Barack Obama has been sprint ing so rapidly to the center that we need binoculars to find progressive ideas in the 2008 election.
So I was open to Looking Back From 2101 (Xlibris) by Steve Halpern. Based on Edward Bellamy’s 1887 novel Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887, the Halpern book imagines a Philadelphia factory worker awakened from a 104-year trance to discover a socialist utopia in 2101.
Mr. Halpern, 55, is a one-time Philadelphia punch-press operator and tool and die maker who belonged to the United Auto Workers Union and also worked in patient transport and housekeeping at a local hospital. He calls himself a communist who supports the Socialist Workers Party, a merger of the Socialist and Workers parties.
Looking Back won’t win awards for spelling, punctuation or proofreading. Moreover, as you might expect from the author’s résumé, his lockstep Marxism will upset many readers, including this one. In Mr. Halpern’s ideal society, there are no jails because criminals are taken aside, shown “how rewarding life is” and reintegrated into society. Nor are there advertising agencies, banks, corporations, law firms, insurance agencies or, for that matter, the profit motive, because money no longer exists. Instead, people get credits, with extra credits for good performance occasionally awarded by their fellow workers. Jobs are allocated by committees. One of the characters calls the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico “an American colony” and describes Cuba as “a democratic dictatorship of working people.”
That said, some aspects of Mr. Halpern’s world do offer a model for constructive change or get you thinking creatively. Not only are children given healthy food at school, they’re also shown how to prepare it to taste good. I couldn’t help considering my own off-season region, the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts, and its hordes of overweight college students. Why don’t our leaders emphasize nutrition and exercise in particular and preventive medicine in general at the top of their health-care priorities? Senator Obama has mentioned the subjects, but he needs to make specific recommendations. Like mandatory physical education classes that give students an aerobic workout five days a week. Like a requirement to list calories for every restaurant food item.
In the Halpernian universe, trees are planted everywhere to produce oxygen and reduce pollution. Farmers get desalinated water pumped to their crops. These good ideas prompt me to wonder how many companies could be created to foster green technology.
Mr. Halpern’s train service is so efficient that people don’t need to own cars. Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch in 21st-century America, but ask yourself these questions: “Do I enjoy driving and flying? Do I have happy memories of trains?” Then ask yourself, “Why don’t the candidates recommend silver-bullet trains as a means for combating high gas prices and the energy crisis?” Don’t hold your breath for John McCain, because he’s a one-man wrecking crew of everything Amtrak. Improving train service should be a no-brainer for Mr. Obama.
In Mr. Halpern’s world, workers with mind-deadening jobs are given special respect. You’ve probably said, “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that kind of work.” Well, how about paying these laborers the same kind of differential people routinely get for working night shifts or overtime? In Looking Back, there are no dress codes, nor the quintessentially American deification of youth, beauty, celebrity and money. Athletes and entertainers are treated like any other workers. What’s more, everyone is on a first-name basis to promote equality, so protagonist Harry Goldberg chats with people from all walks of life. Right on, brother! I have long felt that the obligation to use titles like doctor, general or senator confers too much status and intimidates people who don’t hold them. If ordinary people were held in greater respect, their ideas would be, too.
What impressed me most was the altruism of Mr. Halpern’s characters. Contrast them with Thomas Paine’s Sunday soldiers and sunshine patriots who shrank from service in a crisis. Today these people would wear flag lapels while sending off someone else’s kids to fight and die in the Middle East. In Looking Back, everyone thinks first about how to serve society and the world. Are we too cynical to imagine that?
Maybe not. In his commencement address at Connecticut’s Wesleyan College, Barack Obama asked people to think of service before self (the motto of that subversive organization I belong to, Rotary International). Referring to the stricken Ted Kennedy, he said, “Surely if one man can achieve so much and make such a difference in the lives of so many people, then each of us can do our part. Surely if his service and his story can forever shape America’s story, then our collective service can shape the destiny of this generation.”
Barack Obama is neither a socialist nor a communist, and I’m not either. But it’s important to question our beliefs constantly, put facts above ideology and listen to different viewpoints. That’s why I read this radical book and regularly have lunch with a conservative friend.
And that’s why I even entertain utopian ideas for an existential world.
Gazette bridge columnist Jim Kaplan lives in Vineyard Haven and Northampton, where he is a member of Northampton’s Democratic City Committee.