The rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air
May 5, 2014 12:12 AM   Subscribe

What are some subtle or lesser-known examples of current-day real-world USA being a dystopia?

I'm working on a video that depicts current-day USA as a dystopia, using clips of news and current affairs from the last 10 years or so (prioritizing more recent issues) and then closing it off with clips of activists and changemakers looking to make a difference in these issues.

I've got a stack of the big international news-y ones, but I'm looking for things that are a little more subtle: you wouldn't necessarily peg it as dystopic until you see it in conjunction to something else, or you think about its Unfortunate Implications further. I'm also keen on news stories that aren't as popular or well-known and could use more attention.

For example, currently I have a clip of Amazon Prime Air, mostly for its connection to drones. I'm also thinking of incorporating something about racist Halloween costumes and/or Photoshop being used to influence body image issues. I was also reminded of a massacre at a gurdwara (Sikh temple) a few years back and am sure there are similar news stories that I hadn't known about. Or maybe there is a TV show with a really questionable premise.

What I am trying to stay away from is stuff that connotes "kids these days" or "sex is bad" or "tech is bad". I recognise that YMMV with this, so I'm open to ideas. Also there is already a soundtrack to this and I want no additional audio, so it needs to be something I can convey primarlly visually (I will be attaching a quick guide to the clips once I'm done).

If it helps, I'm working off a version of the Star-Spangled Banner and have "the rocket's red glare" through "land of the free" mostly covered, but that could change.

So far (though this is subject to change):

I HAVE: Fracking, drones (Prime Air/military/bombing), Boston Marathon, polar vortex, Hurricane Sandy/Katrina, Detroit, LGBT homeless youth, teen suicide, students being arrested in school, kids being interrogated/charged as adults, boot camps for troubled teens, trans women in men's jails, prison in general, elderly lifers in jail

I'M STILL WORKING ON: NSA/surveillance/spying, Gov shutdown, abortion clinic attacks, rape culture/slut-shaming, attacks on protestors (Occupy, UC Davis pepper spray), forced sterilization of female prisoners, foreclosure, BART/public transport strikes, something to do with censorship or curtailment of freedom of speech, racist graffiti, something to do with Islamophobia, school shootings (Sandy Hook/Virginia Tech), the kid who got suspended for a science experiment, Keystone XL/Tar Sands
posted by divabat to Society & Culture (51 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: How about footage of various "free speech zones" - I always think of those as pretty Orwellian.
posted by Middlemarch at 12:34 AM on May 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

Camden, NJ is basically a domestic war zone, with the highest violent crime rates in the nation. Unlike Detroit, few want to talk about it, perhaps because Camden can't be fit into the media's capitalist narratives of American perseverance, renewal, exceptionalism, etc.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:00 AM on May 5, 2014

What about modern health care volunteer camps, of this nature? I'm sure it's been eased by Obamacare but this organization, at least, is still quite busy with this sort of thing.
posted by furiousthought at 1:10 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

You do mention LGBT homeless youth, but maybe consider large concentrations of homeless people. I recently visited skid row in LA, and I saw that I was right at the point at which our society breaks down and fails completely.
posted by univac at 2:10 AM on May 5, 2014

Militarization of police forces
Homeland Security and the NSA: Secretive, unaccountable, omnipresent government agencies (if you want sound bytes for this, you could collect a bunch of Glomar responses from government officials)
Endemic prison overcrowding
Privatization of prisons
FOX News doublespeak
Guantanamo (indefinite extra-legal imprisonment without trial)

(and sorry, but conflating Prime Air with drone strikes looks very "tech is bad" to me. If you want to go after Amazon, try the worker conditions in their fulfillment centers)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:13 AM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

("Amazon Prime Air" is just a vaporware PR story, designed to get people talking about Amazon. They have no realistic plans to put it into actual use in the short or medium term future. And even if they did, what would be dystopic about that, other than "tech is bad"?)
posted by richb at 2:23 AM on May 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

There are some relevant themes covered here: "the rules of the new aristocracy".
posted by richb at 2:36 AM on May 5, 2014

You might find some relevant soundbites in this: "Glenn Greenwald and Michael Hayden debate surveillance"
posted by richb at 2:37 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

how about something about the real unemployment rate, or jobless rate. My favorite statistic is that one quarter of men in their prime working age are not working, but the unemployment rate is only 7%

And I second "free speech zones"
posted by mearls at 3:26 AM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Minutemen Civil Defence Corps?
posted by Harald74 at 3:49 AM on May 5, 2014

