Philip K. Dick, The Mold of Yancy and the Authoritarian Personality

“It would show up in hundreds of ways. Terrorist raids, political prisons, extermination camps. We’d hear about political recanting, treason, disloyalty … all the basic props of a dictatorship.”

“Don’t confuse a totalitarian society with a dictatorship,” Kellman said dryly. “A totalitarian state reaches into every sphere of its citizens’ lives, forms their opinions on every subject. The government can be a dictatorship, or a parliament, or an elected president, or a council of priests. That doesn’t matter.”

In 1954 Philip K. Dick wrote the The Mold of Yancy. A police contingent from Earth is notified by computer analysis that the human colony of Callisto is moving toward a totalitarian structure. They are puzzled when, upon arriving on Callistan soil, they don’t find any of the presumed hallmarks of totalitarianism. The society appears almost identical to the United States of the 1950s.

“The legal government,” Dorser commented, “is set up in the usual archaic fashion. Two-party system, one a little more conservative than the other–no fundamental difference of course. But both elect candidates at open primaries, ballots circulated to all registered voters.”

Philip K. Dick would confirm, “Obviously, Yancy is based on president Eisenhower.” Yancy also reminds us of every U.S. President from Eisenhower to today. And Prime Ministers, and Western politicians in general. Nothing has fundamentally changed. Except, perhaps, that unlike the fictional Callisto of the story our modern Western societies are plagued by terrorism-focused fear mongering, police repression and political crimes. We’re worse off.

Nonetheless, few people would say that we (any of us, regardless of what Western nation we live in) live in a totalitarian state. This is not because we do not, nor because things are not headed that way. The same objections are raised by our real-life peers as those raised by the fictional police spies in The Mold of Yancy. If it’s totalitarianism where are the nightly disappearances, the concentration camps, and the torture chambers? Anything short of the Third Reich or the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea doesn’t really count. This makes it difficult to discuss the mechanics of social decay. That is, the foundation of that which brings us closer to full-blown totalitarianism.

The torture chamber or the political prison does not sprout up, mushroom-like, over the course of an evening. A police state doesn’t suddenly spring forth from the forehead of a dictator. A bottom-up acceptance of authority, including a disposition to conform to legal authority and popular opinion, is a necessary precondition for totalitarianism. The followers, the masses – not the leaders – make a totalitarian society. What’s the trick, then, for aspiring totalitarian leaders? Conformity, control and compliance must be fostered among the masses.

In The Mold of Yancy the mechanism for creating conformity is the manipulation of public opinion via the media. I’ll let you read the story, but read this and let me know if it sounds familiar to you:

“…I’m against war,” Yancy pronounced angrily. “And I ought to know; I’ve done my share of fighting.” “But,” Yancy continued staunchly, “I feel a planet must be strong. We must not surrender overselves 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?

This might remind you of Barack Obama. Or George Bush. Or Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande, Tony Blair, and David Cameron. It could be Bill Clinton, or Ronald Reagan, or Jimmy Carter. Remember that Phillip K. Dick said that he based Yancy on Dwight D. Eisenhower. Little has changed, particularly in North American politics. Every successive leader has been a carbon-copy of the next. Most have continued, repeated or just barely modified the political policies of the previous office. How many disillusioned Democrats voted for Barack Obama thinking he would reverse Bush-era war policies only to find Obama continuing right on?

It might also sound a lot like Bill O’Reilly, Bill Maher or Rachel Maddow. “War is bad except for just wars.” But who tells us what a just war is, then? We watch talking heads (or if we’re smart we just don’t) take simultaneously contradictory positions and then tell us when we should defer to one interpretation or the next. Afghanistan and Syria, just or not? Look to your preferred media demagogue to clue you in. And this is where the authoritarian personality enters.

In Bob Altemeyer’s research, which he summarizes in The Authoritarians, he found that hallmarks of the authoritarian personality (RWA) are the inability to form unique, individual opinions and the tendency to hold and compartmentalize contradictory beliefs. These are individuals who look outside of themselves, typically to whatever popular authority exists, to form beliefs. They are the perfect target for Philip K. Dick’s Yancy. They’re also the perfect target for a real-life manipulation of consent.

How would someone who scores high in the authoritarian personality respond to Yancy’s insipid statement on war? First, by integrating it into their own belief paradigm. Last, when it comes time to interpret it, by looking to chosen authority figures to interpret it. Is it a just war? The authoritarian person does not decide that for himself. They must be told.

His thin face grim, Sipling said to his son: “I want to know what you think about war. You’ve been told about war in school; you know about all the famous wars in history. Right?”

“Yes, sir. We learned about the American Revolution, and the First Global War, and then the Second Global War, and then the First Hydrogen War, and the War between the colonists on Mars and Jupiter.”

“So you know all about war. Okay, what do you think of war?”

Promptly, the boy answered: “War is bad. War is the most terrible thing there is. It almost destroyed mankind.”

Sipling nodded. “War is bad. But what about just wars?”

Without hesitation the boy answered: “We have to fight just wars, of course.”

“Now, we’re at war with Ganymede. Is it a just war? Or only a war?”

“Why, uh,” the boy faltered. “I mean…” He glanced up hopefully. “When the time comes won’t somebody say?”

“Sure,” Sipling choked. “Somebody will say. Maybe even Mr. Yancy.”

Relief flooded the boy’s face. “Yes, sir. Mr. Yancy will say.”

The above is edited for brevity. While The Mold of Yancy is fiction the psychological behaviors are real. This is exactly how persons with the authoritarian personality behave and think. At the time it was a keen observation on the part of Philip K. Dick. Bob Altemeyer confirmed it in the mid 90s. It isn’t the only example of science fiction calling it before science, but it is one of the more important ones to understand.


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