Stranger Things and the stench of totalitarianism

Michel de Certeau

In past ages the powers controlling our great institutions of Church and State were much less tolerant of free speech and free interpretations of influential texts in our culture. Censorship was a routine instrument of government. Our freedoms now are more respected. Or are they?

As one cultural critic (Michel de Certeau) has observed, “Today, it is the socio-political mechanisms of the schools, the press or television that isolate the text controlled by the teacher or the producer from its readers.” He died in 1986 so did not live to see or feel the impact of social media as a controlling mechanism for the herding of human beings. Nor did he see the frightening denial of free speech now spreading like cancerous cells under the banner of liberal democracy.

Just think of the controls exercised by the bullying trolls on Twitter – at one end of the scale. Then consider the selective management by the mainstream media of the public narrative on the political and social issues of our time.

A potent example of the former was recounted recently by The New York Times. It was a sad story of the fate of a woman in Missouri who had the temerity to dream of trying to make her beloved Democratic Party a safe place for a pro-life advocate like herself to play a part in her State’s and her Nation’s politics.

Joan Berry, a Democrat from the day she heard John F. Kennedy campaigning in her state back in 1959, this summer successfully secured a clause in her Party’s platform which told pro-life citizens that there was a place for them in their midst. It wasn’t easy but when it went to a vote at a meeting of the State’s Democratic Committee, it passed by 32 votes to 25.

Joan went home from that meeting feeling she had struck a blow for an open society, for democratic politics and for the Party to which she had dedicated her political life. She and her husband went off for a quiet weekend in the country. Then her daughter rang her. “Mom”‘ she said, “You better stay there for awhile. There is uproar on Facebook and Twitter about what you did.” Pro-choice Missouri was outraged and what they were prepared to say and threaten to do to poor Joan – and those 32 members of the Party who went along with her proposal was, well, unprintable.

To cut a long and sad story of one public-spirited elder stateswoman short, the Party Committee was reconvened and promptly rejected Joan’s proposal. Joan Berry hadn’t even asked the Party to reconsider its position on the life issue. She just wanted her Party to be a forum where free speech was tolerated.

Cereau, however, saw an escape hatch for those beleaguered by what is nothing less than the tyrannical forces of dominant and domineering public opinion. He pointed out that “behind the theatrical décor of this new orthodoxy is hidden…the silent, transgressive, ironic or poetic activity of readers (or television viewers) who maintain their reserve in private and without the knowledge of the masters.”

Art to the rescue.

When I first saw Matt and Ross Duffer‘s runaway Netflix success, Stranger Things, last year I wondered if I might not be drawing some consolation of this type from the experience. I wondered if this phenomenally successful piece of entertainment – some will say hokum – might not also be offering all of us an allegory for our time. We live in an era when alien forces baffle us and seem surround us on all sides.

I cannot read the minds of the Duffer brothers. But the truth is that what we read, hear and see in the artifacts of our civilization depends not only on the genius of the creators of those works. It is also often determined by our own experiences and by the power, character and developed state of our own creative imaginations.

What Alice in Wonderland, Animal Farm or Lord of the Rings says to us is not only what their authors’ intended to say but it may also be elaborated and enriched for us by what our own thoughts, sensibilities and experience of life bring to the creative table. We interpret great works of literature not only in the context of the time of their creators. We often, and with great benefit, read and interpret these works in the context of our own times our own problems and our own versions of the human condition.

Part of my fascination with Stranger Things was precisely because it seemed to say more about us, our time and our condition than a great deal of the general fare that is offered to us as entertainment.

In an interview in which the Duffers are asked about what seemed to be the universal truth they were trying to convey in the series, Matt Duffer commented that today “On television there’s been this huge avalanche of shows with antiheroes. A lot of our characters are good-hearted people. And they have a lot of compassion.” His brother Ross added that in Stranger Things, “Even when there’s darkness, people leave the show feeling a bit of hope there.… It’s about these friends that are there for each other no matter what, that there’s this mom (Winona Ryder) that’s there for her son no matter what. And to us there’s something both universal, and hopeful, about that.… That’s where we wanted to go.”

Yes, but I think their story resonates even deeper than that. The darkness he talks about is really dark. Indeed it is as dark as the hell of Paradise Lost or in Tolkien’s land of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. This is the “upside-down world” of the plot, intimately and terrifyingly known to the little girl, “Eleven”, and into which characters stray and in which some lose their lives, others lose their minds and which, throughout the series, encroaches on the real world. Its hidden forces are seeking to infiltrate and possess our world for their own grotesque and malign purposes.

On the surface these are natural forces manipulated by humans. Netflix, in its promotional material, speaks of supernatural powers at work. But in fact what we are shown is the work of vile power-hungry people and their mal-functioning experiments. The preternatural evil may emanate from the Father of Lies but, if it does, it happens like most of the evil in the world – through the medium of mankind.

Back in the 1950s we had the Red Scare. This in its turn spawned the monster of McCarthyism. We look back on that now and see it all as so much paranoia. McCarthyism revolted us and was essentially an instrument as capable of perpetrating injustice as what it railed against.

More effective antidotes of the age were the fables and fictions which countered the threat – ranging from those of Orwell, Huxley and others, to the productions of Hollywood’s own fable-factory – like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time. It captures better than any other film the fears of that era. It did not say who the body snatchers were. It did not need to. It played into the real fears of the age.

So, if the Duffer Brothers are warning us about a threat to our civilization wrapped up in a piece of ‘eighties nostalgia with echoes of E.T. and The Goonies, what might it be? I can’t say what it is for them, but I know what it is for me.

The dystopia of Stranger Things may be read as a metaphor for many things: a world wrecked by man-made climate change; a world destroyed by the genetic manipulation of our food supply; a world mirroring that in which Planned Parenthood trades the body parts of human babies it aborts “for the good of humanity”. It may also be a warning that the nonsense of gender ideology and the attempted manipulation of our biological selves are destroying the very essence of our humanity. Take your pick.

In the series we have a compelling juxtaposition of the murdering evil men and women working in a grotesque human engineering facility with the semi-innocent adults and handful of “dungeons and dragons” besotted twelve-year-old kids of a sleepy Midwest town.

Can they be compared with the gullible victims of transgender activism whom we read about – individuals who are seeking reversals of surgical mutilation by professionals in the grip of a gender-bending political ideology? Echoes of all this in Stranger Things are loud and clear.

Let us return to Michel de Certeau.

Joan Berry gets bullied and bludgeoned by the Democratic Party in Missouri because she wants freedom for people to talk about their conviction that unborn children are human beings. Students on campuses around the western world put “no-platform” bans on serious thinkers who question the orthodoxies of our time and even seek the removal of academic staff who do the same. Gender-bending ideologues scream about inequality and repression of individuality when anyone tries to object to their manipulation of human nature to suit their whims.

Speaking truth about our times in plain language can be dangerous. When this becomes the norm in our culture we, thankfully, can turn to works of imagination to search for the truth and to reach a kind of wisdom. Through them we can perhaps talk more meaningfully to each other and come to wisdom more effectively than by any other means. And we can do so with no little joy – until the world once again becomes a safe place in which to speak freely.

I don’t know what creative channel of communication might now be open to pro-life Democrats in Missouri to enable their voices to be heard in the Party again. If they cannot find one then undeniably what is coming from this “upside down world” is an undeniable stench of totalitarianism.

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