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President Reagan’s Favorite Dystopian Novel Has A Message For Us


September 11 is also known as Patriot Day, the anniversary to memorialize our nation’s losses and unity after the worst terrorist attacks in our history. Later in the week is the anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified on September 17, 1787. So this is a fitting time to reflect on how fragile our freedoms are, the perpetual threats to them, and what it means to protect them.

A little-known dystopian novel that was a favorite of President Ronald Reagan offers some food for these thoughts. Before he became president, Reagan sent a copy of “The Journal of David Q. Little” to Margaret Thatcher just after she became prime minister of Great Britain in 1979. The book, written by national security expert R. Daniel McMichael, first published in 1967, at the height of the Cold War. It is set in an America that believes it has headed off nuclear war by signing a treaty that ends American sovereignty in the name of peace.

At first Americans believe they dodged a fatal bullet, and cling to the false hope that life can now go on and the future will be brighter. In fact, the land is descending into a dehumanized society ruled by a communist world government. Civil society rapidly collapses, as a global oligarchy intent on consolidating all power ends all forms of local sovereignty.

This centralization of power sows corruption that takes over communities and families. It replaces the openness of personal relationships with a massive and cruel bureaucracy that breeds conformity, distrust, scarcity, and despair. In the end, unexceptional leaders who try to prop themselves up and cut their losses sell out everybody’s freedom, including their own.

The title character David Q. Little secretly keeps a journal to try to make some sense of what has happened. He explains: “I am bothered about something, and I don’t know what it is. There is really no one I can talk to about this uneasiness. Someone might misunderstand, and I could end up being tagged as an extremist, and I can’t risk that.”

A Cautionary Tale

This book describes the unrelenting pressure from external forces—in that era, Soviet communism—and the utter failure of our national leaders to recognize and defend our national values. Yet it is also a story of moral rot in the American body politic, and the failure of our people to stand for what has always made them exceptional. In this regard Mr. Little’s journal stands as a cautionary tale that is particularly relevant to our time.

One passage in particular is an excellent description of someone finally coming to terms with the toxicity of political correctness: “To stand alone with Truth; to know at last the evil of deception and to see yourself as part of that evil; to plunge headlong into the trap you yourself have helped to build; to know that there is nothing now you can do or say or cry out to, save only yourself.”

The term “political correctness” had not yet made its way into the lexicon when the book was published. But this passage clearly shows Little feeling the utter loneliness political correctness creates through its force-fed propaganda that sows social distrust and separates people through blind conformity. When there are no outlets for real conversation, you end up in virtual solitary confinement, talking to yourself to preserve your sense of sanity.

There comes a point—a “moment of truth”—when we discover the cumulative effects of living in a society that accommodates Orwellian manipulation of language and thought. Those who contribute to this most will feel it most when the revolution eats its own.

Little Chooses Conformity Over Exceptionalism

I recently wrote in the Federalist that American exceptionalism is really just human exceptionalism. We can call it “American” because the American system of checks and balances against the force of concentrated power was first to unleash an unprecedented volume of human potential. I offer this essay as a companion to that one.

I want to reflect on the choices of two brothers: First, David Q. Little, the narrator who helped create the dystopian monster; then his younger brother Harry, who personifies American exceptionalism.

For most of the story, David chooses to live as a middle-of-the-road, unexceptional mid-level manager hoping for advancement, but always trying to get by and not make waves. His wife is especially anxious to keep their semblance of the American dream alive—nice house, three kids, good employment. But they soon learn that the price of keeping their own heads above water is to obey a system that demands they betray their colleagues and surveil their neighbors. They try hard to ignore all the telltale signs that the system’s collapse is not just inevitable, but has already happened.

The Littles maintain a façade of normalcy for a little while, thanks to the privileges of the cronyism—a nomenklatura system—that is part and parcel of socialist societies. But it all quickly wears away as the fundamental transformation of America unmasks itself as a program of crony-orchestrated desolation. As every sector of life becomes internationalized, human relationships devolve into various forms of prostitution and pimpery.

As a futuristic work written two generations ago, “The Journal of David Q. Little” has a couple of anachronisms and perhaps an unsurprising corny moment or two. But McMichael’s book is absolutely astonishing for its prescience and psychological insights into human behavior, especially as we face our “moment of truth:” that point at which we must decide whether to stand for principle rather than betray others, or Esau-like, to exchange our birthright of freedom for a fleeting bowl of pottage.

