We have all heard of Utopia, that fantasy land where everything is perfect. Depending upon your personal tastes, Utopia is either a secluded beach in a luxurious tropical island or a pristine ski area in the Alps. For many, it is someplace in between.
But Dystopia is another thing. It is just the opposite, a place where everything goes wrong. Pollution, crime, decay … you can add to the list. Depending, again, upon your taste, you will say, “Oh, yeah. You’re talking about _______” (You fill in the blank.)
Literary or journalistic references to a dystopian setting are not frequent, but they are more common in recent years than one might have anticipated. I expect most of us get the meaning of the word from the context in which it is used and just breeze on by, not stopping to think about its literal meaning.
The word is a favorite of people who are depressed, cynical, or just plain negative. It is easy to get reader points by exaggerating the negativity, using language like dystopian to drag the reader’s mood down to the level of the writer. I read an article about the city of Detroit a week ago which referred to the struggling city as dystopian. I think that’s probably an over-reaction and a denial of the attempts to re-claim the city. Granted, there has been a lot about Detroit which has been less than glamorous since the riots of the sixties. When living near there a few years ago it called for caution to drive through sections of Detroit after dark.
But there are serious attempts to restore Detroit to the city we once knew it to be. Their ambitious mayor, former NCAA and NBA star Dave Bing, is determined to put a new face on the city. For decades he has worked tirelessly to do his part as an entrepreneur and businessman in Detroit. Now as its mayor he is putting the same energy into the project. I believe he will be successful insofar as he is able. Economics and the auto industry are key to the success of his plan, and they have their own problems.
But there is another level of dystopian reference which is prevalent, which deserves attention. It is that pessimistic, cynical attitude of many in politics and commentary who are enjoying taking pot shots at this country. To listen to some of them you would think that the United States is the hometown of depravity and destruction. People from other nations have been quoted as saying that they don’t want to choose this country for travel, for fear of being shot, kidnapped, or otherwise damaged. What they read in the reports of American life is filled with negativity about this country which, for good reason, deters them and sends them elsewhere. Those who consider investing in American industry are less than optimistic about that prospect, given the pessimism exhibited by outspoken cynics.
There is no question that this country has had its share of misfortune over the past decade. Political decisions, economic practices, and corruption have been displayed prominently in our national resume. One of the great things about America is its principle of free speech. One of the bad things about America is its principle of free speech. This well-guarded principle has allowed national pillow talk to become a public voice. Our ability to be self-flagellating in the name of political banter has seemed to those outside our country like reporting which is meant to be taken seriously.
In the midst of this attempt to identify the United States as Dystopia for political purposes, we do damage to our national persona in a way that is distressing. It is just one of the features of our election campaign process which lends itself to renovation. My hope is that the next session of Congress will deal seriously with election reform at the gut level. It is in that context that truth in advertising can be lifted from the world of commerce and applied to election practices.
I’m not trying to be Pollyanna about this country. There is much to be fixed. I just happen to be one of those people that believes that we have the resources and the capability to restore the name of the United States to the place it deserves in the international community. In order to do that, however, we have to recognize the ill and choose to do something about it.
Dictionary Credit: Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Photo Credit: http://acesinyourfaces.blogspot.com/2009/07/welcome.html