U.S. Intellectual History Blog

It Doesn’t Have to be This Way

Warning: This post contains spoilers.

Recently I saw a tweet that said something to the effect of “The most powerful seven words: It doesn’t have to be this way.” This idea also happens to be one of the core themes of the recently released series, The Man in the High Castle. Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, the show imagines a world where Germany and Japan won WWII, and are now ruling the United States’ East and West coasts, respectively, under a cooperative fascist regime.

Nazi propaganda in the Greater Nazi Reich of the Eastern United States.

Nazi propaganda in the Greater Nazi Reich of the Eastern United States.

The plot of the show is driven by the existence of mysterious film reels, coveted by both the resistance to the regime and the regime itself, that purportedly show a world where the United States won the war. It is not explained how such an alternative history is captured on film, but it leaves the main protagonist, a woman named Juliana, mesmerized.[1] As she explains to other characters, the film fills her with hope because it shows that another world is possible. How so remains left open, but it is clear that her perspective on life has been greatly altered by being exposed to this simple idea: it doesn’t have to be this way.

So when I saw that tweet it led me to thinking about Juliana’s reaction, and the underlying argument it implies. Is it true that there is transformative power to be found simply in the belief that transformative change is possible? Certainly, it can seem that way when, while teaching students to examine their assumptions or engaging in a discussion over dinner with relatives, it feels like criticism of “what is” can be constantly swatted away by insisting that the conditions of capitalism are natural and eternal. Of course, for us moderns who have been dwelling in the world created by capitalism, it is no surprise that the relations, values, and epistemology that compliment it are so embedded in our bodies, brains, and landscapes as to seem immutable and timeless. But historians understand that this is not so.

And in fact, one of the most radical things we can do for our students, I think, is to teach them this; and not simply by telling it to them, but by convincing them that completely different societies, that understood and ordered things completely differently than our own, once existed and functioned. (Not that they were perfect or necessarily better, obviously, but that they did not fall apart under the pressure of deviating from some “natural” course such as the “free market,” or what have you.) Because if what we have today resulted from a historical process of change, this not only demands that we think critically about how we got here, but that we acknowledge that change can, and in fact almost certainly will, come again. We are not as stuck as we seem.

As the show progresses, however – and spoilers past the first episode ensue from this point, so be warned – we discover that Dick had something much less abstract than a general principle of the possibility of social change in mind. Reality in the most literal sense – the physical existence of what is around us – is slippery, unsure, and subject to change. This is displayed quite dramatically in the final scene of the last episode of the first season, which features a man sitting on a bench, deep in meditation, opening his eyes to discover himself in a completely different world than the one he was occupying just moments earlier. The street is still there, but the people, buildings, and atmosphere have all altered entirely. Slippery indeed!

I must admit I struggle with this concept. I may not be a participant in the “atheist movement” anymore – whatever the hell that was – but alas, I’m still a boring materialist stick in the mud, deep down. To me, reality never seems fragile or difficult to grasp, and it is hard empathizing with the kind of person who experiences it as such. Most of the time this state of things is comforting to me and much preferred – so much so in fact, that I dislike artistic personification and find watching most cartoons unbearable. Sometimes, however – and much more to the point – the physical weight of the world also feels intertwined, in my more morose moods, with the political stubbornness of the status quo. I do not see the hopeful flexibility suggested by an alternate reality– I do not see an array of possibilities but rather the tyrannical solidity of “the way things are.” We’re not even stuck; we’re trapped.

Yet the thought that “it doesn’t have to be this way” is not, as I have been discussing it so far, necessarily a comforting one. As the characters recover and watch more films, they discover that they depict multiple alternate historical outcomes, not merely one. And some of them are not so good. I suppose we could take even this in a positive direction – it doesn’t have to be this way, but it could also be worse? – but that’s not necessarily the mood imparted. And I couldn’t help thinking, is it just a coincidence that this show has been made at this particular moment in time? Its production surely pre-dated the frightening appearance of Donald Trump as a viable presidential candidate, but Trump himself did not come out of nowhere and only surprised those who have not been paying close attention to international politics since September 11. So perhaps right now, while we wonder whether or not national and international poll results are suggesting a slide towards a new incarnation of fascism, it makes sense that one of the shows on TV imagines precisely what such a world might look like. The idea that “it doesn’t have to be this way” is indeed a powerful one – but it remains to be seen exactly what it will conjure up.

[1] I’ve been told by those who have read it that, in the novel, the alternative realities are captured in books, not in films.