Thursday, April 15, 2010
Farthing, by Jo Walton
Well, that was faster than expected. I ended up with a lot of time to read yesterday, and more importantly, the desire to do so -- rare enough these past few weeks.
Humans, it seems, have a tendency to value the lives of those elevated members of society -- elevated, that is, in perception -- as somehow more valuable than the lives of the common man.
That statement is far too broad and general to be completely accurate, but in essence I believe it to be true. Thousands of people publicly mourned Michael Jackson and Princess Diana and John Lennon, whom most of the mourners had never met, and I would be willing to bet that thousands of them had at some point not attended the funeral or memorial service of people they personally knew.
But the public adoration of the elevated-in-perception gives them immense power and, often enough, a certain immunity. Farthing works with this concept, and while Walton plays particularly on the British obsession with nobility, the phenomenon of letting those we elevate -- whether we like them or not -- get away with murder crosses borders.
Actually, it makes me wonder. If the Bush II administration had wanted to seize complete power of the United States (whether or not they actually wanted to is a whole different topic), would they have had better success if the terrorist plot of 9/11 had succeeded in destroying the White House or the Capitol Building rather than the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon? Whether the attacks harmed simply the buildings or any members of Congress or the executive branch, would we as a people have felt more symbolically attacked, and therefore more personally wounded, than we were by the very real deaths of those on the jets and in the buildings?
Would the face of one prominent politician or one critically symbolic building, something eminently recognizable to us, have been more effective in allowing the American people to hand over power unquestioningly?
Such a strategy worked in Germany in 1933. Whether or not the NSDAP orchestrated the Reichstag Fire or merely seized the opportunity it presented, Hitler's party was able to seize control of the government democratically and legally without a single German casualty. And in Farthing, something very similar happens in an alternate-world version of Britain. And how is it accomplished? With the murder of a single English politician, an MP in the House of Lords, cleverly framed to incite enough hatred and nationalistic pride to enable a swift parliamentary takeover -- again, completely legal, and quite irrefutable once done.
That's the scary side of humanity that Farthing draws out. Not fascism, or racism, or even the capability of murder, but our ability to allow fear and pride to override pretty much everything else. Our ability to hand over our ideas of decency and equality and liberty for nothing more than perceived protection from a perceived threat. Isn't that handing over what makes us human?