Since then I have been reading a number of discussions talking about writers preferring to write dystopias rather than utopias.
David Brin would like to see more positive representations of the future and thinks Utopias need to make a comeback. He is not alone. A number of other famous scientists and science fiction writers are also in agreement about the idea of writing new books where utopias, positive futures where mankind is not only still around but thriving in positive ways as a necessary force to change the future. See: Project Hieroglyph
I know they are necessary but they are difficult to write and I suspect only the most gifted and optimistic writers should try. Here’s my reasoning:
Dystopia and Utopia have the same problem. They are talking about a period where what we know has evolved into what is now the order of things. Why is one more difficult to write than the other?
Utopia: a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions
The term Utopia was invented by Thomas More as the title of his Latin book De Optimo Reipublicae Statu deque Nova Insula Utopia (circa 1516), known more commonly as Utopia. He created the word “utopia” to suggest two Greek neologisms simultaneously: outopia (no place) and eutopia (good place). More depicts a rationally organised society, through the narration of an explorer who discovers it — Raphael Hythlodaeus. Utopia is a republic where all property is held in common. In addition, it has few laws, no lawyers and rarely sends its citizens to war, but hires mercenaries from among its war-prone neighbours.
Generally speaking, utopias are generally societies whose author believes either perfect, or as perfect as can be attainable. Ernest Callenbach‘s Ecotopia is a contemporary example. This can cause some confusion, in that some works generally recognized as “utopian”, such as Plato’s Republic, can come across as much less than ideal to a modern reader. They are one of the smaller subsets of political science fiction, possibly because it is difficult to create dramatic tension in a world the author believes is perfect. –Wikipedia, Political ideas in science fiction
My favorite eco-dystopia: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Dystopia: an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives
Dystopias are societies where the author illustrates the worst that can happen. Usually this encompasses extrapolating trends the author sees as dangerous. During the 20th century many examples were written in reaction to the rise of Nazism, Communism and Religious Fundamentalism:
Double Helix Fall (1990) by Neil Ferguson portrays an America where a person’s social status is determined by their movements in the womb, an extension of the concept of original sin.
It is important to keep in mind that scenarios which some would describe as dystopic, others would describe as utopian. Norman Spinrad’s novel The Iron Dream was generally recognised to be a dystopian novel, but lauded by neo-Nazis as a utopia. –Wikipedia, Political ideas in science fiction
Janus-topia: A utopian society which is actually engaged in abusing and dehumanizing its citizens using social manipulations of one sort or another. (No, its not real, I just made it up to prove a point.) Janus was a two faced deity, looking forward and backward at the same time. I liken a Janus-topia to the idea that a society might be forward-thinking but using repressive, deviant or oppressive means to accomplish its goals rather than the forward sound ideals it may espouse in its public face.
Given these two simplified definitions, it is easy to see why Dystopias outnumber Utopias 10-to-1. Most readers (editors and agents) want stories where the conflict is easy to recognize, can be filled with intrepid adventurers who die at just the appropriate moment to tug at our heartstrings and make us believe we are experiencing a transformative event.
The problem of addressing a Utopia is by definition, it is already a perfect place, where we have to be willing to be patient, walk with the protagonists while they show you the dirty, hidden underbelly of the Utopia, where all is not what it seems. This is by far the harder row-to-hoe because writers are under fire to “show, don’t tell” or my other favorite “exposition is dead/death” so you must find a way to expose people to your Utopia without actually describing it in any detail that might bore our attention-addled readership.
Given these two conditions, there is not a question in my mind why we see Dystopias outnumbering Utopias. The curve to creation isn’t that difficult. Look at modern society, allow it to continue unabated and poof, Dystopia.
Try that with creating a Utopia, and you have to, by most reader’s perspectives alter the fabric of space-time to reach a place where Humanity, especially as we see it now, doing anything such as curing disease (do we do that anymore? Polio was the last one I can think of) getting rid of hunger worldwide, reversing our position on global climate change, reducing corporate power (is that even possible?) enhancing educational opportunities for everyone, ensuring any form of social parity, correcting enough social ills you would deign to call your world a Utopia.
As far as I can tell, no Utopia has ever survived for the same reason most Dystopias eventually get replaced by something else. Human nature is fickle. If society is actually working, we distrust it, and assume something must be rotten somewhere. If society is failing, human nature dictates at some point we fight back or get ground into the dust.
