I remember Beth telling us that when she started teaching the Parables in her INTD, most students didn’t find the novels that realistic. But only six years later, her students generally agreed that the Parables were realistic possibilities of our future. Drawing connections between Butler’s post-apocalyptic future and our current society, here are a few ways that Lauren Olamina’s world isn’t that far away from our own:
My post, “That Sustainability Question,” discusses the current water crisis in California and how this crisis affects people on both the West and East coasts. In California, Governor Jerry Brown has proposed fines of up to 10,000 dollars per day to those who do not reduce their water usage by 25% in the next year. If you think this problem is isolated to those on the West coast—you’re wrong. California produces up to 99% of certain produce in America, such as artichokes and walnuts, and over 60% of almost all produce in America comes from California. While this is just a small sample of the detriments of the California water crisis, “That Sustainability Question” takes a much more in-depth look at the water shortage.
The water shortage has a very obvious connection to disaster response in Parable of the Sower: if you have money, you can afford to pay the fire department to put out fires. If you don’t have money, you’re out of luck. It’s scary to think that you could lose all of your personal belongings and family members in a house fire simply because you couldn’t afford the water to put out the fire—which is exactly what some of the characters in Parable of the Sower experience. But the citizens of Robledo aren’t the only people who face this disaster; as Naomi Klein points out in her essay “Rapture Rescue 911: Disaster Response for the Chosen,” those who “live in the wealthiest ZIP codes in the country” have access to a fire protection company named “Firebreak Spray Systems.” Those who receive this service pay “an average of $19,000 to have their homes sprayed with fire retardant.” If a wildfire broke out near your home, Firebreak would come to your home with a fire truck and put out the fire—but only for paying members. Klein quotes a Firebreak firefighter when he states, “There were a few instances…where we were spraying and the neighbor’s house went up like a candle,” and the Firebreak agency did nothing. In another essay by Klein, “Disaster Capitalism: The New Economy of Catastrophe,” Klein asserts that many Americans either willingly paid for their evacuation from hurricane Katrina by private agencies, or were forced (for a time) to pay the government for their evacuation. Those who could not afford to be evacuated became subjects of the “images of people stranded on rooftops in New Orleans” that “foreshadow a collective future of disaster apartheid.”
Access to medical resources
Hand in hand with disaster capitalism is the serious failure of our state to provide all citizens with adequate access to healthcare. Doctors in the Parable world are rare—and having access to one is even rarer because most doctors close themselves off from the outside world. Acorn succeeds for as long as it does partly because Bankole is present to provide medical care to those who are injured. Most other enclaves aren’t that lucky, and people in slums outside of the enclave have no chance to receive healthcare. Similarly, a study published by the American Journal of Public Health determined that in 2009, 45,000 Americans died annually in association with a lack of health insurance, and according to an article in the “Harvard Gazette,” this number increased from 18,000 deaths due to lack of health care in 2002. This change could be a result of the disappearing middle class, as more and more people can no longer afford healthcare. Certainly, however, it is clear that the number is increasing and that actions must be made to improve accessibility to health services. Additionally, the article states that “uninsured, working-age Americans have 40% higher death risk than privately insured counterparts.” That our society’s access to healthcare for lower-class citizens is very similar to that of an imagined post-apocalyptic future is unacceptable.
In some instances where people can afford health care—specifically for abortions—they are prevented from exercising their constitutional right by religious extremists. Issues with the lack of religious freedom permeate the Parable novels—from Lauren’s father allowing only his own religion to be preached, to Lauren herself enforcing the Earthseed religion, and President Jarret’s witch-hunt for non-Catholics—Butler repeatedly demonstrates how religious intolerance can break apart a society. In just the past week, a Muhammad cartoon-drawing contest was held in Garland, Texas by Pam Geller and her “American Freedom Defense Initiative”—a group “recognized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.” While I am certainly not justifying the actions of the shooters, writer Christopher Knight claims that by hosting the event, Pam Geller solidified her status as “a staunch supporter of the cherished American freedom to do something stupid,” and later asserted that perhaps the only reason someone would want to draw Muhammad is “to pump up the hate.” I must reiterate, I am not justifying the shooting. However, I am trying to call attention to the contest’s blatant disrespect for the Muslim religion. Problematically, for most Americans this event will not paint a picture (no pun intended) of the intolerant American, but instead will paint a picture of the Muslim extremist/terrorist. Very few Americans are aware that 94 percent of terrorist attacks are committed by non-Muslims, and in 2013, Americans were more likely to be “killed by a toddler than a terrorist.” To return to my previous comment about abortion clinics, 20% of clinics are attacked by Christian terrorists—but they are never labeled as “Christian terror attacks,” perhaps because white, God-fearing Americans cannot be terrorists?
Public education in the Parable novels is essentially non-existent. Lauren’s education depended on her stepmother’s school and the other adults of the enclave who saw the value of educating their children. And like resources to disaster and healthcare, people on the outside of the enclave had no chance of gaining an education. And even for those who did receive an education, the likelihood of receiving what we consider a quality and complete high school education is unlikely—and anything beyond high school is probably impossible. While public education is a constitutional right for all American citizens, the quality of education for some students is so poor that it is almost non-existent. According to a list of statistics about the education of poor children, one poor school district only has “one book for every 300 children.” While this is obviously a very extreme outlier, one cannot write this community off as an outlier and ignore the detriments of poverty on this community’s education. More universally, children in poverty have greater rates of absenteeism, partly because of a lack of access to healthcare, and also because they may have to work to support their family. Education for non-white students in poverty becomes even worse: “by the end of the 4th grade, African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students are already 2 years behind grade level. By the time they reach the 12th grade they are already 4 years behind.” While initiatives like No Child Left Behind are making a sincere effort to improve education, they fail to reach the root of the problem: poverty. If school districts simply don’t have the money to purchase necessary technologies and books, or hire more qualified teachers, education cannot improve.
