Can Virtual Reality Change Our Minds?

Lessons in Fascist Tyranny from The Man in the High Castle


It’s strange how history repeats itself, wound round and round the axle until we lose track of exactly where we are. Resisting the tyrannical tendencies of our 45th president can feel like a full-time job. But if you find yourself with some time to unplug, I suggest you tune in to Amazon’s original show, The Man in the High Castle (MitHC). (Fair warning: you’ve got to make it through the setup of season one to get to the good stuff in season two.) But with only 10 episodes per season, you might find it reminds you fondly of old network TV.

The show begins in 1960s America in a dystopian past: the Nazis and the Japanese have won World War II and divided the United States of America between them, the Greater Nazi Reich expanding across the American east and midwest and the Japanese Pacific States encompassing California, Oregon, and Washington. The first season, released in 2015, did not anticipate the rise of President Trump. The second suggests it might have considered the possibility. At a time when liberal mouths are filled with accusations of autocracy and discrimination, it’s instructive to return to a world where the most brutal fascist tyranny reigns.

Your World Will Stay the Same… Until it Won’t

Unless you are a target population (an illegal, a black person, or a Jew, say), a brutal regime is unlikely to change your daily life. MitHC does an incredible job of showing how dangerous that can be. Keep your head down and don’t attract any attention and your life retains its normalcy. But one wrong move and woe unto you. You’ll probably find yourself naked and alone, chained to the wall of an open-air cell, waiting to hear whether or not your family has been gassed yet. Or you might find yourself at the top of a skyscraper in New York, standing on a roofdeck surrounded by cell toilets, clearly a place where prisoners were kept (or left) to entice them to kill themselves by jumping off — evil genius! And don’t worry if you’ve lost your keys. No one locks their doors anyway! The state’s all-encompassing access to anything and anyone doesn’t just overlook your right to privacy. It eats it for breakfast.

The Human Mind Will Normalize Everything

The first time I heard someone say “Heil Hitler!” I almost fell out of my chair. It came from an unlikely character, an American with a questionable affiliation. Instead of “See ya later!” Heil Hitler! became the customary salutation. And when was the last time you saw a Sieg Heil right-arm salute? MitHC has plenty in store! After 20 episodes, it hardly even phased me. Now it’s certainly unfair to compare living in a world where the state can exterminate its residents at will without cause to watching it on your laptop at three in the morning. But words that before were shocking and abhorrent become everyday all too quickly. Oh, and swastikas everywhere. Lest you forget where you are.

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Enemy, and He is Us

It’s hard to believe a TV show could turn a Nazi into an unlikely hero, but over there at MitHC, they got that one figured out. It’s important to remember you can feel like you hate a person with your whole soul and wish them dead, only five hours later to turn against your own kind and wish for him to succeed. No, to realize that the survival of humankind depends on his success. In most cases, your enemy’s enemy is your friend. But sometimes it turns out your enemy is your friend and your friend is your enemy. Who knew? And when that happens… God love you, GOOD LUCK making the right choice in that moment. In any case, it’s far better to have a known adversary than a sworn enemy. Because if you’re not careful, that sworn enemy just might turn out to be you.

Beware the Long History of a Master Race

In the 21st century, Hitler-Trump comparisons start to come apart when we consider the Holocaust. We hope against hope (and organize and vote) to ensure that no regime on earth is able to amass the control needed to exterminate six million humans, ever again. And yet, racial preference and privilege seem somehow enshrined in white human DNA. Throughout human history, Caucasians have sought to dominate and diminish those with darker skin, almost always showing preference for those with skin lighter than their peers. (Don’t believe me, just ask the Hutus and the Tutsis). In the Greater Nazi Reich of MitHC, racial purity laws govern life and marriage. Pairings are made to produce more Ayrian offspring. Any person who presents a threat to the purity of the human race is immediately euthanized.

For those of us who have read our history books, take note when in the 21st century, we start to hear complaints of “white disenfranchisement.” “Watch where you’re swinging that privilege,” we might say. White humans have shown their ability to ruthlessly institutionalize the privilege they believe to be endowed to them by nature of their race. We shouldn’t expect this tendency to miraculously disappear after eight years of a black president. The worst tendencies of humanity are always inside of us, waiting to break free. It’s up to those of us with a handle on our morals and our conscience, with a clear conviction to stand by what is just and right whatever the cost, to see our way clear of the madness. If we’re not careful, the fictitious history books of MitHC show we just might wind up in a nuclear standoff.

The virtual reality of the Great Nazi Reich and the Pacific Empire in tension is instructive, because it shows us how closely a dystopian past could resemble actual history, and yet be brutally different at the same time. Indeed, our staunch notions of “That could never happen here!” perhaps deserve a closer look.

Watch Man in the High Castle here.