So the real question is, why aren’t we writing more books about correcting the reason we can’t have Utopias in the first place; the moral, social, mental, cultural, religious, failings of the Human race? If we could fix that, maybe people might believe Utopias, corrupted or otherwise, might be possible enough to write about and worthy enough to read through to see the underlying messages for what they are.
Messages about us and our relationships to each other and the Universe at large. This is where Janus-topias come in. So many of our works that describe utopian societies are actually Janus-topias, two faced worlds where we believe we are living well to find out we are not. Most of our works which postulate a possible Utopia are really Janus-topias.
Utopia is not a place where stories are easily written, by definition, if you made a real Utopia, where would the conflict arise? What we are really hoping for are clever Janus-topias which hide their flaws well, are interesting enough to pay attention to, and when their flaws are revealed, we learn something about ourselves in the process.
Death to Utopia! Not enough happens there.
But the route to Utopia is rife with storytelling possibilities…
To all representatives of state governments and to the Congressmen of the United States:
In the coming years, despite your protestations to the contrary, the climate crisis will continue to accelerate. To keep the science simple, our atmosphere is an energy sink where heat delivered from the sun irradiates the Earth and is now trapped in our atmosphere.
When cool water or cooler ground temperatures interact with that warm air, atmospheric disturbances such as tornadoes and hurricanes are the inevitable result. For some places, they will experience an improvement in their weather. They will be the exception.
Most places which had temperate climates will now become sites of extreme climate activity. Warm will become HOT, dry may become flooded, seasonal snow may become a temporary ice age. Places which have never known seasons may now experience violent transformations in their weather patterns. 2012 was a year showing extreme variations in climate across the entire planet with long freezes in places that barely knew rain, now having snow and ice. You may think the climate crisis may be making weather better because a few people had a milder winter but I assure it what its doing is making our weather more extreme.
Parts of the United States were already known for extreme weather phenomena due to our varied terrain. The Midwest is known for its tornadoes, for example. As the climate crisis accelerates we can expect larger thunderstorms with more extreme effects. Larger transfers of water because warmer air holds more moisture.
We can expect larger and more dangerous hailstorms, where we once were annoyed by dime-sized hail we can now routinely see hail the size of baseballs (far more than annoying, they can destroy an automobile, damage homes, kill wildlife and if caught unaware, injure or kill human beings as well. The most terrible effect of these new larger and more energetic thunderstorms are the tornadoes generated from them.
They will form more quickly. What used to take hours to form, may now happen in only minutes as the recent Moore, Oklahoma tornado did. It went from a thunderstorm to an EF-5 tornado with winds in excess of three hundred miles an hour in a single hour. It proceeded to last for an hour, spreading to nearly two and a half miles wide and carving a swath across the landscape for thirty miles. While the lost of life was relatively low, the damage to homes and lives was catastrophic. Any home that was struck was completely destroyed. This is the future of anyplace where tornadoes form. They will be fast-forming, fast-moving, completely capable of destroying everything in their path. A home that is even partially affected can be made unlivable, harming families, livelihoods and educational opportunities for its residents.
If you need a visual, think of an EF-5 tornado like you would a mobile atomic weapon, distributing damage across a path of destruction. The damage will be comparable each time one of these super-tornadoes strikes. Most tornadoes fortunately will not be EF-5. There are only seven or eight of those on record. But there are over one hundred EF-4 tornadoes and the damage from those is almost indistinguishable from an EF-5. This threat is not one to be taken lightly.
Tornadoes are a result of heat exchange between the Earth and the sky and while they are devastating when they occur, there are other effects from the heating atmosphere which also affect the human way of life.
The constant rise of the planet’s overall temperature, whether you care to acknowledge, CO2/methane interactions as the cause can no longer be denied. This means:
Rising ocean levels – as global ice caps continue to melt, our oceans are rising slowly threatening every land mass that uses ports or has cities on its coasts.
As the oceans rise, they are heating as well, increasing their ability to hold carbon dioxide causing acidification. Rising carbon dioxide is destroying plant and animal balances, killing wildlife and destroying coral reefs. The food chain in the ocean is being disrupted and nearly 50% of the world’s population depends on food from the seas. The oceans are rapidly becoming unable to support life.
Coastline flooding – hundreds of millions of people worldwide live on coastlines
Threats to island nations including their complete erasure as rising tides and storms destroy their coastlines or simply batter the island structures into rubble. Displacement of entire nations will eventually be the cause.
At this point many of you are thinking this isn’t a problem for America. I would like you to think again.
