Friday, August 17, 2012

Freaky Friday #6 - The Police State

Pick up that can. (Half Life 2)

A camera zooms in on a teen with a can of spray paint. The poster, now a caricature of its former icon, is something the state cannot abide. A van rolls up, boots hit the pavement, and a can of spray paint rolls into the gutter. Before the sun rises, the mural is replaced, and all is as it should be.

The police state is an oft used trope in media and games. The conflict almost always exists as rebels fighting a large ominous entity that seems to have no conscience. Sometimes, it isn't a government, but a conglomerate or massive corporation that has bought control of a region. Other times, it is the slow seizure of rights that leads to a totalitarian takeover.

Though the trope itself is defined in the name, lets take a look at why it is effective. In America, we often look toward anything that limits freedom as being totalitarian and evil (even if we vote otherwise). In the police state, people become bound and confined to a life of servitude to a government or entity whose goal is only protecting itself.

Surviving the police state becomes a personal battle between the self and the whole. Many people, as history can attest to, do what is necessary to protect themselves, even if the acts are atrocious. When a certain threshold of tyranny is passed, resistance is birthed. In this resistance, we build the conflict for the story.

Movies like V for Vendetta or Equilibrium aren't exactly subtle in this. They have a clear and evil antagonist, who has many levels of cronies. There is a clear progression to the top, and the people can be set free when the power structure itself is decimated.

A scene from 2081, based on Vonnegut's short, Harrison Bergeron
Perhaps my favorite example of the police state comes form a Vonnegut short story called Harrison Bergeron. In the story, we are shown a world of “equality” where the strong are bound, the intelligent are made unable to think, and the handicapper's are free to roam without limitation. Even beauty is snuffed out with masks and so on. When Harrison, a mountainous man by any standard, breaks free of his bonds during a televised ballet performance, he, and a willing woman show the world what freedom and beauty looks like. They defy the state, and dance as free people. Then, they are promptly gunned down. By the end of the broadcast, people of intelligence are blasted with loud noises to make them forget what they have seen, and the cycle continues, forgotten in a few fleeting moments. (Check out the movie 2081, it is a masterpiece, and truly haunting).

The police state is a staple of fiction, and as our own government makes choices that look starkly totalitarian, expect the genre to become even more saturated. I'm personally a huge fan of the genre, so hit up the comments if you have any suggestions on books, movies, games, etc that cover this topic.

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