Wow – what a weird couple of weeks. A few major Supreme Court decisions that permanently turned things in the U.S. in a dramatically different direction, preceded by the tragedy of the Charleston, S.C., church shooting. The day of the shooting was hard for me. So hard for me that by 11:30 a.m., I had already decided to decamp from home and take my two kids to the movies.
Our choice was Tomorrowland, the Disney feature loosely based on the section of Disneyland and Walt Disney World that focuses on The Future. The film itself has been equally praised and panned, with detractors saying that it offers too nostalgic a view of the world to come because it focuses precisely on that Baby Boomer bang-zoom jet-pack-and-hovercraft ideal in which everyone would get along and we’d all be strolling around in shiny spandex unitards.
I’d spent the morning trying to wrap my brain around yet another mass shooting, this one in a city very close to my heart for a number of reasons.
First, I probably have to explain a little about Charleston, S.C. If you are born and raised in the Palmetto State, Charleston bears for you the same significance that New York City does for much of the United States. It’s the place South Carolinians disgusted with the small-mindedness and oppressive self-righteousness of small-town life go when they want to think bigger but not go out of state. It is representative of all the things that Southerners both love and despise about South Carolina. It is genteel, with an old world ambiance that is difficult to capture anywhere else, and yet it was the heart of the slave trade that has served as a bloody stain on the state and nation for 400 years. It is the capital of old money and the new creative class. It’s the cosmopolitan urban lifestyle existing minutes away from beaches and farms, suburbs and slums.
And it once, for me, bore the allure of the Big City near my small town – a place to which we’d take out-of-town friends and go for weekend day trips and special family dinners. As a child, I swam in the waters off Folly Beach, Isle of Palms and Kiawah. I played in and boated on the Ashley River, which forms one side of Charleston’s unmistakable peninsula.
So when I heard that there had been a shooting, it hit hard. The circumstances of the attack, the number of dead, the alleged motivations of the suspect – the all piled up to turn me into a big mass of woe. I needed an escape, and my kids gave me the excuse. Tommorrowland seemed like the perfect choice precisely because of the promise of a more optimistic view of days to come.
*Spoiler Alert* A major plot point in the film is that there’s this device in Tomorrowland – a trans-dimensional Futurama paradise where the world’s greatest minds were freed to create the cool stuff they imagined – that links to us here in … I don’t know, Regular Old Land. This device, meant to observe us and channel our dreams and whimsy and fantasies about what the future holds into awesome stuff in Tomorrowland, has been turned back on us, filling us with morose thoughts of death, destruction and longing for apocalypse. And as a result, the end of our world is less than two months away.
The movie itself was a little underwhelming, but what stuck with me was the “here’s why I’m evil” monologue from the bad guy and governor of Tomorrowland, played nicely by Hugh Laurie. In it, he rants about how society is spiraling out of control because secretly, we folk here in Regular Old Land want it to happen. His device, rather than forcing negative thoughts in us, is amplifying the pessimism we already posses.
And while I can’t blame our problems on some trans-dimensional subconscious enhancer device, he’s not wrong. That naive “bang-zoom” vision of days to come that gave us hopeful stories like the Start Trek mythology were gone with the 1960s, and replaced with tales of anti-heroes, future dystopias, post-apocalyptic mayhem and brain-eating zombies slouching across the landscape in search of fresh brains.
I’d like to be clear that I have nothing against a great story about a disastrous future. My adolescence was marinated in Mad Max and The Road Warrior, books about failed utopias, and wondering whether the very real 1980s tension between the western powers and the Soviet Union would bring about total nuclear annihilation. As a reader and consumer of TV and movies, I actually prefer those future stories where things don’t turn out quite as squeaky clean as they do for the folks of the Federation of Planets and the crew of the USS Enterprise.
But where I think we as a society turned a corner is when we collectively began to assume that things were going to turn out to be as terrible as our fiction told us it might, and imagining the complete collapse of society came to be seen as a viable hobby. The masked Lord Humungous of The Road Warrior at some point stepped out of his fictional cinematic construct and became the default destiny of humanity.
You can see it pretty easily if you stop and look. Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel chronicles the exploits of ordinary people so convinced that the end is near that they stockpile weapons, hoard freeze-dried food and build fortified bunkers in anticipation of everything from severe weather to global pandemic and/or complete economic collapse.Their code words for when this takes place – “when the shit hits the fan” or “when it all goes to hell” are the favorites – declare their certainty. It’s not “if” but “when.” In their minds, this will happen, and it will be sooner rather than later.
Odds are pretty high that you’ve seen Zombie Outbreak Response Team stickers on cars that pass you on the highway (ironic or serious? Who knows?), and some fans of The Walking Dead seem downright hopeful for the day they can blow the heads off their now-flesh eating neighbors – especially that pain in the ass, Randy from the homeowners association – with lawless impunity.
Meanwhile, “dystopian young adult fiction” has grown into the default genre for books and movies aimed at pre-teens, teens, and many of their parents. Again, it’s fiction I enjoy myself – there’s no denying the fun of seeing Katniss kick serious ass in the name of freedom in a brutal future dictatorship – but it’s built on the presumption that somewhere along the way it’s a given that we all just trashed what little progress we’ve managed to make.
I don’t want this to come off as the hand-wringing of a clenched-ass adult bemoaning the failure of younger generations, blah, blah, blah. I hate that, and it’s never true and that’s not what I want this to be. But it concerns me that so many of us – all sides of the political discussion and along all of the cultural spectrum – have lost the ability to talk about or imagine a future full of amazing things that would make us and our lives better.
In the disaffected pockets of society, this future of failure has indeed transitioned from fiction to the default truth. Witness the rationale provided by the shooter in the Charleston church massacre – he hoped to start a war predicated on misinformation and biases fed to him by an opinion machine that cycles in upon itself, creating its own reality separate from anything resembling truth. In this reality, this young man was justified in doing what he did, and those to whom he listened the most did nothing to suggest to him otherwise. There was no language of hope. No optimism for a brighter future. Only the assurance that things are bad and will most certainly get worse, so we might as well get started on the bad part right away.
Many of the film critics who panned Tomorrowland suggested that it was outdated Baby Boomer nostalgia, full of hope for a future that now is only enshrined in the architecture of the Walt Disney World zone on which it was based. But as much as I rail against the Baby Boomers for various cultural crimes, I think we could still use a little of that 1964 World’s Fair feeling – that longing for jet packs, monorails and the freedom from politics, bureaucracy and financial constraints that will allow us to get along and do great things.
If history tells us anything, it’s that bad things happen, societies collapse and wars break out with disturbing regularity. Given that things are ugly enough on a daily basis, there’s little lost in expending the energy of imagination on hoping things turn out a little better than we’d hoped, rather than worse.