Man in the High Castle: Better the Tyrant You Know

Fear of an all-powerful tyrant, pulling the strings from some distant unseen place, is as American as 24-hour convenience stores and handguns. The early religious fanatics of Salem, Massachusetts, feared the devil tempted girls into heresies like dancing. Pamphleteers of pre-Revolution New England decried the king’s “conspirators against liberty.” Populists and conservatives alike, from the know-nothings to Donald Trump, have made careers railing against some elite or minority, whose foreign-inspired wickedness corrupts the real America from on high or in the shadows. In the mid-20th century, after the formerly unfathomable fact that man’s scientific curiosity and ingenuity had lead to apocalyptic weaponry and Auschwitz, this American tradition logically made totalitarianism the object of fear and popular culture.

Left or right wing totalitarianism in America became a pop culture villain, either explicitly, as in the film Red Menace (1949), or subtly, like in the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The most known totalitarian America in science fiction is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953). But this villain also appeared in the lesser-known Philip K. Dick novel Man in the High Castle (1962), set in an alternative history where President Roosevelt is assassinated, the Allies lose, and the Germans and Japanese divide the homeland, reinstitute slavery, and ethnically cleanse.

Amazon Studios loosely adapted Dick’s novel into a slightly rousing but predictable TV series released last November and recently renewed for a second season. Popular culture has only a nebulous relation to reality. But the Man in the High Castle’s popularity indicates a public interest in what totalitarianism would look like here, since the novelty of a Nazified America, dimly lit in Blade Runner-fashion (Ridley Scott is executive producer), is the show’s primary selling point. This interest parallels a fear in the general population that the U.S. is vulnerable to foreign (read “Muslim”) aggression more now than at any time since 9/11, according to a New York Times/CBS poll from December 2015.

Many Americans fear Islamism for the dark, insidious and lethal forces it begat, yet segments of this country cease to distinguish between Islamism, a totalitarian political movement with a penchant for death cults, and Islam, a set of beliefs held by 1.6 billion people, while seven states have banned Sharia law from state courts and Trump, the Republican front-runner for the presidential race, proposes banning all Muslims from entering the country. “We have had 15 years of an incredible propaganda machine that has presented Muslims as a fifth column and Islam as an anti-Christian force, as the greatest threat to Western civilization,” said Hamza Yusuf, a renowned Islamic scholar, in Truthdig. “For too many people, Islam is now conflated with Nazism.” Arguably, Man in the High Castle’s popularity reflects a fear that Americans carried through most of the last century, and that has been revamped in the age of Islamist terror and dictatorship.

In his comparison of the show to the novel this year for The Atlantic, Noel Berlatsky pointed out that Dick’s novel set its sights higher than a rebel American versus evil foreigner story, and linked Nazism to the larger “Western will to domination.” The show’s first season tossed out Dick’s subtle depictions of the seeds of totalitarianism that have existed in the U.S. for generations without foreign influence, a submissive citizenry living under an ever-encroaching tutelage of the power elite, which Alexis de Tocqueville warned, in his classic Democracy in America (1835 and 1840), could lead American democracy to a self-imposed despotism. Man in the High Castle writer Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) missed a major opportunity by writing Dick’s flawed and often racist characters as good Americans who exist only to rebel in the name of freedom, casting aside the novel’s frightening explorations of citizens’ latent indifference to evil or dictatorship. In an era when Silicon Valley changes the world more than Washington D.C., and soldiers wage war from behind a computer screen, a more artistically ambitious and politically daring second season of Man in the High Castle would focus on Americans’ acquiescence to totalizing power.