The Port of Los Angeles, one of the nation’s busiest port cities would be directly affected as the ocean levels rise, potentially affecting three million jobs in the United States. This port is one of our nation’s largest import/export sites. San Francisco’s ports would also be affect. The New York Stock Exchange is also located on the coast of the United States on the island of Manhattan which is barely above sea level today.
Millions of people in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, New York, Washington DC, Miami, Newport News, Savannah, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, hhiladelphia, Boston, New Orleans Houston and San Diego would all be affected. These people could be permanently displaced as their city infrastructures, which are already nearly one hundred years old, could not hope to cope with encroaching waters from the ocean.
Where will these displaced Americans go? Inland? Where insufficient resources or infrastructure exists to support such a mass migration. Infrastructure away from most coastal regions currently barely supports the people living on it. Nor have any contingencies for such population density increases even been considered or planned.
Let’s just mention in passing some of the ecological disasters coming soon to a state near you:
Super-hurricanes: large storms which form off the coast of nearly every nation on Earth, hurricanes whose water content, wind speed, storm swells and size will continue to increase in number and ferocity in the coming decades. Hurricanes are not like tornadoes which limit their destruction to a swath, five to forty miles long and perhaps two miles wide. Hurricanes bring regional flooding, torrential rains, winds capable of reaching one hundred fifty to two hundred miles an hour for sustained periods of six to thirty hours as they move inland.
The damage from hurricanes is comparable to tornadoes; homes are destroyed, flooded out, roofs removed, vehicles lost, schools, medical facilities destroyed or well over capacity during the event. Lives lost can be minimized with sufficient warning and evacuations but property damage can reach the tens of billions with a modest size storm. With one the size of Hurricane Katrina, costs reached 80 billion dollars. Storms that size will become the norm, not the exception.
With all the wrangling for disaster-relief funds, there will come a time when the entire nation will be covered in ecological disasters. Is that what it will take for the people who are embroiled in scandal chasing for political benefit? When there isn’t any funding or when we have to prioritize which type of disaster is the one that will get precedence?
Will it take:
Fires sweeping across the West and the food belt as record temperatures and high winds whip firestorms destroying hundreds of acres of woodland, farmland and residential areas? Try this interactive fire map to see what fire season looks like right now, near you.
Destruction of other residential areas as failing infrastructure is unable to deal with flash-floods as storms increase during the raining seasons?
Decimation of our food crops and the continued rising costs as food becomes more scarce across the planet. Temperatures across the nation’s food producing regions reached record temperatures of 110-120 degrees for three weeks last year, sufficient to destroy one third of the food production capacity of the nation. Another three or four summers like this and the nation may face REAL shortages which won’t be able to be made up by trade imports. The same event is happening world-wide.
Super-storms as I have outlined earlier?
Destruction of habitable areas for wildlife and food producing regions of the ocean?
Reducing air quality as carbon levels increase and ocean phyto-plankton, which account for one quarter of the Earth’s atmospheric oxygen production continue to die in the oceans, which will also affect oxygen levels for underwater dwelling species humans rely on. Granted we are already over-fishing most of those food sources but this will ensure they will not recover, even if we realize our error and stop tomorrow.
Or how about the idea that economically the catastrophe sweeping the nation as these disasters are enacted are a tremendous risk to national security. I don’t care how large your army or police force are, once the people become hungry, there won’t be enough bullets to quell them. Yes, I know the government is flush with ammunition at the moment, but if you have to kill the patient to save him, then what exactly is the point of having you in office?
And the irony shouldn’t be lost on you. You will end up killing the people you were elected to serve. This is a completely avoidable situation. Take your heads out of your asses, get out of corporate pockets who have already proven they are completely willing to burn the country to the ground as long as they can make a buck and travel to a different country to spend it. This is a problem affecting the entire planet.
There is no place left to run. We are at the same crossroads as the people living in Moore, Oklahoma or anyplace else hit by fire, flooding, wind, hurricane, tornado or other unexpected natural disaster. Don’t confuse the idea that having money will keep you safe. It won’t.
A natural disaster is coming soon to a city near you. If not the one you live in, one your constituents live in. And eventually coming to all of us in one way or another, whether we have to leave our homes due to disaster or economic collapse or the simple inability to put food on the table because THERE ISN’T ANY, it will be on the heads of the government who did nothing to curb the suicidal and sociopathic corporate destruction of our environment for profit.
