Stephen King’s Under the Dome, An Anti-Religious Right Political Allegory for Our Time by Christina Knowles

rennie-trump            I finally finished the 1,072-page Stephen King novel, Under the Dome, published in 2009. I started it over a year ago and lost interest about 400-pages in. I started watching the television show, which seemed nothing like the book and did not inspire me to continue reading. However, I am one of those people who cannot stand to abandon a book unfinished, so I recently picked it up again and started over from the first page. I am so glad I did, and I am glad that it was in the midst of this ridiculous election season that I completed it. I had no idea that it was a political commentary of the 2008 election season, and King’s criticisms are even more apt in this election year. Fair warning, this review contains spoilers, so read at your own risk.

under-the-dome            The super-short synopsis, just enough to paint a backdrop for this review, is that an inexplicable and impenetrable (except for a reduced air flow) dome descends suddenly over the small town of Chester’s Mill, blocking them off from the outside world. In a matter of a week, all hell has broken loose as one egomaniacal character decides, against democracy, to lead the people his way, which happens to be evil and corrupt. While some fall in line out of a false sense of security, others passively stand by, and a few actively resist.

Immediately, it struck me that King was influenced by two very classic tales and one dirty election season to write this novel. The first classic tale is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, wherein, a group of boys are marooned on an isolated tropical island with no adult supervision. Quickly, the island descends in to chaos when the democratically elected leader of the boys, Ralph, is challenged by a thug who decides he wants to be the leader, Jack. Ralph represents Barbie in the novel. Barbie is given leadership by the military leaders, who are monitoring things from outside the dome. Barbie cares about the people and is reluctant to take the leadership role, but takes on the responsibility for the good of the people. Jack represents Big Jim Rennie in the novel, an over-bearing egomaniac, who lets baser instincts rule and enjoys bullying weaker people around him, much like Jack bullies and finally kills Piggy with the help of his newly developed cult followers.

And this is where it begins to mirror the 2008, as well as the 2016, elections. In the novel, Barbie represents civil and intellectual leadership (President Obama), and Big Jim Rennie represents the Evangelical Republican Right. Throughout the novel, Big Jim Rennie talks disrespectfully about that president with the middle- eastern middle name and how he does not recognize his authority over Chester’s Mill. Sound familiar? Additionally, Rennie is a fundamentalist leader in the radical right wing church in Chester’s Mill. Rennie is corrupt, running a meth lab for profit, and justifies it by the good he does for the community and the church. Rennie thinks he and his cohorts are the only ones with a direct line to God and going to heaven, despite their heinous acts, including rape and murder. To Rennie, the ends justify the means, and he is able to excuse all his racism (his views on immigrants sound just like Trump’s), sexism (he treats women exactly like Trump does), and his disdain for the poor (sounds just like Romney and Trump). Oh, and Rennie makes fun of the handicapped and hates homosexuals too. Of course.

In Chester’s Mill, there are three main groups of people. The religious fanatics that resemble the Westborough Baptist Church. These people include Rennie and his misled and amoral followers. The next group are the members of the First Congregational Church of Chester’s Mill (the Congos, they are called in the community). This group is the “normal” religious folk, the ones who go to church and kind of believe, but are not dogmatic in their beliefs. They believe live and let live. The pastor is a woman who doubts the existence of God, but she continues to pray anyway. She is of one the good people, who eventually sides with Barbie against Rennie’s group. Also, in this group are the citizens who go to church outside Chester’s Mill, but are not fanatics. These include the Catholics. This is an obvious commentary on the Religious Rights’ influence on politics and their insistence on legislating based on their own beliefs, while the “normal” Christians are not so dogmatic, question their beliefs, and do not think they should force others to live by those beliefs. The non-fanatical Christians in Under the Dome, eventually side with Barbie.

The last group is the non-believers, of which Barbie, the protagonist, is one. The people who claim no religious beliefs and think the rules should be based on democracy and reason are the leaders on the moral side in Under the Dome. As a secular humanist, I really appreciated this divergence from mainstream stereotypes and its connection to recent politics. Barbie represents fairness and reason in the novel.

