campaign of viral marketing.  Jump drives were dropped in nightclub washrooms.  They contained documents for the Art Is Resistance! movement and a link to the album's website.  Cellphones were distributed at NIN concerts.  Lucky fans who received a phone dialed a number and were told of a secret meeting location.  At the warehouse location they were given a surprise NIN concert...until a fictional SWAT team from the United States Bureau of Morality storms in and shuts things down as "anti-American media" is illegal.

What do these two works have in common?  I mean, aside from taking place in bleak, dystopian futures brought about by political division?  One point of commonality is young people pushing back against an authoritarian government that is oppressing its once free citizens while lulling the masses with phatic rhetoric.  In many cases, rebellion takes place through anti-establishment art.  Another is how accurately both works capture the zeitgeist.  Of course we're not in such levels of dire straits yet, but it's not too hard to see how things could head down that road.  You need only be in Chicago right now, even if things at this moment are relatively peaceful.

The point is, there are a lot of unhappy people out there right now.  They come from both ends of the political spectrum and from all points in between.  At least a few of them have demonstrated that they currently are or may one day be willing to take up arms against those they deem as their oppressors.   "We came unarmed...this time" or so read a sign at a Tea Party rally.  I find this notion of a powder keg to be quite unsettling.  When two sides are deeply entrenched in dogma and absolutes, dialogue becomes nearly impossible.

With any luck, the city of Chicago will make it through just fine this weekend with no one hurt and no property destroyed.  It's what happens to America afterward that scares me.  Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, Soylent Green...I sure hope science fiction gets it wrong on this one.

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