Personally, I don’t think you will do anything that matters except continue to take money from the corporations who own you. I don’t depend on your better natures, you obviously don’t have any.
I depend on your sense of self-preservation, that you can hear the sound of a tornado bearing down on you and make the right decision to get out of the way. Most of these people are depending on you. I’m not. I know you are pathologically unable to make a good decision to save your life, or the lives of people depending on you.
So this goes to the Unrepresented People of the United States
Find your representative. Get their name using this web tool. Then do your research and find out if your representative believes in our climate crisis. If they don’t, send them my letter. Cut, copy, paste. Get your friends to do it. If not consider the following:
Find someone who does not believe magic will save us. Find a person for office who believes WE ARE THE ARCHITECTS OF OUR DESTRUCTION. Find someone who is willing to say to corporations, we have had enough of your shit. Sit down and put all of that brainpower you have spend destroying the environment into saving it, because otherwise, the next one hundred years will be HELL ON EARTH.
I promise you we have only just begun to see what is coming. It’s darkest just before it goes completely BLACK.
Vote for someone, anyone who recognizes an Extinction Level Event when they see one. Or everyone you know, everything you hold dear, your friends, your family, your children, your way of life WILL BE OVER.
Here is what 56 years of hurricane tracks all look like all at once. Brightness is tied to F-Scale. That’s it. P.S. Tornadoes hate mountains.
My woman says this document was too strident, too raw, too angry, too much like a lecture or a rebuke.
“IF YOU AREN’T ANGRY, YOU HAVEN’T BEEN PAYING ATTENTION.”
Call it whatever you like as long as you are doing something about it. I can tell from my personal experiences, no matter what the media tells me, my summers are getting hotter, the fires ARE more numerous, the tornadoes more deadly, the hurricanes more powerful and numerous, the natural disasters grow more expensive every year. How long will I have to put up with political correctness before we start to acknowledge what we are all seeing?
Don’t believe me? Good, do the research, follow the money and decide for yourself.
Find out which states are getting disaster relief and why. Find out which states spend more money on infrastructure and why. Find out which governors support disaster relief and which don’t. The answers will surely surprise you.
Don’t take my word for anything.
DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH.
Yes, there will be people out there who will tell you there is no climate crisis. FOLLOW THE MONEY. Who pays them to say this. 99% of the scientist agree, our climate is changing. So if you want to sit there and let EXXON and whatever other corporate agency who benefits from your ignorance tell you everything is fine. You are free to do so. Just stay out of my way.
I believe what my experience is telling me. It’s telling me we have to do something different, while we are still able. I put my name on this document because I believe in it. And if I am wrong, I will be the first one to sit there and laugh and call myself a quack or a lunatic. BECAUSE I WILL HAVE THE LUXURY OF BEING WRONG. And we can sit and laugh over a beer as the climate cools and the Earth returns to normal.
Ask yourself, what if I am right? What if all of those scientists are right? Can we afford to do nothing out of fear? Can we let corporations who profit the most from that fear, which they promote so they can continue business as usual, is it more important for them to make money while the rest of us die in the eco-catastrophes that follow?
Is that what a democracy has come to mean? He who dies with the most money wins?
Screw that. I am going to fight on the side of the planet. It’s where I keep all my stuff. And there will never be a place like it for us if we fail to protect it.
“So, you may have a question for me,” Whitehouse said. “Why do you care? Why do you, Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, care if we Republicans run off the climate cliff like a bunch of proverbial lemmings and disgrace ourselves? I’ll tell you why. We’re stuck in this together. We are stuck in this together. When cyclones tear up Oklahoma and hurricanes swamp Alabama and wildfires scorch Texas, you come to us, the rest of the country, for billions of dollars to recover. And the damage that your polluters and deniers are doing doesn’t just hit Oklahoma and Alabama and Texas. It hits Rhode Island with floods and storms. It hits Oregon with acidified seas, it hits Montana with dying forests. So, like it or not, we’re in this together.”
“You drag America with you to your fate,” he continued. “So, I want this future: I want a Republican Party that has returned to its senses and is strong and a worthy adversary in a strong America that has done right by its people and the world. That’s what I want. I don’t want this future. I don’t want a Republican Party disgraced, that let its extremists run off the cliff, and an America suffering from grave economic and environmental and diplomatic damage because we failed, because we didn’t wake up and do our duty to our people, and because we didn’t lead the world. I do not want that future. But that’s where we’re headed. So I will keep reaching out and calling out, ever hopeful that you will wake up before it is too late.”
