The Man In the High Castle & Our Own Alternative Reality
When the webmistress of this site asked me to do an article about The Man in the High Castle and the current state of politics, I joked that it must be because I'm Jewish! In truth, that's exactly why she asked me to write about it. And while I do watch the show, I hadn't thought of anything to say. It's two seasons in and most of the think pieces on it have been thought. So I said I'd take a pass.
But something was haunting me about the idea; why hadn't the prompt struck a chord with me? And if the show had nothing to say to me about politics then why was it interesting and why was I watching it?
Truth be told, I took a long time to get around to watching The Man in the High Castle. I come from a Reform Jewish background, and a cornerstone of my Jewish education has been an education in the Holocaust. I literally cannot tell you the number of times I have been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. I have internalized this, as many Jews have, and while I don't consider myself a person of color, I do know that my whiteness is conditional and is only granted by the whims of a capricious majority, a majority which can turn anti-Semitic pretty quickly. After Election Day 2016, when things began to turn that way, I played the hypothetical "would so-and-so hide me?" game (and some friends sadly failed). Being Jewish - and having been educated in Jewish history – lends itself to a bit of paranoia.
Having literal white supremacists and Neo-Nazis in the White House hasn't helped any of this, and for lack of a better term, I’ve become a bit Nazi-ed out. But I eventually did dive into The Man in the High Castle. It struck me as oddly bland. It's pretty well executed, B-List prestige television certainly. The imagery was probably the most striking, ranging from the utterly shocking view of the capitol's architecture to the disconcerting everyday presence of swastikas in average office settings. But the story itself didn't seem all that involved in Nazi ideas. It was simply a post-war in an America that had lost WWII, and a parallel universe subplot that kept me coming back.
It wasn't until I read In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson that The Man in the High Castle clicked for me. In the Garden of Beasts is a nonfiction book that follows the late career of William E. Dodd as the United States Ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937. The book is strange because it focuses so much on office politics, in-fighting in US mid-level government positions, and the Dodd family's social life. It just happens that all of this takes place in the midst of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. That's when I realized what The Man in the High Castle had been saying, even though I hadn't heard it…
It doesn't make life better for all citizens. It doesn't preserve rights or liberty. It doesn't make an appealing society. But it still chugs along. In the nonfiction account of the Nazi rise there was no day when Ambassador Dodd woke up, looked out his windows, and thought:
"Well, yesterday was bad but today it's too much Nazis."
No, from a day-to-day perspective things very gradually, very subtly became worse and worse. Yet Dodd always had a job to do, always offices to visit, always a place to get gas, always restaurants to eat in. In the fallen United States in the TV show of High Castle, the US becomes the Greater Nazi Reich. And it still functions. Many people have jobs. There's money, and shops, and cars, and telephones, and police, and life goes on. Falling to the Nazis didn't instantly make everyone dead or homeless or so miserable they just can’t go on with life. It made people afraid and limited in their options, but they were still living in their houses, they still had electricity and utilities, and dinner parties. It's not like in The Walking Dead, where society is done and everything is re-purposed from garbage and leftover items.
The show doesn't do the unthinkable. It does the un-thought. It shows life quietly chugging along, all the worse for the Nazis but still there, and the complacency of those who value their comfort over doing what’s morally right.
I have a friend who voted for Trump, not because he agrees with him, but because he couldn't bring himself to vote for Hillary. We've tried to have discussions about politics but whenever we do I just walk away from the table feeling less and less safe in his presence. When I talk to him as Adam he seems receptive and listens to my issues. But as soon as I start to talk about issues I see coming as a Jew, he immediately shuts me down. He tells me that I'm taking things out of context, and that I can't combat politicians' hyperbole with my own overblown speeches. He says that he's willing to defend me, and that the day they come knocking on my door to put me on a train he'll be there to stand up for me.
But I learned something from William Dodd that this person hasn't. It's the same lesson that The Man in the High Castle can teach us. It's that when you keep pushing the goalposts back, keep changing what line has to be crossed to transition from what's simply bad and what's unbearable, then you'll never get there. The closer the line gets, the fuzzier it becomes, and once it's crossed it's a long time before you'll know it.
If they ever came to put me on a train, my friend wouldn't be there to open my front door to stop them. He'd be sleeping, because it’s not as if they’ll give warning or preparation time. He wouldn't have the recourse to stop them anyway, because legislation would have been passed, or laws changed, to make it legal long before they would come to take people away. And my friend wouldn't have protested those laws because he’d think “well they'd never be used that way.” From where I am, looking back at history behind me and the future ahead, this friend just keeps lowering the standards of decency and liberty. Each day, President Trump moves the definition of the United States of America further and further from democracy, pushing harder to make his opinions truth and his preferences law. And each day these changes aren't enough to mobilize the tepid Trump voters against him. A chorus of "wait and see", or "what he says isn't what he means" rings out, and they continue to stand by his side instead of with us. What The Man in the High Castle really has to teach us is that this is how democracies fall – not with a bang, but with a whimper.