BY GREG GUMA
In Edward Bellamy's 1888 best seller a time traveler went a century forward, "Looking Backward" from a future when the work week has been drastically reduced, products and services are delivered instantly and everyone retires at forty-five with health benefits. Transported to the same year in Dons of Time, my time-traveling hero Tonio Wolfe interrupts a debate with William Morris at a London soiree and discusses modern problems with Ignatius Donnelly.
"That's William Morris," said Annie Besant. "Wallpaper, carpets, curtains and all that. These days he's a revolutionary." Five years ago, she explained, Morris had joined the Democratic Federation, then the only active socialist organization in the country. But the businessman knew nothing about Marx or Henry George. He was an aesthete and an instinctive rebel. As a result he split the Federation a year after joining it, and formed the Socialist League.
Last year he split again when the anarchist faction asserted itself.
"As much as I would like to join the chorus I'm afraid I cannot," Morris announced. "We have moved past the point where propaganda will turn the tide. We are on the road to revolution - or oblivion. The corruption of society is complete, is it not? Well, all right, then the time has come for a new order, not another manifesto."
"And what is this order -- is it imposed by force, does it include nationalization and control of individual initiative?" It was a comment from someone in the crowd, just beyond Tonio's view. That voice, so familiar. He strained to see.
Ignatius Donnelly looked exactly as Tonio remembered him from the View Room, piercing blue eyes, stocky frame, commanding presence. "I enjoyed and appreciated Progress and Poverty," he said, an acknowledgement of Henry George's grand opus. "His argument is logical, and in terms of Ireland it may be correct. There is no way to justify such vast quantities of land in the hands of so few."
"Your point, sir." Morris didn't appreciate being interrupted mid-rant.
"But personally, I remain too much a Jeffersonian to embrace nationalization and so-called panaceas like the single tax. Such ideas strike at basic rights and the very fundamentals of society."
"What rights?" A challenge from the crowd.
"The right of any man -- or woman -- to enjoy the fruits of his labor," Donnelly said defiantly. "Without that we relapse into barbarism."
"I think we've heard enough of the American position," Morris cut in. "So, what can the Society do about the individualist strain? I suspect any educational project on the other side of the pond will run a bit longer than the masses can afford."
"America will follow its own road," Donnelly insisted.
"And who will lead it, sir? You?"
"Maybe he will," blurted Tonio before he could stop himself. Dozens of faces turned his way. Realizing what he'd done, he quickly added, "as governor in the great state of Minnesota. You are the Farmer Labor Party candidate, are you not?"
"I have that honor," acknowledged Donnelly, a bit shocked that anyone in the audience recognized him. The room erupted into spontaneous applause. Donnelly basked in the moment.
"You know him?" Annie was impressed. "I do as well actually, we met briefly last spring. Interesting man -- strange ideas."
Tonio thought: There goes another time commandment. This is not inconspicuous.
As the debate continued, they retreated outside for a private moment. Donnelly needed to know something about the random American who had come to his defense. Annie re-introduced herself and apologized for Morris, insisting that there was enough room in the Fabian Society for differing views on the issues he raised.
Tonio kept his introduction vague, then inquired about Donnelly's latest book, The Great Cryptogram.
"That's why I'm here instead of campaigning at home," the politician explained. "It's my second trip this year. But this one will be brief, a few paying engagements and I'm gone. Where are you staying, we should meet."
|The Great Cryptogram (1888)|
"It was an awful dilemma," Donnelly lamented. "Meanwhile, savage insects ravaged the wheat. For the first time in twenty-five years we didn't have a bushel to show this season. And the Bank of Minnesota was making unpleasant noises about some debts. Still, the party leaders promised to raise a substantial war chest. In a sense I suppose my critics are right. I really can't say no to a nomination, one more chance to put my case before the people."
"Then what are you doing here?"
Donnelly flashed a devilish grin. "Money goes farther and the food is cheap. But seriously, it's all the Republican's fault. They may be many things but they are not stupid. In the end they didn't nominate Scheffer. Instead they went with Bill Merriman. Do you know who that is? Why should you? He's the man I supported for Speaker of the House just last year, a solid supporter of many of our issues, including the usury bill. Yes, he is also a banker, but I have to say he is essentially an honest fellow who seems to want fair, economical government."
He had decided to withdraw from the race after several friends in the GOP arranged an invitation by the Republican National Committee to speak on behalf of Ben Harrison in New York. But at a meeting the pols suggested, without much subtlety, that should Harrison become President, well, Donnelly's contribution would not be ignored. He despised such vote buying and influence peddling. On the other hand, he thought James Blaine's decision to break the GOP convention deadlock and back Harrison had given him a solid edge.
"It's also really what Kate wants," Donnelly admitted with some embarrassment, "for me to be paid for all the campaigning and perhaps to secure a federal appointment at some point."
"What did you decide?"
"I declined," he said glumly. "I had to. I'm in pretty hot water at home over that. And meanwhile, the Alliance hasn't been able to raise the promised funds for the governor's campaign. So, as to why I'm here, the honest answer would be, I'm in hiding. Hopefully, by the time I start home word will begin circulating that my withdrawal is imminent. Eventually, I will have to bite the bullet and make the endorsement."
"Won't your labor friends feel betrayed?"
"I'm not looking forward to that discussion."