Surveillance and the small city: Lancaster, Pa., keeps a close eye on itself. Map of cameras.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:50 AM on May 5, 2014

How about armed civilian militias setting up checkpoints on public roads and requiring people to show proof of residency? That's pretty 'crumbling nation state' in my book.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:52 AM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Factory farming of food animals.
posted by third rail at 3:55 AM on May 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

How about asset forfeiture? This is happening on a large scale, mostly in small towns and rural counties. Law enforcement in some of these places use broadly-defined powers provided by poorly-worded anti drug laws to seize the assets of people they encounter for minor things, like speeding. Even when these people are found to not have had drugs in their possession, the legal costs of getting their stuff back is often more than the stuff was worth. The police, making considerable sums in some places, then use these funds to militarize their forces, leading to more swat-team style arrests.

There was a great piece on this in the New Yorker in 2013, but the larger media hasn't covered this much.
posted by Philemon at 4:17 AM on May 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

the government shooting your dog. this happens all the time now. it happened at ruby ridge, where an armed kid walking a dog had a government agent pop out of a bush and shoot the dog because it might pose a threat. the kid, the agent and the dog all lost their lives over this. it happened in a city in maryland where the swat team broke into the mayor's house and shot two labrador retrievers. the really dark takeaway was when one of the raiders called her veterinarian on her cell to attend to her own dog, while tracking the blood of the dead dogs all over the innocent mayor's house, right in front of his ziptied self.
posted by bruce at 4:22 AM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

two bigs, imho, are:
1. the prison industrial complex - we have more citizens in prison than some of the worst countries out there. We send people to prison unevenly and unfairly. Prisons are a big money making industry, and the richest or the rich can claim "affluenza" and avoid consquences, while the masses are sent to prison.

2. the higher education scam - colleges are becoming terrible scams. graduating out kids with little or no real world skills, and crippling them with staggering debt.
posted by Flood at 4:25 AM on May 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'll add another point. Wages for working people have remained stagnant in relative terms since 1970 (contrasting with 1945-1970 when wages for this group grew roughly apace with national economic growth).

Since 1970, the national economy has grown substantially while wages have remained flat. What did US companies do with some of the excess? Lobby Congress to transform lending laws to make the explosion of credit cards possible. So from the point of view of US business, it's a dream come true: instead of paying everyone their fair share of overall growth (or even a fraction of it) -- we will just lend them -- at high rates -- the difference between what they earn and what they deserve. Win-win.
posted by Philemon at 4:37 AM on May 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yik Yak.
posted by Dragonness at 4:44 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

You could also approach dystopia from the other side, showing how the 1% live without having to deal with all the crap everyone else does; for example, Donald Trump's private jet; gated communities.
posted by TedW at 5:27 AM on May 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Admittedly I'm biased because I can be a little over-focused on education but what about elementary school standardized testing and how everyone is expected to be above average (mathematically impossible) and teachers are fired based on factors over which they have no control? I think there's a lot there in terms of all the ways in which students and teachers, especially in low-income schools, are trapped and constrained and threatened with all these regulations and expectations that can be literally unfulfillable.

I agree with Flood's "higher education scam" suggestion as well -- maybe something about how in order to get a job at all you need to take on such massive student loan debt that it cripples you?
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:01 AM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

You already have abortion clinic attacks, but one (maybe more subtle?) aspect of abortion clinics that I think is pretty effed up is the fact that many have volunteers to escort women in past the protesters ... on one hand it is WONDERFUL that there are people who are willing to volunteer for this, but on the other, how vile that it is even necessary.

On a different tack, how about doing something about voter ID laws?
posted by DingoMutt at 6:02 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Disenfranchisement of voters with convictions.
Joe Arpaio (many things, but a visually interesting one is taking celebrities on drug busts)
Talk Radio
Suggestively violent misogynistic comments by crazies on websites
The treatment of sex offenders (segregation, not allowed to live x distance from parks or schools)
Outrageous cases of who sometimes get classified as sex offenders (a nineteen year old having consensual sex with a sixteen year old).
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:12 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Factory farming of food animals.

Egg hatcheries in particular have always struck me as quite dystopic and surreal. There are investigations with videos and photos at COK's site (graphic).
posted by payoto at 6:15 AM on May 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh, I was in the middle of looking for something that could be used to show the union-busting tactics that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker enacted; if you want protestors the images, especially of the people packing the State House, are very moving.

