Speaking of Phillip K. Dick …
When it was released in 2002, Minority Report was interpreted by some as an indictment of George Bush’s doctrine of preemption, which allowed the US to detain persons and attack nations on mere suspicions.
In anticipation of the film, I bought The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories, and was surprised to find that the titular story was not alone in predicting the foibles of the Bush administration. In fact, the story immediately preceding The Minority Report was so eerily reminiscent that I kept waiting for Cheney to stroll into the scene.
The Mold of Yancy, despite the title, has nothing to do with fungi. Terran agent Taverner is dispatched to Callisto to investigate the political situation when computer analysis shows the Callistian society inching toward totalitarianism. Upon arrival, Taverner initially believes that the political assessment is incorrect, as he can find no overt signs of repression. Then he learns of John Edward Yancy.
Every evening Yancy takes to the airwaves, treating the Callistotes to charming little homilies and sage advice in his short, televised spots. “A kind of home-spun philosopher,” one person describes him. “Totally ordinary man … A sort of talking almanac. Pithy sayings on every topic. Wise old saws: how to cure a chest cold. What the trouble is back on Terra.” Though supposedly unaffiliated with the government or the church, Yancy is admired by most inhabitants of the moon with an ardor that borders on reverence.
Taverner does a little poking around, and, upon reviewing the tapes of Yancy’s broadcasts, discovers something interesting: despite all his talking, Yancy almost never says anything:
Yancy had definite opinions on everything … or mere they so definite? A strange suspicion was growing in [Taverner]. On some topics, yes. On minor issues, Yancy had exact rules, specific maxims drawn from mankind’s rich storehouse of folklore. But major philosophical and political issues were something else again.
Getting out one of the many tapes listed under War, Taverner ran it through at random.
“… I’m against war,” Yancy pronounced angrily … “[But] I feel a planet must be strong. We must not surrender ourselves meekly … weakness invites attack and fosters aggression. By being weak we promote war. We must gird ourselves and protect those we love. With all my heart and soul I’m against useless wars; but I say again, as I’ve said many times before, a man must come forward and fight a just war. He must not shrink from his responsibility. War is a terrible thing. But sometimes we must… ”
As he restored the tape, Taverner wondered just what the hell Yancy had said. What were his views on war? They took up a hundred separate reels of tape; Yancy was always ready to hold forth on such vital and grandiose subjects as War, the Planet, God, Taxation. But did he say anything?
A cold chill crawled up Taverner’s spine. On specific -and trivial – items there were absolute opinions: dogs are better than cats, grapefruit is too sour without a dash of sugar, it’s good to get up early in the morning, too much drinking is bad. But on big topics … an empty vacuum, filled with the vacant roll of high-sounding phrases. A public that agreed with Yancy on war and taxes and God and planet agreed with absolutely nothing. And with everything.
Taverner suspects that Yancy is more than just a freelance philosopher. “Nobody [is] as harmless and vapid as John Edward Yancy,” he think, and delves deeper into the mystery. Sure enough, an inside source named Sipling soon gives him the straight dope: Yancy is completely computer generated, a fictitious figurehead created by the authorities.
“By authorities, you mean the governing council?”
Sipling laughed sharply. “I mean the trading syndicates that own this moon: lock, stock, and barrel.”
Why would the big corporations go through the trouble to foisting a charismatic but shallow leader on the people? Well, it seems that they want to start to war with a distant land, in the hopes of acquiring the other’s resources. “To start a war they have to get the public lined up,” Sipling continues. “Actually, the people here have nothing to gain. A war would wipe out all the small operators – it would concentrate power in fewer hands – and they’re few enough already. To get the eighty million people here behind the war, they need an indifferent, sheep-like public. And they’re getting that.”
Here’s a quotation from another Yancy speech:
“I realize how lucky we are to be alive, and to have … the fine cities and houses, all the things God has given us to enjoy. But we’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to make sure we don’t lose these things. There are forces that could weaken us. Everything we’ve built up for our loved ones, for our children, could be taken away from us overnight. We must learn to be vigilant. We must protect our liberties, our possessions, our way of life. If we become divided, and fall to bickering among each other, we will be easy prey for our enemies.”
Psyche! That text was actually taken from Bush’s speech on Monday.
Well, no, that quotation really did come from The Mold of Yancy. But come on: you thought that was Bush for a second, there, didn’t you?
“I’ve come to see the essential key to the Yancy character,” says Sipling near the end of the story.
“The key to the new type of person we’re growing, here. It’s simple. It’s the element that makes that person malleable enough to be led around. All Yancy’s beliefs are insipid. The key is thinness. Every part of his ideology is diluted: nothing excessive. We’ve come as close as possible to no beliefs . . . you’ve noticed that. Wherever possible we’ve cancelled attitudes out, left the person apolitical. Without a viewpoint.”
“Sure,” Taverner agreed. “But with the illusion of a viewpoint.”
“All aspects of personality have to be controlled; we want the total person. So a specific attitude has to exist for each concrete question. In every respect, our rule is: Yancy believes the least troublesome possibility. The most shallow. The most simple, effortless view, the view that fails to go deep enough to stir any real thought.”
When Taverner and Sipling set out to undermine the Yancy project, and they do so by injecting some complexity into his speeches. “What if Yancy sat down in the evening with his wife and grandson, and played a nice lively six-hour game of Kriegspiel?” Sipling says, as they plan their sabotage. “Suppose his favorite books – instead of being western gun-toting anachronisms – were Greek tragedy? Suppose his favorite piece of music was Bach’s Art of the Fugue, not My Old Kentucky Home?”
In related news, Bush was seen reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger a few weeks ago, and recently spoke of the Iraq war as “straining the psyche of our country.” Maybe we’ve got a Sipling in the White House, at long last.
You can read The Mold of Yancy here.