Julia Shumway, another protagonist and journalist, is the token “good Republican.” Barbie continually says to her, “You don’t seem like a Republican.” And she does not. She is reasonable, fair, and represents journalism. She backs Barbie and fights Rennie from the beginning. I believe she represents fiscal conservatives, who have reasonable views on social progress. Perhaps, she even represents Independents.

Rennie is willing to do anything to be in charge, and engineers smear campaigns to discredit Barbie and his followers over and over, and eventually resorts to violence. Finally, climate change and the environment become an important part of the novel after a fire breaks out, and the dome prevents the smoke from getting out and clean air from getting in. Throughout the novel, Rennie wants to keep the dome up because he likes his reign of terror and control over the people and does not want it to end, even though it’s killing them. He continues to deny that their environment is not sustainable.

Barbie constantly works toward solutions to conserve energy, maintain order and civility, and solve the environmental problem of the dome. These are obvious allusions to climate change deniers on the right. Rennie even talks about God delivering them and not allowing them to die from bad air. Barbie relies on science to work on the problem with Julia and another protagonist in the novel, Joe, a young sciencey teen. Do you think I’m imagining these political statements? No, they are very clear in many passages in the novel, but check out this one:

When Rennie is held up selfishly in a fallout shelter while people are dying all around him, one of his cohorts says, “’What if the air doesn’t clear. The TV said—?” and Rennie responds with a tirade of right-wing vitriol:

“’Oh, dear, the sky is falling, oh dear, the sky is falling!’ Big Jim Rennie declaimed in a strange (and strangely disturbing) falsetto. ‘They’ve been saying it for years, haven’t they? The scientists and the bleeding-heart liberals. World War III! Nuclear reactors melting down to the center of the earth! Y2K computer freezes! The end of the ozone layer! Melting ice caps! Killer hurricanes! Global warming! Chicken-dirt weak-sister atheists who won’t trust in the will of a loving, caring God! Who refuse to believe there is such a thing as a loving, caring God!’

Big Jim pointed a greasy but adamant finger at the younger man.

‘Contrary to the beliefs of the secular humanists, the sky is not falling. They can’t help the yellow streak that runs up their backs, son—“the guilty man flees where none pursueth,” you know, book of Leviticus—but that doesn’t change God’s truth: “those who believe on him shall not tire, but shall mount up with wings of eagles”—book of Isaiah. That’s basically smog out there. It will just take a while to clear out.’” But, of course, it doesn’t. Most of the town dies because of the air quality.

And under all this, there is another story going on, which relates to the second classic to which I referred earlier—The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” by Rod Serling. In “Monsters” an alien race experiment on a town by isolating them, cutting off the power, playing with them by turning on and off law mowers, etc. The fear cuts through the town until they turn on each other, the town descends in to chaos, and in fear, one of them shoots one of their own people. The chaos in Chester’s Mill is much like this. People begin fearing each other and lashing out without due process. This is made most obvious when Barbie and a fellow kind and reasonable person, Rusty, are imprisoned on trumped up charges, framed for the rapes and murders that Rennie and his son, Junior, commited, are beaten, and are to be executed without due process. The townspeople go along with it because they hear Rennie’s propaganda and believe the lies even though they are concerned and doubtful.

Like The Twilight Zone episode, it turns out that the dome is caused by alien children, who are keeping them covered like an ant farm, for their own amusement. The realization of this causes Julia and Barbie and their friends to think back on times when they were once the bully and the bullied, like ants under a magnifying glass. They each recount the feelings of standing by and watching while someone else bullied someone and they did nothing, and the experience of children, pulling off the wings of flies and subjecting ants to heat under a magnifying glass. Barbie remembers stopping because he realized that the ants “had their own little lives.” Julia recounts a humiliating memory of being beaten and stripped naked by a group of girls as a child. One girl came back and gave her a sweater to put around her to cover her nakedness. Because of this, they decide to beg for mercy from one alien child looking at them through the dome. Julia convinces the alien that “they have their own little lives” and immediately the dome rises from Chester’s Mill. King ends the book by speaking of Barbie reflecting on Julia’s childhood memory of the girl who gave her the sweater: “Pity was not love, Barbie reflected . . . but if you were a child, giving clothes to someone who was naked had to be a step in the right direction.” Ending the book on this note seems to me to be a call to care for one another, to end the cruelty, the selfishness, and have compassion on one another, something characteristically absent in both the 2008 and the 2016 divisive election seasons.

