A Trip From Utopia to Distopia

Utopia: a place in which human society, natural conditions, etc., are so ideally perfect that there is complete contentment.

Dystopia: a community or society that is undesirable or frightening.

You can’t get much further away from the news than on the north shore of Montana’s largest water body, Fort Peck Lake. While cattle and bison graze the vast prairie above, the lake lies at much lower elevation and topography pretty much provides a natural blackout for modern communication devices. Besides, once you’re there, “civilization,” or what passes for it these days, seems very far away indeed.

Which is why, after eight incredibly peaceful days of camping and fishing, emerging on Election Day to nationwide riots, the National Guard loosed on citizens and cops cracking skulls while gassing protesters was, in every way, a quick voyage from utopia to dystopia.

Of course not everyone would define being in a place with no electricity, no potable water and no cell phone service as being “ideally perfect.” It’s just as likely that most people would prefer to still be sleeping when the meadowlarks start their loud, constant, but beautifully melodious songs as dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky. Nor would sitting in the middle of a 136-mile-long lake with lines in the water before the sun crests the horizon necessarily be their idea of “complete contentment.”

But for two old anglers very, very tired of the constant barrage of lies, distortions, environmental destruction and hate-mongering from Donald Trump and his administration, sitting in near silence surrounded by the enormous Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge with its elk, deer and antelope and not another human in sight was pretty dang close to heaven on earth.

When we left for home it wasn’t until we’d made our way back up the long gumbo dirt road to the plains that “the news” began to intrude on our reality — and truth is, what came in clearest on the truck radio was the Northern Ag Network, which was considerably more concerned with feeder cattle and pork belly futures than race riots.

As we drove the long, mostly empty road, details started to trickle in. My fishing buddy asked who George Floyd was, but neither of us knew, let alone understood that he had been murdered by a Minneapolis cop who kneeled on his neck and strangled his life away.

By the time we got home the enormity of the situation was revealed in horrific and all-too-familiar detail for those who grew up during the ’60s, with its race riots, Vietnam War protests and assassinations. It was like being in a time machine gone wrong that had thrown us back half a century to a very dark and divisive time in America’s history.

Only this time around, it seemed even more brutal as a president without a shred of empathy or understanding of constitutional limitations sought to unleash the military on his own citizenry — in spite of the Posse Commitatus Act that prohibits the use of federal military forces for domestic law enforcement.

As the days passed, the news got worse. The nation’s capital had been turned into a war zone, complete with new “security perimeter” fences surrounding the White House where Trump had been shuffled to a secure bunker fearful for his safety as protesters breached the barriers.

In short, we’re in it again — and deep in it. The question is: How do we get out of it? And for now, that question remains far from being answered in our polarized, violent and distinctly dystopian nation.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.