Can science fiction function as a means of creating social awareness around technology and its future developments?
In advance of my interview on #SCIFICHAT on Friday, April 12, 2013, I thought I would write a quick article about my interests in science fiction, fantasy and how I use my love of the genre to promote and pursue ideas around science, scientific achievement, technology, social development under the guise of science fiction (and occasionally fantasy). I happen to agree with Ray Bradbury and believe a little fantasy hiding underneath one’s science fiction never hurt anyone.
I am a writer of all kinds of genre fiction including hard science fiction, social fiction, space opera, fantasy, urban fantasy, sword and sorcery, epic fantasy, and a bit of pulp and horror when no one is looking. I grew up reading the required classics from Asimov to Zelazney: Dune, Foundation, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Chronicles of Amber, The Eternal Champion Sagas, Xenogenesis, Lord of Light and The Hyperion Cantos.
My guilty pleasures included the hard science styling of Ben Bova and Larry Niven, the wild space romps of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, Steve Perry’s The Man Who Never Missed and Jack L. Chalker’s space operas, The Well of Souls Saga and the Four Lords of the Diamond series and so many others…
The failures and the cowardice of modern science fiction
Though I missed the conversation a few years ago on the internet which talked about the failings of science fiction in recent years, I could completely relate to the idea that science fiction wasn’t taking the risks it once did. Its protagonists were mostly white, mostly male and moving further away from being accessible to the readers. Some of those failings included:
social/racial inequalities in the writing the marginalizing other social groups.
the rewarding of primarily white men as the best writers of the genre and as the main protagonists
A failure to acknowledge writers from minority groups who may have different views of the future
a failure of the genre to address near-future issues due to potential scientific complexity
science fiction becoming more like fantasy or westerns in space
losing the exploration of scientific ideas
the increasing marginalization of the genre due to lackluster efforts of writers to explore more risky ideas
the increasingly doom-centric orientation of the genre and the preponderance of dystopian fiction
the lack of ideas of working toward a positive future
The lack of scientific interest in the potential audience which reduces the potential quality of stories
As a long time reader of the genre, I am aware of how science fiction has been used to address a variety of social ills. Many such works exist. A quick sampling include:
The Left Hand of Darkness – deals with a world where gender is almost non-existent except for periods of reproduction. Considered a work of feminist fiction, it addresses a world where many of our planet’s polar extremes of behavior simply don’t exist.
The Handmaid’s Tale – a tale where the rights of women are completely removed when a neo-Christian movement takes over the government and uses religion to brutally subjugate women.
Nineteen Eighty-Four – a world of perpetual warfare, psychological manipulation, mind control and the creation of a surveillance society.
Brave New World – promotes a society which at first glance resembles a utopia, where want has been eliminated along with a segment of free will. Population is regulated, children born in artificial wombs, a caste society is instituted with regimented behavior, drug use and recreational sex being the norm of the society.
While I don’t as yet consider myself in such august company, I have tried to use science fiction to address a variety of social ills and challenges facing humanity today in my collection of short stories called Hayward’s Reach:
Genetically Modified Organisms – in my story of the same name, I posit the idea of our constant experimentation with GMOs without a real understanding of how such interactions might affect each other over time. Reinforcing of genetic traits could lead to an alteration of human consciousness.
Suicide Seed – In a similar vein, I posit the idea of transgenetic mutation of plants by corporate entities using transform viruses. These viruses while originally designed to affect plants cross over into human populations, potentially rendering the human race sterile in the same fashion as large agro-corporations want to do to control seed development and food production.
The Great White Spot – a story in which I posit an Earth whose runaway greenhouse effect cause by global warming creates a storm similar to the Great Red Spot on the surface of Jupiter. A storm of immense size, ferocity and because of the inability to cool off, eventually erases all life on Earth.
Pax Cyridian – a tale where genetic engineering of insect-like lifeforms results in new forms of life able to work and live with humanity in relative peace. Instead of an industrial age, the people of Cyridia use organic life to perform the work of machines until a military leader decides to create new lifeforms adapted for war and conquest.
Paper – a world where the internet has become infected with self-replicating virus programs, information held in books is now more important than ever. A young man in Mexico finds a cache of old magazines and has been selling them to bidders anonymously. His brother’s selfish greed puts them both at risk when he reveals the cache of reading materials and tries to sell them to a criminal enterprise.