So, although this book took far too long to tell the story, what a story it tells. The allegorical characters and the allusions to our current situation are all too poignant. Do we really want a Lord of the Flies political system? Do we want a society where fear and fanaticism overrule science and reason? Do we want a Big Jim Rennie bullying women and the handicapped as President Trump? Without kind, ethical, reasonable leadership, we, as humans, tend to follower baser instincts, especially if that is the group mentality. This is an important message, and I thank Stephen King for delivering it to us in palatable way without toning down his obvious frustration with the radical right. And I believe it is telling that the network version of this book happened to leave out all the political details that make this book great. So, if you’ve seen the show, but haven’t read the book, take the time. It’s well worth it. Five out of Five stars.—Christina Knowles

Originally published in 2016

All quotes are from Stephen King’s Under the Dome. Published by Scribner, 2009.

Un-American by Christina Knowles

un-americanIf we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it. Yet, we don’t forget, and we still repeat it. Perhaps, the narcissistic tendency to justify all our personal actions sufficiently blinds us from our own reflection.

For the last century, America has boasted and puffed itself up as the greatest democracy that ever was, the shining city on a hill. We ignore America’s horrific past, the massacre of its native peoples, the brutal enslavement of a race brought here against their wills, the internment of loyal Americans because of their ethnicity, the oppression of women, the obliteration of civil rights during the Red Scare, the denial of civil rights to marginalized groups currently, and the continued conquests of world domination under the guise of aid. We blow out of proportion that which we do right: Our fierce determination, our stubborn independence,  our personal commitment to liberty, our strength against all odds, and our citizens’ numerous humanitarian efforts.

But our claim to fame is our beloved constitution, which really is our best redeeming quality. And, ironically we modeled that after the Iroquois Constitution and the Magna Carta, yet we insist on our originality. I love every concept in the Declaration of Independence and many of the beautiful words of our forefathers. They are admirable ideas, profound truths, and something to be proud of. I am patriotic regarding these things. I love my beautiful country. I love the rights I enjoy under our constitution. I love our spirit and our right and willingness to speak our minds. I love how most Americans are willing and eager to rush to someone’s aid, foreign and domestic. This is what it means to be American.

I am not un-American for recognizing the limits and flaws of Capitalism. I am not un-American for believing that affordable health care for all of our people is the very least our country can do for its citizens. I am not un-American for believing that we should take care of our elderly, and to believe they should not have to struggle to work until they die, poor and abandoned by the country they contributed to their whole lives. It is not un-American to expect more. It should be un-American to keep quiet in the face of injustice, to fail to fight for the human rights of others.

Instead, the fascists now in power would have us believe we are un-American if we do not worship Capitalism, hate our neighbors, crush those who cannot compete, and leave the weak to die in the streets.

But I will not be bullied into Nationalism. I will not be a flag-worshiping robot, insisting we can do no wrong. I don’t care if you think I am un-American because your definition of American is not who I want to be.

Interestingly, we are the only large democracy that obsesses over such Nationalistic terms. However, they were very common in highly oppressive Totalitarian states, such as Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union because dictators need blind patriotism in order to manipulate the masses, to turn otherwise decent people into bigoted ideologues that will do their bidding. This is Trump’s America, the next Totalitarian state.

Are we willing to see the truth of our own identity? Can we recognize ourselves in history’s mirror? Or will we repeat the mistakes of other countries that allowed themselves to be caught up in their own grand illusions, denying the possibility that we are too good to let these things happen while we stand idly by? Maybe it’s time to idealize kindness, compassion, liberty, and truth, instead of a flag, and then perhaps, that flag will mean something once again. I will always love America, yet I am not ashamed to be un-American.—Christina Knowles

Originally published in 2017

Redefining the American Dream by Christina Knowles

Snagged from entchina.com
Snagged from entchina.com

Lately I have been so discouraged by the sentiments expressed by people around me regarding those in need. I consider myself a liberal, but I find myself feeling more like a moderate in some ways when I hear the views of those around me. It seems most people I am around are either much more liberal in their views of the causes and plight of the poor or much more conservative and cynical in their views than I am. It occurs to me that that is the fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals—conservatives are too cynical and liberals are too idealistic. I think I’d rather be idealistic.