A recap for those who haven’t seen the series, or for binge-watchers with bad memories, undercover SS agent Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) leaves Manhattan with a truck and mysterious cargo to entrap unsuspecting members of the resistance in Canon City, Colorado, part of the neutral Rocky Mountain States between the Western Japanese Pacific States and Eastern Greater Nazi Reich. Instead, once in the desolate, former mining town, Blake spends intimate sunrises with an attractive brunette Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), who fled San Francisco after the Japanese secret police Kempeitai shot her half-sister for resistance activities. Blake unwraps his mysterious cargo and discovers a fictitious, illegal newsreel “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which depicts an Allied victory, and is attributed to a resistance hero Man in the High Castle, a recluse rumored to be alive, though Nazis claim that he’s dead. After Blake watches the “Grasshopper” film, Blake decides to help Crain, and with that, his transformation from SS to resistance ensues.

Unbeknownst to Crain, while she was away with Blake, the Kempeitai tortured her factory worker boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) to elicit her whereabouts, and gassed Frink’s family members when he resisted. The formerly demure Frink leaves the torture chamber with a newly determined and vengeful countenance, watching storefront TVs showing the crown prince of Japan arrive in San Francisco with a murderous glare. Frink tracks down an illicit Colt pistol and attempts to assassinate the crown prince at a rally, but predictably fails. Though flat as characters, and unconvincing as lovers, Crain and Frink serve their purpose in conspiring to take down their Japanese overlords, to return freedom to San Francisco and America. Frink, whose grandparent was Jewish, reunites with Jews who pray in secret, survivors of America’s post-war racial laws and purges. Crain assumes a job with the Japanese government in order to relay intelligence to the resistance, who spend the remainder of the season struggling to return the “Grasshopper” films to the Man in the High Castle as part of some vague master plan.

Amazon Studios

Courtesy: Amazon Studios

As I wrote in a review for Slant Magazine, what’s striking is that idealism and ideology don’t really matter to the show’s Crain, Frink, or Blake, especially their sudden willingness to kill and die, other than perhaps a hazy pro-Americanism. Frink is motivated to join the resistance primarily for personal vengeance, and his uninteresting girlfriend Crain’s rebellion seems to be more of a personal pilgrimage, while Joe’s perfidy from the Greater Reich appears to be motivated as much by Crain’s sexy mystique as it is by “The Grasshopper.” Beneath the show’s enthralling novelty—the electrified giant swastika in Times Square, Japanese-dominated San Francisco, and the cartoonish shotgun-wielding cowboy Nazi named the Marshall (Burn Gorman)—lies not a Blade Runner-style psychological thriller, but the familiar good-guy-versus-bad-guy action drama where Americans triumph over foreigners.

As Laura Miller wrote in Slate, the show replaces Dick’s musings “about colonialism and its corrosive effects on the human psyche” with dull and “defiant heroes of Hollywood films.” Spotnitz and the directors didn’t incorporate the 1962 novel’s probing into the behavior and psychology of Americans, who were raised on national triumphalism and chauvinism like we are today, but placed into new roles as conquered subjects. Instead of putting his heroes into chase scenes, shoot-outs, or torture chambers, Dick puts his characters into everyday situations where they voice their nervous rationalizations for an absurd regime they are powerless to resist.

In one of the novel’s scenes in the late evening hours in a San Francisco apartment, Wyndam-Matsom, Frink’s boss, listens passively to his paramour express horror at the racial murders and concentration camps the Germans committed on the East Coast after the war, and responds by pointing out how wonderfully the Nazis ended economic competition and revived the North American industry, breezing past the genocide. Wyndam-Matson—a hard-working American, mind you—blithely implies total submission to tyranny is not so bad as long as you’re comforted. “You’d have clean quarters, adequate food, recreation, medical care provided,” Wyndam-Matsom tells his lover, who said she couldn’t stand those work camps in the Greater Nazi Reich where workers rise at 6:30am for band music. “What do you want? Egg in your beer?”