In addition to the struggle of receiving a good education while in an impoverished community, many students also miss out on educational opportunities because of the power of gangs in their community. I don’t think much needs to be said about the devastation caused by gang violence in the Parable novels: Lauren’s community is destroyed and her family is murdered in Parable of the Sower. Her brother is subjected to torture and rape. And in Parable of the Talents, Lauren’s new community is once again destroyed at the hands of gangs—whether they are labeled as gangs or not. For those local to Geneseo or from other small, somewhat-rural communities like me, we may not be exposed to gang violence; however, “86% of US cities with a population of 100,000 or more report gang activity.” Additionally, in 2011 the FBI discovered that there were 33,000 violent gangs in the US, “with more than 1.4 million members.” The study noted that 1.4 million was a 40% increase from 2009, and gangs are now “participating in more non-traditional crimes such as prostitution, alien smuggling and human trafficking, identity theft, and mortgage fraud.” These “non-traditional” crimes don’t sound that different from the debt slavery and collars forced upon people in the Parable novels.
I’ve recently spent a lot of time pondering the spatial differences between the walled enclave and the outside of the Parable novels. More specifically, I’ve pondered how sexual violence and rape are used to perpetuate the different spaces of the relatively safe and wealthy enclaves and the outside with its poverty and threat of sexual violence. In Butler’s dystopian future, the government’s refusal to enforce laws that prevent and/or punish rape posits rape as a form of state-supported violence. This violence is primarily present outside of enclaves, because enclaves in the novel are generally made up of a close-knit community of families, whereas the outside is essentially an anarchist state. Thus, the state fetishizes wealth: those within the relative wealth of the enclave are generally protected from rape (not by the government, but by the community), but those who do not have the wealth to enter an enclave are not worth protecting. The rape culture of the Parable novels also reinforces prejudices against the “other” because the threat of rape from the outside reinforces the enclave’s commitment to closure from the outside and encourages criminalization of outsiders because their location in society is associated with sexual violence. While this may seem entirely different from the rape culture of our society, by positing the university campus as an enclave, one can see multiple similarities between the rape culture of the Parables and our own rape culture.
In an article on “The Feminist Wire” titled “Why On Earth Do We Let Colleges and Universities “Handle” Their Own Rape Cases,” Kari O’Driscoll pulls no punches about the problems of college rape laws. Her title says it all: allowing college and university laws to dictate punishment (or lack thereof) of rape is a severely flawed system. While many colleges and universities are simply not equipped with the resources to investigate charges of rape (O’Driscoll makes the point that if you were raped in your grocery store, you wouldn’t ask the store to investigate the crime), another reason why colleges shouldn’t handle rape cases is because it allows wealthy rapists—those whose families donated large sums to the university— to go relatively unpunished. In one instance, a male rapist at Columbia University whose father donated between 10,000 and 25,000 dollars to the University received a one month suspension before returning to college. A one semester suspension for a man who confessed to raping the victim. In the same way that rape in the Parable novels fetishized wealth because it meant protection from rape, our society fetishizes wealth in an even worse way: it fetishizes wealth in a way that protects the wealthy from punishment for committing rape. While there has been push-back to the idea of involving police in the investigation of college rape cases, one thing is for certain—if campuses are to remain in charge of handling rape, much more concrete terms of punishment must be established that do not discriminate based on wealth.
Anyone outside of an enclave in the Parable novels can be considered homeless due to the lack of businesses such as motels and apartments that traditionally provide people who are not homeowners with a place to live. In our real life Los Angeles, gentrification has created a similar effect; by eliminating “cheap hotel rooms, motels and single-room apartments that were once the last resort of the poor,” and because LA does not have homeless shelters like New York, most of LA’s “destitute sleep under freeway bridges, along off-ramps, and in sidewalk shanty towns.” In LA County alone, homelessness has increased by 12% in the past two years, and as of today, 44,359 people are homeless–up from 39,451 in LA County in 2013. Gentrification poses a huge problem because it not only eliminates many spaces where homeless could traditionally find shelter and relative safety, but it also creates a more dense homeless community as well as a more clear divide between wealthy, gentrified enclaves and poor, homeless communities. Ending gentrification and creating cheap, affordable housing could potentially prevent the establishment of enclaves like those in the Parables as “the norm.”
While these are certainly not the only similarities between real life and the Parable novels, these are the eight similarities I decided to write about. My goal was not to write a depressing blog post, but rather to inspire people to take action to help fix these problems. With proper action, all of these problems can be fixed. For example, book drives can help to remedy issues with education, creating more strict campus rape laws can end the fetishization of wealth as well as the bodily/structural violence of rape, and being more conscientious about one’s water usage and carbon footprint can help to end the water crisis in California. These problems are fixable—people just need to put in an honest effort to fix them.