The House has voted 54 times in four years to repeal Obamacare. See also, anything Ted Cruz.
posted by Room 641-A at 6:29 AM on May 5, 2014

The attacks on teachers unions and on identity and ethnic studies is very dystopian. I'm thinking of that teen girl who had the cops called on her for giving out a free copies of a Sherman Alexie book and those college students in AZ who've had to create a Chicano lit book mobile bc of the admin cutting off the department
posted by spunweb at 6:36 AM on May 5, 2014

This terrifying video PSA that plays on loop at Penn Station in NYC alongside "be vigilant for signs of terrorism, and this is how to get away from a crazed gunman" PSA videos. Constant scare tactics, it's insane.
posted by pazazygeek at 6:38 AM on May 5, 2014

Just yesterday I read that rodent studies now show that the blood of young mice can rejuvenate old mice.

Christian gay-cure camps.

Much like the prison-industrial complex, there are privately run juvenile facilities that are hellish.

Also on the theme of kids, routinely diagnosing normal child behaviors as ADHD and doping kids up on Ritalin (or whatever the drug du jour is) to enforce compliance through chemistry. At the same time that we bang on about the evils of recreational drugs.

Laws that make it illegal to criticize businesses: I think Washington State led the pack with a law against disparaging apples, but other states have gotten on board with that. These mostly revolve around agriculture and livestock.

Laws that make it illegal to find out that businesses are doing anything controversial: some states have made it illegal to find out where they get their lethal-injection drugs, since pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to get the negative attention. Texas has made it illegal to use drones to investigate conditions at feedlots and slaughterhouses.

Oh, I'm having quite a day, aren't I?
posted by adamrice at 7:22 AM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

The world's biggest advertising company has invented a technology to beam signals directly into people's eyeballs.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 7:24 AM on May 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

This documentary is about a relative of mine who is one of the few (maybe the only?) Abortion providers in the state of NH, and the people who protest against him. I believe that while this was filmed, an abortion provider was killed, and there is some footage relating to that. Also fun: the protestors didn't want to speak with the filmmakers because, since they are also Jewish, they didn't trust them.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:34 AM on May 5, 2014

Best answer: Or maybe there is a TV show with a really questionable premise.

Like 16 and Pregnant? Teen pregnancy is definitely a thing that happens, but exploiting young women for the purpose of ratings has always seemed to me to be vile stuff.

I often think of the environment as something you see in dystopian stuff, so like

- the coal seam in Centralia that has been on fire since 1962
- the people who have tap water that is flammable thanks to fracking (will work in a short video, didn't know if you had this aspect of fracking)
- Monsanto suing farmers
posted by jessamyn at 7:34 AM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Fabulously wealthy cities studded with Bum Blockers and other devices for keeping the homeless moving while also having too few, mostly underfunded homeless shelters.

Reality TV generally and this awful trend of people watching (enjoying?) the suffering of others.

Those lovely graphs of socialism (everyone makes the same wage), what people think income distribution is, and what income distribution actually is.

War on drugs... just everything about the war on drugs.

When taking off the This-Is-The-Canonically-Good-Nation glasses you get in high school the reality looks a bit shit in comparison.

Something that really hit me hard in DC were the memorials. With the exception of The Scar its all rah-rah-America-rah-rah-come-have-your-photo-taken-with-this-vet-we-wheeled-in. Very pretty stone work with lots of symbols and no names. Then you walk into The Scar and everything you saw previously just seems so shallow and... I can't think of the right word so I have to go with revisionist-even-though-that's-not-precisely-what-I-mean. It is the thing I think of now when I'm asked to remember the vets. A terrible silence, black walls, and too many names in too small a font just going on for what seems like forever.
posted by Slackermagee at 7:44 AM on May 5, 2014

Best answer: The Police Riot footage over the clearing of the Occupy Oakland encampment looks like a fucking war zone. Then there's Pepper-Spray Pike gassing the students at UC Davis. Ther's also the UC Police force cutting loose w the batons on a chain of linked-armed students,
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:50 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some of the things people do out of financial desperation, like multi-level marketing and the sort of crazed belief that you can grow your "wealth" without having any money or creating any value.

The whole idea that you're going to have to guess how long you're going to live and somehow save enough money for that, and that it's your fault if you can't win that ridiculous game. The US health care system-- still.

I also think Facebook is pretty dystopian.
posted by BibiRose at 7:51 AM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

The West Virginia chemical spill was caused by a company called Freedom Industries, and right after it happened House Republicans were still trying to gut the Clean Water Act.