Hub City Blues – in one of my largest projects I am experimenting with creating a positive near-future world where humanity is trying to put off the future of impending global warming by creating a variety of new world arcologies. These super-cities use the most advance sciences known to man in an effort to create a new way of life utilizing a variety of alternative energies. Much of the technology used in Hub City is based from technology being created daily such as programmable matter, diverse solar and wind technologies, new underground building and waste management technologies.
The Last Divide – I am not above using a variety of different memes to address ideas around our modern world such as the proliferation of social media and its complete invasion of all levels of our society. This piece plays with the idea of social media after death; who maintains our social profiles, could we pre-program our responses after our passing? Could programs be written to approximate our social media habits and continue them, extending our social media existence?
I have to admit I was a bit embarrassed to be writing stories such as these because they are so far removed from much of the science fiction I see being written today.I’m not disparaging such science fiction because it is both popular and from a writer’s perspective quite profitable. I keep hearing the litany of the writers everywhere: Readers don’t want challenge, they want escapism. So if you make them work too hard, they will put your book down. I just don’t happen to agree with it. Eventually, I believe they will want more. So I write and wait.
Can we as science fiction writers make any changes in our society through our work?
Once upon a time science fiction propelled engineers and scientists to create ideas and technologies which are only now becoming a reality. Look at our cell phones, submarines, computer monitors, space craft, and wireless technologies, many of these started in the minds of early writers of the genre fiction. For a time, successful science fiction television inspired an entire generation of scientists, astronauts and engineers. We see far less of that today, with science fiction instead promoting a fear of technology or a return to superstition rather than embracing scientific curiosity.
Can science fiction tell potential stories about the human condition and potentially guide policies toward the effective use of science in society?
Some of our science fiction has lent itself to predicting trends in human behavior such as Nineteen Eighty-Four prediction of a surveillance state, similar to the one we find ourselves approaching in 2014. There does not seem to be quite as much of that kind of writing today. I believe part of the reason is the breakneck pace of scientific advancement. It is hard to write a novel about a piece of technology or a technological idea because by the time you finish the novel the idea has been superseded by a more advanced piece of technology in two years it took for you to finish your tale. I think it is a risk few writers are willing to risk their careers on.
After reading Should Science Fiction Die, and other such screeds on the failure of science fiction writers to innovate, to solve problems, take risks, ask questions, challenge the status quo and include complex themes within their body of work, I feel much less like I am on the wrong track and instead just working on a different kind of story-telling.
I’m done being embarrassed about asking questions or trying to find answers with my science fiction. I’m quoting one of my favorite space westerns, Firefly’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds: “So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”
Looking at the agencies, businesses and government and how porous these groups are, it is not hard to see why our government is unable to make decisions unaffected by lobbyists and special interests. Many of these charts show government officials who move back and forth between the government and leadership roles in corporations with special interests or seeking to craft laws to benefit the corporations in question. Here is an excerpt from Public Citizen, an agency concerned with the revolving door between government and private enterprise and the potential conflict of interests:
“Revolving Door” Restrictions on Federal Employees Becoming Lobbyists
“Revolving door” is a term commonly used to describe a potentially corrupting interrelationship between the private sector and public service. The term is used to describe three distinct transitions for individuals between the private sector and public service:
The Government-to-Lobbyist Revolving Door, through which former lawmakers and government employees use their inside connections and knowledge to advance the policy and regulatory interests of their industry clients.
The Government-to-Industry Revolving Door, through which public officials move to lucrative private sector roles from which they can use their public service and experience to compromise government procurement contracts and regulatory policy.
The Industry-to-Government “Reverse” Revolving Door, through which the appointment of industry leaders and employees to key posts in federal agencies may establish a pro-business bias in policy formulation and regulatory enforcement.
Each of these types of revolving door situations is subject to different statutory and regulatory restrictions.
This fact sheet discusses regulation of the government-to-lobbyist revolving door, which first took shape at the federal level with the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. This law called for a “cooling off” period between retiring as a senior governmental employee in the executive branch of government and representing private interests before executive agencies as a lobbyist. The cooling off period was expanded to include members of Congress and senior congressional staff about a decade later in the Ethics Reform Act of 1989.
Since that time additional statutory and regulatory constraints have addressed some of the problems and abuses associated with the government-to-lobbyist revolving door. These include conflict of interest restrictions on negotiating future employment while serving as a public official, lobbying on legislation in which the former public official played a substantial role in shaping, representing foreign interests and governments, as well as the cooling off period. Although there are similarities of revolving door restrictions applying to officers and employees of the Senate, the House and the executive branch, these restrictions do vary significantly between the two branches of government and the level of government service.
