Are we living in dystopia? Not even close — but let's learn from history this time

We've been here before, and worse. We can still turn things around in America — but we must decide we want to

By Brian Karem


Published November 3, 2022 9:29AM (EDT)

'Grad' multiple rocket launcher fires at Russian positions in Kharkiv region on October 4, 2022. (YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)
'Grad' multiple rocket launcher fires at Russian positions in Kharkiv region on October 4, 2022. (YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

The next world war has begun.

Or perhaps, if you're a philosopher, you'll say our ongoing existential conflict continues. 

Either way, on the annual Day of the Dead, (celebrated as a joyous affirmation of life, no less), the world is a hot mess.

The hot side of that is visible in Ukraine, where this week Russia doubled down on its threat of nuclear conflagration, sparking a New York Times report that senior Russian military officials have recently discussed how and when to use tactical nukes in the Ukrainian theater of war.

At the same time, North and South Korea exchanged missile fire off each other's coastlines. North Korea stands accused of shipping weapons to Russia for the continuing war in Ukraine (demonstrating how desperate Russia is becoming). Iran is reportedly threatening Saudi Arabia and China is threatening Taiwan. There is considerable unrest in Africa. There is an Ebola outbreak in Uganda, COVID concerns remain high across the globe and scientists tell us that climate change has screwed us all. Inflation is a worldwide problem, largely because of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. To top it all off, the largest oil companies are projecting record profits. And, yes, I realize how many times I've had to write that sentence in my lifetime.

Of course the ongoing Republican narrative in this country is that all of this is President Biden's fault, and what remains of the Grand Old Party will solve the problem with cuts to Social Security and Medicare if they take over the House and the Senate after next week's election. 

That's it. That's their solution. 

And by God, they're sure they will prevail, or at least they want us to believe that — because if they don't prevail, we all know they will scream "election fraud" and encourage more violence. 

President Biden finally and firmly spoke to that Wednesday night, calling out Donald Trump and his MAGA supporters (a minority of the Republican Party, or so Biden informed us) for the "Big Lie." As for Trump specifically, Biden said the former president had fanned the flames of sedition, "abused power" and put loyalty to himself above loyalty to his country. It almost sounds like America is becoming a dystopia.

Some believe we are already living in a dystopia, while others believe that would be more like a "Mad Max" movie, or like the half-forgotten 1975 classic "A Boy and His Dog." 

Those who dwell in the daily news of unrest may ask: What would you call attacks against women, minorities and people of different faiths, different sexual preferences, different religions and different lifestyles, by a minority that represents authoritarian interests and money, if not a dystopia?

Our morning newsfeed is not filled with tales of wonder so much as tales of woe. We don't get news about settlements on the moon or Mars, or discoveries that enthrall the planet. Instead our news feed makes us uncomfortable. Elon Musk takes over Twitter, and social media makes us even more uncomfortable. An evidently disturbed 42-year-old man breaks into Nancy Pelosi's house and attacks her husband with a hammer — and it isn't just an apparent assassination or kidnapping attempt directed at the speaker of the House, but an attack on sanity and democracy. What else would you call a man physically attacking someone old enough to be his grandfather? The GOP has some randy asides, poor attempts at humor and various conspiracy theories to explain it. And they want to fill you with fear and hatred while spreading their misinformation. Musk did no one any favors by bringing his tone-deaf analysis to Twitter. Yes, for many, the news is bad and apparently getting worse.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

But in fact we've been here before — and within my lifetime. 

Let's revisit 1968. The year began with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam — a significant setback for the U.S. military campaign. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The rise of Richard Nixon began shortly thereafter. North Korea captured the USS Pueblo. During an Olympics medal ceremony, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a silent demonstration against racial discrimination in the United States. Riots raged in Washington, Chicago, New York, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Louisville and Baltimore following the King assassination. I remember "riot warnings" broadcast on radio and TV, warning us to stay inside. As a child I imagined a roiling, boiling mass of humanity rolling through my neighborhood like something from a Mad magazine cartoon drawn by Jack Davis. The riots in Louisville, as it turned out, were exacerbated by misinformation about civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael's planned visit. 

In November, "Star Trek" aired American television's first interracial kiss. The year ended with a greeting from the astronauts aboard Apollo 8, Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, wishing us all a Merry Christmas as the crew became the first to travel to and orbit the moon. "The moon is essentially gray, no color," Lovell said as he gave the first closeup description. "Looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a grayish beach sand."

We've been here before, and within my lifetime: Political assassinations, rioting, protests against racial injustice, a message from outer space and the rise of a right-wing populist. All of that happened in 1968.