Often at work, surrounded by conservatives, I hear the poor discussed with such contempt. They say those who utilize social programs, who depend on government programs, are lazy and expect others to take care of them without lifting a finger to help themselves. This infuriates me. Do they realize how easy it is to lose everything and become homeless? How some people don’t have a support system in place if trouble arises through no fault of their own?

But then I went to a community discussion group comprised mostly of liberals and heard the opposite extreme, that it is never their fault, that no one chooses to live off of welfare, that everyone would rather work and take care of themselves. They have no responsibility for the hand life has dealt them. And I find myself annoyed with this thinking as well.

I think that it is often through no fault of their own that people fall on hard times and cannot pull themselves up and out without help, but I also think there are people who take no ownership of their problems and who would rather not work, but collect a check instead of working hard for inadequate wages they cannot live on anyway.

It seems to me that to really put a dent in the problem of poverty and homelessness in America, we have to decide what kind of people we want to be, reevaluate our values. This was once a country that promoted the idea that regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth, everyone had the same opportunities to succeed and raise his station in life. It has always been a myth that we have the “same” opportunity, but at least there was an opportunity. The truth is that every year, it becomes harder and harder to move up to a higher income class if not impossible. But forget moving up. We are struggling to stay in the one we are in. Every year we lose citizens from the middle class to the poor. We aren’t raising our stations; we are lowering them. Most of us are one catastrophe or illness away from poverty.

Look, I work hard to earn a living when I would rather stay at home and write poetry, so I know what it feels like to resent seeing someone standing on the corner collecting money for nothing. I know what it feels like to not be able to afford to go the doctor because I didn’t have enough in my account for the co-pay, but I made too much money to qualify for any assistance. For years I gave an extra few dollars on my utility bill to contribute to their Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP), but one month, when I was a single mom and couldn’t afford to pay my utility bill, they refused to help because I made too much money. I don’t begrudge help to those who are truly in need at all, but we need to do more to stop the middle class from sliding into that position. Sometimes it is easier to give up and be indigent and qualify for aid, rather than struggle as the working poor with no help.

When we get past the idea that poverty could never happen to us, then we may be more willing to support social programs to help others. When did we become so selfish? We won’t even help others unless we believe that we may need help someday. Of course, that is a gross generalization, but why such disdain for the poor among conservatives? I think it is a mixture of cynicism and a love for rugged individualism.

I also get really tired of hearing that liberals just want someone to take care of them. Well, I’m a liberal who hasn’t been out of work in almost thirty years. I am the hardest working person I know, putting in hours and hours of overtime every week with no compensation. That’s right, I’m a teacher, and I have never in my entire life expected something for nothing. In fact, I can’t stand the idea of someone else supporting me. I want my independence, and I like knowing I can pay my own way. But I also realize that life happens. I am not immune to the misfortunes of this world. I could get sick, unable to work. I could get laid off and be unable to find another job. I could lose my house and be out on the streets. I could get in a position where I couldn’t take a shower or get a clean set of clothes to even look for a job. When you’re homeless, what do you even put down for an address or a phone number on your application?

If you don’t have a support system in place, like family and friends who could give you a place to stay until you get on your feet, what would you do? I can hear the conservatives now. “There are shelters, resources, places to help them out.” Every time I hear this, Ebenezer Scrooge’s voice comes to me, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” Sure there is help, but do you know what it would take for a homeless person to take advantage of them? We have no decent transit system, and all these services are separate and far apart. How would you even find out about them? Pull out your iPad and Wi-Fi? I hear the response, “They could do it if they wanted to. They have to help themselves.” I kind of agree with this, but on the other hand, if you’ve been beat down by the system and life in general, will you even have the wherewithal to take on such a task? It would seem overwhelming.