There are gas stations called Super America and freedom.

Justin Bieber got a Banksy tattoo.

Britney Spears music is considered effective in preventing pirate attacks.

People who dress up like superheros and go walking around at night trying to stop crime.

Google "modafinil, entrepreneur."

Colony collapse disorder.
posted by entropone at 7:59 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The HBO show Vice had a story about rich Texas Christian fundamentalists funding the Israeli settlers because of the Texans' beliefs about the impending apocalypse (which involves the forcible conversion of Jews to Christianity), and who were one of the groups that the Israeli settlers taking land away from, but Arab....Christians.

The whole wild schizophrenia surrounding the aggressive NRA hate-the-government-especially-when-its-a-Democrat ideology, and the fact that normal, everyday, I'm-not-a-racist people have completely swallowed this radical right-wing anarchist I-need-my-guns-to-protect-me-from-the-impending-race-war propaganda. This is increasing the murder rate, increasing the suicide rate, accelerating the militarization of the police, really deeply distorting society...all in order to sell more guns.
posted by goethean at 8:09 AM on May 5, 2014

San Diego County's P100 program, requiring an unscheduled search of all welfare applicants residences to allegedly prevent fraud. As seen in Matt Taibbi's book, The Divide.
posted by JDC8 at 8:53 AM on May 5, 2014

Best answer: The recent secret mass surveillance of Compton, CA.
posted by susanvance at 9:29 AM on May 5, 2014

Response by poster: these are great, thanks!

Again, I already have a soundtrack, so soundbites are a lot less useful to me since I'm not doing any other audio. The private jet thing could be a replacement to APA, I don't know (it was the beginning of a sequence about drones).
posted by divabat at 9:57 AM on May 5, 2014

Best answer: Modern tent cities.
posted by zug at 10:10 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The crumbling USA Infrastructure: the American Society of Civil Engineers just gave us a D+. So, pictures of bridges and buildings collapsing.
posted by Rash at 10:18 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

(Oops, when you said soundtrack I was thinking music.)

The Death Penalty, with extra cruel and unusual on the side.

Fox News continues to be the #1 cable news channel in the county. Watching Fox News makes you less informed about events than not watching any news at all.

Google "modafinil, entrepreneur."

This was news to me. Are these the Adderall college kids, all grown up? It's actually kind of fitting with the question; when I was a youngster, people took uppers to stay out all night and party. Now they're taking them to gain whatever edge they think will let them get a crumb or two.
posted by Room 641-A at 10:32 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

In previous empires, the pattern is that the middle class starts to get wiped out and infrastructure decays. Bridges start falling apart, sewers need billions of dollars, etc. You are starting to see some malls getting rundown or abandoned. The electrical grid should not be so fragile that a problem with a single tree branch can take down the Eastern seaboard. Think of a decaying house. The estimate for refurbishing those things is very large.
Financialization (and economic aftershocks) is another late stage symptom. Now you have cities going bankrupt and police and firefighters being downsized in financially stressed areas so some regions are badly covered or not covered at all.
posted by PickeringPete at 10:46 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

What about third world medical volunteers feeling the need to service Knoxville?
posted by flabdablet at 12:28 PM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was listening to an episode of 99% Invisible the other day that mentioned "the Xanadu effect," the name of a 2001 paper by Edward Tenner + his term for the magnificently ostentatious monuments to empire that start to appear on the (literal) landscape just as that empire itself is sliding into decline. It's possible that the blog post on the Xanadu effect is actually a shorter version of the podcast itself, so there might be some other good meaty tales if you listen rather than read though I'm not sure.
posted by tapir-whorf at 1:14 PM on May 5, 2014

Every time I visit the US I am struck by the number if amputees. I gather that many but not necessarily most are vets, but in three days in NYC I will see more amputees than in threre years here.
posted by Iteki at 2:56 PM on May 5, 2014

Speaking of NYC, stop and frisk laws (and their implementation) feel very distopian.
posted by Iteki at 9:59 PM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

About 1.5 million adults in 43 states have state-issued falsified birth certificates. Known as "amended" birth certificate, this is the document that replaced your (now permanently secret) original birth certificate because you were adopted. Amended birth certificates purport that adoptive parents gave birth to their adoptive children, often including details from the real birth certificate, such as the real delivering doctor, time of birth, hospital, etc.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 2:36 AM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

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