Terror in the Air
Donnelly was a pleasant host but a bit mercurial. He would begin most days like a fighter in training for a match, but then get distracted or preoccupied for hours by some minor statistic or news item. He'd then regroup and pen some letters, corresponding rapid-fire with family and friends in Minnesota and Illinois. On the other hand, he would fret over a single line in a note from Kate Donnelly saying the bank might seize a parcel of land. Then someone would call and he'd be off in fine form with a list of talking points in hand. He was a whirlwind, no vortex required.
That evening Tonio was in the sitting room on Duke Street when he returned with news of a new assault on rationality. Near Ratcliffe Highway he'd watched a crowd pursue a hapless seaman, trailing and surrounding him with curses and accusations. He was "Leather Apron," they shouted, and "the Ripper." He wasn't of course. If the police hadn't arrived in time, Donnelly thought they might have killed the fellow.
"Who was he in the end?"
"No one, just someone with red paint stains on his pants. But they held him, for his own protection. It's mayhem out there."
"Talk about deja vu," Tonio mumbled.
"How so? I've never seen a thing like it. People are frantic, suspicious of everything. There's a smell of terror in the air."
Tonio wasn't sure how to respond. The mood actually reminded him of the period after 9/11, as well as several cities he had visited in recent years, desperate neighborhood in tough times, and too many lives wasted. How could he begin to explain that? "I was thinking about my novel," he answered instead.
"Really." Donnelly sounded skeptical but curious. "The one about the detective who tracks a killer into a cave? What happens next? They didn't let you get very far the other night. Do tell, where does he end up?"
What could he say? In Edward Bellamy's book the time traveler went a century forward, "looking backward" from a future when the work week has been drastically reduced, products and services are delivered instantly and everyone retires at forty-five with health benefits. "The nation is the sole employer and capitalist," Bellamy wrote about the year 1988. All industrial production has been nationalized and goods are equally distributed. There is no need for dissent, and crime, though not completely eliminated, is handled as a medical issue, well on its way to the dustbin of history.
"Actually, in my book the detective comes to this time to catch the killer and eventually takes him back," Tonio pitched. Technically, he wasn't breaking rules. He wasn't revealing anything about the Jump Room or claiming to be a detective. The way he saw it, there was no reason to think any fantasy he concocted would have any impact. And if it did, well, he was stuck here and would just have to do what felt right.
"Wonderful," cheered Donnelly. "What kind of future is it? Peace and harmony?"
"I wouldn't want to give away too much. That would spoil the ending. But let's begin with technology," he offered, and commenced an elaborate description of modern marvels like air travel, air-conditioning, mass communications and other features of the high-tech world he missed, a place where everything seemed possible and almost anything was for sale.
"And yet there is enormous inequality. A very few, just one percent, have almost half the wealth, while most people don't have basic security. Many are hungry and brimming with rage. Guns are everywhere. It's a heavily armed, alienated and unhappy society, I'm sorry to say, a mockery of its past, glittering on the outside but sick inside, prone to arbitrary and senseless violence, and littered with unnecessary victims. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, someone simply goes berserk, and executes dozens in public, then kills himself, or commits what we call suicide by cop."
He stopped before getting into nuclear weapons and genocide, fearing they would sound too extreme or too debilitating if believed.
"Terrible. But possible." Donnelly sat down to enjoy the performance. "Tell me about women. Are so many still forced to sell themselves on the streets?"
"On the streets? Maybe not so much. There are private clubs for that type of thing. But pimps are bigger than ever. I mean, the word has become a verb. Still, in many places women are afraid to go out alone at night."
"Fear of rape, robbery or murder." Donnelly remarked that it sounded like London these days. Tonio had to agree. "Some women have learned to defend themselves," he continued. "In fact, some are as strong or powerful as any man. But they make the same mistakes."
"Fascinating. Has humanity at least solved problems like crime, illness and poverty?"
What a question. The straight answer was no. But instead he talked about the kafkaesque criminal justice system and byzantine corrections industry, balancing that with improvements in life expectancy and medical care.
"Have we at least agreed that people have a right to end their own lives?"
"Not yet," Tonio said, taken aback by his interest. "But professionals do tell us how to live."
"You paint a grim picture, almost anti-Bellamy. And who are the rulers of this dystopia? Has royalty made a comeback?"
"Not officially, but we do have dynasties and hand out titles. First at this, best of that. And people are celebrated just for being well-known." He'd moved from narration to role playing along the way.
"A corrupt paradise, you might say a commons pillaged by violence and greed."
"Elementary, my dear Donnelly."
"Then it's a matter of choosing sides," the old politician concluded. "Ask yourself: What really threatens humanity, the few who break some arbitrary rules or challenge the government, or those who control the economy and the government, and enact laws causing millions to suffer and die? It's obviously a rhetorical question. But I do wonder, in this troubled future of yours, is progress and reform still possible?"
Tonio had no clever plot twist to cover that.
Greg Guma is the Vermont-based author of Dons of Time, Uneasy Empire, Spirits of Desire, Big Lies, and The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. Based on real events, these recreations were excerpted from Dons of Time, Part Three: Gilded Nights, Chapters 31 (Society), 32 (Choices) and 33 (Another Normal). From Fomite Press, also availabe from Amazon.
Want more time travel? Try Annie Besant: London's 1st Wonder Woman or Finding Annie Besant