Sure, I think, if it was me, I would pull myself out of it, but no one really knows how bad it is, and how we would react until put into that position.

So it seems to me that conservatives are overly harsh and cynical about the poor, and liberals are overly magnanimous and idealistic about them. What if there is an in-between? What if we expect them to help themselves, but we provide the jumpstart for them to do it? What if we made it more profitable to work even an unskilled, dead-end job than to collect welfare? But conservatives don’t even want to raise the minimum wage. They’re asking for people to go on welfare.

I am a Democratic Socialist, so most people think that means that I want everyone to have a free handout, take what you earned and give it to someone else. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In Socialism there are no free rides, no sitting back, doing nothing and collecting a check. Everyone works or they don’t get to participate in the system.

Here’s a scenario: I lose my job as a bookkeeper because I am no good at math. I don’t want to get kicked out of my house, and I like to eat, so I look for a job. The only experience I have is as a bookkeeper, but all my references say I’m not suited to this kind of work. No matter where I apply, no one will give me a job. I apply for government assistance. I qualify and am given a work assignment in a clothing factory that provides clothing to prisoners and orphans. I discover that I am good at sewing. I do a good job and my boss is happy, but I only make the government assistance minimum wage. I can live on it, but I’d rather make my old income and in a nicer environment, but at this kind of job that I like and am good at. My boss gives me an excellent reference, and I am hired by a trendy art-nouveau-type clothing manufacturer at the same pay I made as a bookkeeper. Why the same exact money? Because the hours of one human being’s life is equal to another’s. We want to believe that our pay is based on how hard we work, but do you really believe that? No, it is the profitable value we place on the service you provide. It has nothing to do with how hard you work. If it did, teachers would be the best paid people on the planet and corporate executives would make much less than cooks.

I hear the conservative voices in my head once again saying, “But what would be their incentive to work if not to make more money?” The incentive would be 1) to keep a roof over your head because you could still get fired if you don’t do your job well, and if you like your job, you want to keep it rather than exchanging it for something you may not, and 2) you would choose your job according to your natural talents or passions rather than how much it paid—this is the best reason to do it. If people get to work all day at what they love, they tend to put their heart and soul into it. Would you rather have a surgeon who had a passion for science and medicine and wanted to help people, or one who just wanted money and social position?

Oh, and you wanted to know who was just lazy and who really needed help? Well, here’s your solution. If they refuse to take the work assignment, they don’t get any assistance. In true Socialism, the community matters, not just the individual. The individual does well if the community does well, so there are no freeloaders. Now if someone is developmentally or physically disabled, they are given a job that they are able to do. The only people who would be exempt from a work assignment but could still get assistance would be the severely physically or mentally ill.

Socialists don’t want to take what’s yours. They want everyone to do their part, and care for each other when they need it. We want people to be valued as human beings instead of a bank account or earning potential. We think a street sweeper should have just as much respect as the executive of a bank or a doctor, and his life and his time are just as valuable and shouldn’t have a monetary value placed on them. If a person works 40 hours per week, then he should be able to live as comfortably as anyone else who works 40 hours a week. But I think Americans work too much anyway. Thirty to thirty-five hours would be healthier and more productive.

And education should be free, so those who are apt to achieve academic success can do so without being drowned in debt for the rest of their lives. They can give back to the community by serving as doctors, scientists, and teachers because they love it, not for money but for passion. Socialism isn’t about everyone being the same and not standing out, just equally valued. Free education would truly level the playing field so that regardless of the circumstances of your birth, you would have the same chance to follow your dreams as anyone else. Only your motivations and natural abilities, or lack thereof, would affect your achievement.

Sure, no one would be rich and no one would be poor. Money never made anyone happy. In excess, it is only used to control and oppress others anyway. But this would never happen in America anyway. Democratic Socialists don’t advocate for forced, all-or-nothing change. We can balance things without completely ridding the world of Capitalism. We can support workers, small businesses, and create a safety net that is good for everyone and still be the land of the free, still celebrate entrepreneurship and personal innovation.