The revolving door of former government officials-turned-lobbyists raises at least two serious ethical concerns:
The revolving door can cast significant doubt on the integrity of official actions and legislation. A Member of Congress or a government employee could well be influenced in their official actions by promises of high-paying jobs in the private sector from a business that has a pecuniary interest in the official’s actions while in government.
Former government officials turned lobbyists bring with them special attributes developed while working as a public servant. They typically have developed a closed network of friends and colleagues still in government service that they can tap on behalf of their paying clients as well as insider knowledge of legislators and public officials, legislation and the legislative process not available to others. In effect, former officials can “cash in” on their experience as a public servant.
In order to minimize abuses, federal revolving door policies attempt to address both of these concerns: Reducing the conflict of interests that may arise in negotiating future employment while a public employee; and limiting the lobbying activities of former officials for a specified period of time after leaving public office.
Negotiating Future Employment
Conflict of interest laws and regulations governing when and how public officials may seek future employment are very different between the executive branches and Congress. These different restrictions are as follows:
Executive Branch Officials and Employees
Officers and employees in the executive branch, are generally prohibited from seeking future employment and working on official acts simultaneously, if the official actions may be of significant benefit to the potential employer.
Waivers may be granted to this prohibition for a number of reasons, as when the employee’s self-interest is “not so substantial” as to affect the integrity of services provided by the employee, or if the need for the employee’s services outweighs the potential for a conflict of interest, according to federal regulations.
The granting of waivers is the responsibility of the director of each executive agency, though the Office of Governmental Ethics (OGE) – the agency that oversees the code of ethics for the executive branch – offers guidelines for waivers.
Because of inconsistencies in the standards for granting waivers, President Bush issued an executive order on January 6, 2004, requiring that agencies first consult with the White House Office of General Counsel. Waivers are not formally public record, unless requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
2. Congressional Officials and Employees
Other than anti-bribery laws, for members of Congress and their staff:
No conflict of interest statute exists, similar to the executive branch, regulating negotiations of future employment.
Rules are described in the House and Senate code of ethics, which prohibit members and staff from receiving compensation “by virtue of influence improperly exerted” from their official positions.
The rules advise members and staff to recuse themselves from official actions of interest to a prospective employer while job negotiations are underway and for members to seek prior approval from the ethics committee about conducting such job negotiations. However, recusal is not mandatory and there is no system of waivers or public disclosure of these potential conflicts of interest.
Post-Government “Cooling Off” Period
Under criminal statutes, Members of Congress and the employees of both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government are subject to restrictions on post-government lobbying activities. These restrictions include:
One year “cooling-off” period on lobbying. Generally, former Members of Congress and senior level staff of both the executive and legislative branches are prohibited from making direct lobbying contacts with former colleagues for one year after leaving public service. Specifically:
Former members of Congress may not directly communicate with any member, officer or employee of either house of Congress with the intent to influence official action.
Senior congressional staff (having made at least 75 percent of a member’s salary) may not make direct lobbying contacts with members of Congress they served, or the members and staff of legislative committees or offices in which they served.
Former members of Congress and senior staff also may not represent, aid or advise a foreign government or foreign political party with the intent to influence a decision by any federal official in the executive or legislative branches.
“Very senior” staff of the executive branch, classified according to salary ranges, are prohibited from making direct lobbying contacts with any political appointee in the executive branch.
“Senior” staff of the executive branch, those previously paid at Executive Schedule V and up, are prohibited from making direct lobbying contacts with their former agency or on behalf of a foreign government or foreign political party.
Any former governmental employee, regardless of previous salary, may not use confidential information obtained by means of personal and substantial participation in trade or treaty negotiations in representing, aiding or advising anyone other than the United States regarding those negotiations.
Two-year ban on “switching sides” by supervisory staff of the executive branch. Senior staff in the executive branch who served in a supervisory role over an official matter that involved a specific party, such as a government contract, may not make lobbying contacts on the same matter with executive agencies for two years after leaving public service.
Life-time ban on “switching sides” by executive branch personnel substantially and personally involved in the matter. Senior staff in the executive branch who were substantially and personally involved in an official matter that involved a specific party, such as a government contract, are permanently prohibited from making lobbying contacts on the same matter with executive agencies.