All of those events occurred under the overarching umbrella of the continuing threat of nuclear conflagration as we spoke of "missile gaps" in the arms race with the Soviet Union. Once a month at school we conducted "duck and cover" disaster drills. An ominous-sounding siren blared and every student dutifully filed out of the classroom in single-file. Then we'd face the walls in the hallway, sit down and put our heads between our legs — that was supposed to protect us, somehow or other, from a Soviet nuclear bomb.

Every day seemed surreal. We talked constantly about the war in Vietnam, which I was convinced I would grow up to serve in, and likely die. I ate my morning cereal digging around for rub-off stickers from "Yellow Submarine," while wondering if I'd ever see adulthood. Allen Hemburger, one of the most decent men I ever worked with in news, remembered slogging through rice paddies that year while serving in Vietnam. "I heard about Apollo 8," he said, remembering that he'd realized one night on patrol that he was using the moon to guide his movements through the jungle. "I realized there was quite a distance between here and there," he said.

So by those standards 2022 doesn't seem like a dystopia to me. It seems like more of the same, brought to us in acutely painful fashion by the likes of Musk, who purchased Twitter at an inflated price to match his inflated ego, so he can crow alongside the other robber barons who own media companies. Yes, social media has definitely helped spread the fear. 

When I was younger I read Isaac Asimov's science fiction classic "Foundation," which warned us: "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." That sounds a lot like geopolitics today. It describes Putin in Ukraine. It describes Trump and his raging troglodyte incompetents, who use social media to try and terrify us into the submission they could not achieve with traditional media. They are like cancer cells thriving in the unregulated dark places of human communication, driven by the need for power, raging insecurity, prolific ignorance and the delusion that anyone who thinks differently is a threat to human existence — or at least to their personal wealth.

'Tis madness. But it is the particular madness spread by the rich and the powerful to keep us fighting with each other while they continue to make bank. And we fall for it every damn time.

I won't leave Twitter and I won't give up Amazon — but we should definitely bust up the monopolies controlled by this new generation of robber barons.

The rich have exploited the poor for far too long. I want that word to reach as many people as possible. So I have no problem using Twitter to criticize Twitter. I have no problem selling books through Amazon that speak to the evils of concentrated media ownership. I'm merely returning the exploitation delivered by the rich at the cost of the poor. Some may call that exploitation. Some call it justice. Pick your poison. It's the most expedient way to get the word out. I won't leave Twitter and I won't avoid Amazon. I also won't use either exclusively. Who knew that  Facebook would eventually seem like the lesser social media evil?

The media czars of today are nothing more than the robber barons of old. Single ownership of such a large concentration of content distribution must be regulated when the business is news, media content and other forms of communication, especially information meant to educate or inform the public. Certain standards of service must be applied — or better yet, let's bust up the monopolies. 

We don't yet live in dystopia, but we are afflicted with the fear and insecurity that has raged inside the human heart and mind since we crawled out of the caves. Today we are dealing with long-standing problems that the Republicans would love you to believe were created by Biden and his administration. I can't think of one of those problems that actually began under Biden's watch — not inflation, the war, climate problems, gas prices, antisemitism or anything else. The roots run deep and we have been forced to deal with these things over and over again because we refuse to learn from history. Donald Trump and his minions in the Republican Party exploit those problems to their own ends precisely because we don't learn our lessons. 

John Kirby, press spokesperson for the National Security Council, told a Zoom gaggle with reporters on Wednesday that we need to grasp the key issues. I asked him to outline the "big picture" when it comes to Republican claims about Biden's responsibilities for our current geopolitical problems. Reminiscent of Jason Robards in "Parenthood," Kirby said that many of our problems have been with us a long time and we can never "spike the football." 

To keep to that metaphor, we have to build teamwork and engage everyone, even our enemies, on issues we have in common whenever we can. Violence isn't the answer. Working together is the only solution and Biden has sincerely tried to model that course of action. "The president believes no one nation" can solve the world's problems, Kirby explained, and is "pursuing opportunities of cooperation" with many countries around the globe. 

The founding fathers never had to deal with the specific complexities of today's world, but history has not taken us far away from the fundamental truths that they faced, and we still face today. Some people are selfish. Some are scared and some want to take food off of your plate and put it on their own. Some of those people are in power, and quite a few of them shouldn't be.

By building "alliances and partnerships, even limited ones," according to Kirby, the president believes we can avoid the worst aspects of the dystopia we all fear.

We are less than a week away from finding out how this will play out over the next decade, or perhaps much longer.

Once again: Vote. The U.S. remains the most viable option for forestalling dystopia — if we can manage to retain our democracy and show the rest of the world that a government of, by and for the people can work against all odds — and against the authoritarian leanings of the worst of our own politicians.

For perhaps the last time in my lifetime, the choice is still ours to make.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

MORE FROM Brian Karem

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Democracy Elections Elon Musk Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Political Violence Republicans