The conservative voice in my head asks, “But isn’t that Totalitarianism? Weren’t the Nazis Socialists?” No, actually they were Fascists and just called themselves Socialists. At most they were a distorted dictatorial socialism. It’s true that in Socialism, the government plays a large role and has to regulate many things, taxes would be higher, and the money collected would pay for many of things we need but cannot now afford like complete and continuous health care coverage, education, and public recreation and transit. But in Democratic Socialism, the people are the government. We would need a true democracy to pull it off—none of this republic rubbish, where those we elect do not represent us at all. We would decide how to spend our money. The popular vote would suffice for most things, but before the conservative voice tells me that the 49% can be enslaved by the 51%, understand that constitutional protections of civil liberties would make that impossible. Civil liberties should never be up for popular vote.

But even if Democratic Socialism isn’t your thing, let’s at least admit that Capitalism breeds greed and encourages contempt for the poor. I believe Capitalism causes poverty, at least our crony capitalistic plutocracy does. It doesn’t create jobs; it creates indentured servants and gradually worsens their conditions, hoping they won’t notice, and finally sends their jobs overseas to those who cannot afford to refuse them. We are undoing everything that the labor movement fought to improve for some fantasy ideal popularized by Ronald Reagan and his “trickle down theory.” I think after waiting thirty-plus years for it to work, we can try something else now. In fact, Reaganomics pretty much caused the banking crisis and the bailout of the banking system by deregulating them in the eighties as well as increasing the deficit by practically eliminating the corporate tax burden. Yet, he is lauded by conservatives as a great president because he could deliver a patriotic speech with sincerity. And I do believe he was sincere, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue his failed policies forever.

In 1931 James Truslow Adams coined the term The American Dream when he wrote “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” This original version wasn’t bad, but it has evolved into much worse. When I ask my students to tell me what the American Dream is, they usually respond with “To get rich,” or the more realistic ones say, “To have a house, a good job, and provide comfortably for a family.”

But we have moved past the image of a middle class home with a white picket fence, two cars in the garage, two children, a pet, and a retirement account. Today in the light of a struggling economy and tough job market, the dream may look more like affording a decent apartment. having health insurance, and worrying about the future later.

Although Adams coined the phrase, the ideals behind the expectation of life for Americans have been around since the Declaration of Independence was signed, or maybe even since the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock. All those who come to America have certain expectations and dreams. Those born in America seem to have expectations, but they are more unconscious, and therefore, even harder to attain.

It’s time we redefined the dream and our values along with it. We need a definition of the American Dream that we can be proud of, one that embodies valuing people instead of profit margins and defines happiness and contentment as success rather than fat bank accounts. How would you define the American Dream for modern times? I have an idea for how I’d like to define it:

1) A land where every person, regardless of race, country of origin, gender, religious belief or lack of it, regardless of sexual orientation, and regardless of political or philosophical view 2) would have the same opportunities available to them should they choose to grasp them. 3) They would only be inhibited by their own natural skills and abilities and by their own inclinations and motivations, 4) and their social class at birth would have no bearing on their chances of success 5) to pursue happiness in any way they saw fit that 6) did not infringe upon the rights of others to do the same and did not endanger society or the people therein. 7) A land wherein such people would have guaranteed civil liberties under a constitution of their own design, 8) and all other issues arising, not considered civil liberties, would be subject to a popular vote.

This is how I see the American Experiment. This seems like what America should care about, and it’s very similar to the ideals of our founding fathers whom my conservative friends are so apt to quote. Isn’t this the heart of their intentions? Certainly not the worship of money and the subjugation of the poor. If they were here to see their precious experiment in self-governing torn asunder by corporate lobbyists and super PACS, they would probably redefine it too.

And to my conservative friends, stop acting like you are against big government involving themselves in our lives when you support controlling a woman’s body, forcing religious views on the non-religious, and entering every conflict around the world. Your definition of government seems to be of the corporation, for the corporation, by the corporation. Democratic Socialism encompasses the true intentions of the our forefathers by embodying the ideals of the people, not corporations, as the government.—Christina Knowles

Updated: October 16, 2015

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