Harry Personifies American Exceptionalism

We meet in passing David’s younger brother, Harry. Harry personifies American exceptionalism, while David is the envious and arrogant “Big Brother.” It is sad to read how David distances himself from a brother who would have been—and would have loved to have been—the best friend David ever had. Harry refused to conform, but always lovably, because he was so bursting with energy and warmth.

The spirit of American exceptionalism comes alive in this passage about Harry’s can-do drive, creative risk-taking, and natural, unapologetic thirst for truth:

He made his first purchase of stock at age fourteen and took a beating. By the time he was fifteen he had made it back with a little to spare. He was taking flying lessons when he was sixteen.

In between he went to school and, surprisingly, stayed mostly in the upper ten percent of his class. He had the gift of intense concentration, which is what probably saved him from expulsion. For he was forever in trouble with his teachers. ‘Failure to adjust’ and ‘obstructing class procedures’ were the charges consistently lodged against him. He had to ask the question – the one that brought the well-ordered teaching machinery to a dead halt, the one that reversed the trend of thought, the one for which the teacher seldom had an answer: ‘How can you be so sure Jefferson would have changed his views if he were alive today?’ ‘Solutions can too be simple, else how do you explain Einstein’s formula E=MC2?’ ‘How do you spend something that isn’t?’

Harry is also cheerful, trustworthy, and loyal. These are all embedded into the exceptional nature of what it means to be free and American, and it shows when David finally comes to appreciate his brother Harry:

At least, as I see now, his troubles were honest troubles. I do not believe he ever cheated, although he was stubborn in his determination to see a thing through. He never complained, either . . . Always he had a backlog of humor. He could laugh at himself – and his failures, which were many – as well as the rest of us. He had a disarming kind of charm, a certain brashness born of his curiosity for things, which, coupled with his easy humor, made him difficult to dislike for very long. He neither asked nor gave quarter. At times he could be amazingly polite, especially with his elders. But that did not keep him from asking his endless stream of questions. What made it difficult was that he put them in such nice, respectful ways that would leave you defenseless.

Thus did Harry grow to become a master inventor, salesman, and business executive for whom all life was one grand adventure.

The Crab-in-a-Barrel Mentality Reverses American Exceptionalism

But what did Harry’s utterly American personality mean for his relationship with others, especially the envy it evoked in his only sibling, David?

He made me uneasy with his endless energy. His ease of self – an infernal, perpetual confidence expressed without any visible effort – left me darkly hollow. Whenever he succeeded at something – a project that worked, a fruitful day’s work, scoring the winning run (he could hit as well as he could field and peg a ball) – I was secretly sorry. And whenever he failed – whenever the lights went out or the neighbors would take after him with their [sarcastic] cracks (‘Made any diamonds lately?’), or he missed a catch – I was gloatingly glad to myself. But the glee would be watered down with my disappointment that Harry never seemed to mind defeat. He never seemed to learn his lesson. He never seemed sorry. He did things his way, oblivious to criticism and yet bearing no grudges. Still, he was liked and respected. Perhaps, he may even have been feared, because he could be different and not care, because he could be different and get away with it. He did not seem to need people or their approval in order to exist. This rubbed me raw inside.

As perhaps with the glory of America, the key point is that Harry was “feared, because he could be different and not care, be different and get away with it.” The fear and envy of such individuality is the essence of the crab-in-a-barrel mentality that forces everyone together into a faux equality that kills us all.

The loss here is indescribable. David Little could not see how much friendship and joy he lost when he adopted his resentful attitude against Harry. Building and sustaining socialism and communism requires this mentality: needing permission and approval in order to exist. It forces all to fall down together into an “equality” dictated by the elites. This faux equality kills the spirit.

The alternative is the American ideal of equality of opportunity for all, a model that opens the way for everyone to have the chance to climb up and out of the barrel. Harry could have drawn out David’s potential and glory, because he could not really see it in himself. Sadly, David chose a life of blind conformity instead, thus perpetuating the social malaise in those around him.

Creativity, imagination, discovery, and childlike wonder—all of this, with the happiness it all evokes, is in each one of us, if only we could see it. Allowing individuals like Harry to create and spread solutions and happiness is the essence of American exceptionalism. It was born of a system that stands for the right of each human being to free expression and discovery of his or her own personal exceptionalism.