The “cooling off” period applies only to making lobbying contacts with the restricted government agencies or personnel. As a result, a former public official or former senior government employee may research relevant issues, develop lobbying strategies and supervise those lobbying their former agencies or personnel immediately upon leaving office, so long as the former official does not make the actual lobbying contact during the cooling off period. The former official simply directs other lobbyists to make the contact.
News-washing: A trend that creates a populace unable to make decisions in its own best interests.
News-washing is a portmanteau of a similar vein to brain-washing. I created it to discuss the idea in which events take place that should be turned into news. The event should be described as accurately as possible, as devoid of emotional involvement as possible. This information should then be coupled with the potential ramifications to the people closest to the event, any witnesses and potential participants as well as how it will affect the circumstances locally. As news agencies propagate this information, the relationship of this information related to the people who are having the news distributed to them should be made relevant without distorting the event, or news about the event in relationship to the receiver of the news.
Though the graphic above is relatively self-explanatory I thought I would include how it came to be. In the military, I was trained as an observer, to be able to render an event in an ordered fashion, remaining aware of things like time, placement of people, resources, equipment and events. It is important because your life may depend on what happened in what order and a decision based on those observations can be critical. When I began working as a civilian with the police department, I discovered the ability of the average person to observe events varied widely.
Most people are NOT trained to be aware of how events unfold and during an interview with twenty people regarding an event, you will have twenty different accounts. This is why the police will take statements from everyone they can AND gather evidence to piece together what actually took place.
This is a similar process to what is done for news reporting except with one vital variation: The news grows less effective, less accurate and more distorted the further you are from the event. The best event is one where the journalist (the supposed objective and trained observer) sees it and hopefully without bias reports the event as it happens. Of course, film helps but is no guarantee of objectivity. But once the reporter has done their job, the news is subjected to an potential array of forces, postive and negative:
The editor is the first force that controls what is important is and how it is portrayed. They may decide to not report the event or to change the emphasis of the event.
The company’s particular slant on the news. If they have a company bias, or an organizational bias, the news article’s commentary may not reflect the event.
If it is an issue of national security, it may never see the light of day at all. The military may control what is seen or heard or may send misinformation if its in the “best interest of the nation.”
There may also be the conversion of news to propaganda if it serves national or corporate interests to do so.
The effectiveness of these tactics may also be augmented by the number of times the news is repeated, repetition is believed to build credibility even if it isn’t true.
Resonance is how news may be interpreted by viewers/readers with extensive backgrounds. Their interpretations can either cloud or make clear, important topics to the layreader.
Amplitude is the quality of that news service overall. Do they or are they known for producing news that is accurate, high quality and respected by others journalists, organisations or readers.
These six forces are the primary forces affecting our news today. As such, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know who is telling you what and why. So my advice is simple. TRUST NO ONE. Verify everything you can with as many reputable sources as you can. Treat news like you would Wikipedia. Everyone who writes in it isn’t your friend, or knowledgeable or for that matter has an objective point of view.
The hidden agendas of corporate media can lead to strange manipulations of how events may be seen. The chief force in this transformation of news media has been the 24 hour news cycle. Forced to report on news all day long, has made the media, hungry for topics, and often less responsible in these days of needing more news and having less staff, less resources and more responsibility for the bottom line.
News is supposed to hold people long enough for them to see commercials. That is the reality of your news corporations. It’s the primary reason news has become more like info-tainment rather than information.
Unfortunately, much of the world’s events, things that should make it into the mediasphere are instead hidden either as state secrets or corporate secrets held in collusion, often with the consent of governments.
I have watched as:
Information that should be in the mainstream media remains unseen or minimally reported
Information is watered down with less pertinent facts, personal opinion or through distribution agencies removing news elements via their corporate requirements.
Events that should be covered are completely ignored and only covered on smaller networks.
Events that have less significance are given greater news coverage.
Information from events is covered up, hidden or declared a state secret preventing it from becoming news for general consumption.
I am so suspicious of news media these days, I check and double check information I see everywhere. But since no source is perfect, it is good to have a variety of places to go to. Here is my short news source list. I will add to it when I get a moment. Share yours or dispute mine…
I am open to hearing how you think news-washing is accomplished and what we can do to get more news that isn’t in the hands of megacorporations or billionaires who control media, lock, stock and barrel. The best way to stay ahead of the curve is to be and remain informed. With that in mind, I want to close with an awesome monologue from The Newsroom. How many of the facts that get rattled off do YOU know personally? Brace yourselves. Reality isn’t pretty.