As Miller also rightly points out, one fantastic scene from Dick’s novel that did make it into the Amazon series was when Robert Childan, a San Francisco dealer of American artifacts catering to Japanese collectors, attends a homemade dinner with two of his liberal Japanese customers, who delight in Childan’s company not as an equal, but as a good native who serves their cultural fascinations and ruling class guilt. Anxiously serving T-bone steak with baked potato and sour cream, the married hosts ask Childan to give an authentic analysis of Nathanael West and jazz, but Childan disappoints, admitting he has never read West and dislikes “negro” music. Childan tries to recuperate with remarks of gratitude for the Axis Powers riding the world of Jews, who he claims ran the world from Moscow and New York before the war. But his racism only offends them more. By the end of the meal, Childan finally realizes that he is not their honored guest, but a means to flatter their cosmopolitan airs that mask their crude power over him and his culture. “Witness them drinking from English beon chinca cups, eating with U.S. silver, listening to Negro style of music. It’s all on the surface,” thinks Childan. “Advantage of wealth and power makes this available to them, but its ersatz as the day is long.”

Regardless of the ethics of elite power in America today, what can’t be denied is that Americans acquiesce, like Dick’s characters to foreign occupation and slavery, to the emergence of a Silicon Valley and Washington elite that is armed with the intimate knowledge about what we do, say, think, eat, value, or share—troves of data that would have made the SS or Kempeitai agents’ mouths water—that we voluntarily disclose with the mindless swipe of a paw. On top of that, add the Edward Snowden revelations that the National Security Agency collected all American phone calls in bulk without probable cause, the Senate Torture Report findings that the C.I.A. sacrificed both liberty and security, and the Department of Justice “white paper” that green-lights the President to assassinate American suspects, and we still do not have a significant swath of the citizenry up in arms about ever-expanding elite power (the white conservative raucous over a black president excluded).

The late Princeton University professor Sheldon Wolin wrote convincingly in his 2008 book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism that the evolution from democracy to despotism that Tocqueville describes has already created tendencies of a new form of totalitarianism, defined as power without limits, in American life:

“Tocqueville imagines ‘the new features’ of a despotism evolving naturally and peacefully out of a democracy…an immense tutelage power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and watching over their fate…It seeks only to keep (men) fixed irrevocably in childhood. It provides for security foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry … It does not destroy, it prevents things from being born.”

In the “inverted” form of Nazi or Imperial Japanese totalitarianism, according to Wolin, there is no demagogue and the uncontrollable expanse of power happens in the name of liberalism, democracy, and pluralism. The process of “inverted totalitarianism” is “driven by abstract totalizing power, not by personal rule,” wrote Wolin, and it “succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization.” Wolin expanded on Tocqueville’s observations to focus on the contemporary confluence of corporate and state power in America power elite, and the concurrent blurring of “public” and “private,” like the National Security Agency contracting companies to collect American phone calls in bulk, that encourages an increasingly atomized and ambivalent citizenry. To Wolin, the confluence of “public” and “private” means that ultimately the state becomes just another corporation vying for customers, which makes a vector for public will to be heard or acted upon gradually more and more impossible. How do you rebel against private and public data mining? Also, such a confluence of “public” and “private” in the Byzantine military industrial complex allows for a state of permanent war in overseas conflicts, where there are so many unknowns and complications that citizens have a nearly impossible task of making rational decisions, the bedrock of self-governance. How can Ohioans hold a government apparatus accountable for what happens in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, and Libya? Democracy isn’t so much destroyed or suppressed, but prevented from being born.

Man in the High Castle fails to explore what Wolin, Tocqueville, and Dick were all too familiar with: the helpless passivity of a disengaged and demobilized citizenry. Like global warming, for most Americans the harm of “inverted totalitarianism” lies mostly in a hypothetical future, or at least out-of-sight and out-of-mind, in a flurry of circuit boards buried deep inside the hum-drum offices of a faceless bureaucracy. Americans are understandably more fixated on Jihadist terror campaigns than elite power without limits, and that is why the characters in Man in the High Castle will probably continue to rebel against foreigners, without a shadow of doubt or hesitation, for a second season.

Amazon Studios

Courtesy: Amazon Studios

About Justin Slaughter

Justin Slaughter is a journalist and critic in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Talking Points Memo, Salon, Guernica, and San Francisco Bay Guardian, among other places.
This entry was posted in Literature, Politics, Popular Culture, The Arts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.