That Hideous Strength. By C.S. Lewis
MEN DEHUMANIZE OTHERS VIA THE MISUSE OF 'SCIENCE'
Sham journalism, fake news, engineered social chaos, destruction of property, incipient totalitarian rule, serial misuse of the word science — it sounds a lot like America in 2020. It’s also the fictional fabric of That Hideous Strength (1945), the final installment in C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. The novel follows the moral descent and recovery of Mark Studdock, a promising young professor of the “Progressive Element” at the fictitious University of Edgestow in the imagined years following the Second World War. A sociologist by training and an academic by temperament, Mark is recruited by the influential Lord Feverstone to join the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), a prestigious fledgling organization of top-tier scientists that has recently moved into Edgestow, a quaint English village, the size and beauty of which are quickly crushed by the institutional juggernaut. When the university sells land to the N.I.C.E. and invites the Institute to be incorporated into the university, no one at Edgestow is quite sure what the N.I.C.E. is or intends to do once arriving on campus. However, the fact that the N.I.C.E. involves the bustling work of scientists, worshiped back in the 1940s as much as they are today, is enough to earn it a collegiate warm welcome.
As Mark’s recruitment unfolds, he discovers that the N.I.C.E. is Britain’s “first attempt to take applied science seriously from the national point of view.” The Institute marks the beginning of a new era, he is told, “the really scientific era” — an era in which science will become the national idol. The N.I.C.E. is ostensibly an “instrument” that intends to use “science” to solve social problems — the unemployment problem, the cancer problem, the housing problem, the problems of currency, of war, of education — all backed by the full force of the state. In other words, Feverstone explains, the N.I.C.E. will use the justification of “science” (or, more accurately, that which it passes off as science) to control the social order, to “create a new type of man.” How to get there? “At first — sterilization of the unfit, liquidation of backward races, selective breeding. Then the real education, including pre-natal education,” Feverstone says. “It’ll have to be mainly psychological first. But we’ll get onto biological conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain.”
Mark is fascinated. The aims of the N.I.C.E. appear to align perfectly with his own moral and sociological convictions, and the implicit promise of power and control is irresistible, especially since Mark can rationalize that it’s all for the betterment of society and the evolutionary improvement of mankind — at least from his leftist perspective, a perspective Lewis takes great care to satirize with light-hearted humor. At the same time, Mark is perhaps too young, too naïve, and too inexperienced with the wiles of the world to realize that the same “power and control” that tempt him will necessarily become his own moral straitjacket, one that will force him to keep doing the bidding of the N.I.C.E. no matter what immoral path the Institute’s “science” will lead him down, no matter what moral misgivings might begin to prick even his ill-formed conscience.
Eventually, Mark realizes that he’s been brought on to the N.I.C.E. not as a sociologist to “do science” but as a professional propagandist, one whose duty is to camouflage the Institute’s motivations and goals by writing misleading “articles for the educated in the papers read by educated people” since, as it is explained to him, “it’s the educated reader who can be gulled…. They’ll believe anything.” In fact, says Feverstone, the so-called educated class has been “conditioned” so well that it couldn’t stop reading the high-brow papers if it wanted to, a situation not dissimilar to NPR listeners, CNN watchers, and New York Times readers of our own day who take their filtered “news” as daily gospel. If they hear it on NPR or read it in The Times, they believe it. No questions asked. As for the men and women of Lewis’s postwar working class, they take it for granted that the news articles are propaganda and skip right to the football scores. It will be more work to recondition the proletariat, Feverstone admits. But once the “educated” fall in line, everyone else will eventually follow along like good sheep.
Mark has no experience as a propagandist but he’s a quick study, put under the tutelage of Fairy Hardcastle, chief of the N.I.C.E.’s institutional police force, a kind of fledgling Gestapo. First Mark learns that he must habituate himself to abusing the word science. By doing so, he will find it easy to justify and garner support for even the most sordid and unpalatable plans, and that includes placing universal restrictions on civil liberties — all, of course, “for the sake of the common good.” According to N.I.C.E. wisdom and the folk wisdom of our own time: Who could possibly object if we’re just “following the science”? And those who do object will be relegated to the genus of anti-science bumpkin, blamed for obstructing societal progress out of selfishness, ignorance, and misplaced piety.
Though Mark struggles with this transition from academic social scientist to his new role as “journalist” (as he calls himself), he finds intrinsic satisfaction once he realizes the influence of his words. Formerly, his articles appeared only in learned periodicals read by a handful of his academic peers, but now his N.I.C.E propaganda is read by millions. How does Mark suddenly have access to all the major British newspapers? The N.I.C.E., of course. The Institute feeds publishers and editors a steady diet of cash that allows the N.I.C.E. to control the news any way it desires. In effect, it controls all the nation’s newspapers but one — and the one that can’t be bought off is crushed by a N.I.C.E.-engineered printers’ strike.
Little by little, Mark sheds what few scruples he has in order to create news stories designed to manipulate public opinion in the N.I.C.E.’s favor. However, the turning point in his propaganda career comes when Chief Hardcastle wants Mark to write about a riot in Edgestow — a riot that hasn’t happened yet, a riot that will be engineered by the N.I.C.E. in order to vilify the locals. Up to this point, since the N.I.C.E.’s arrival on campus, the thousands of N.I.C.E.-contracted construction workers who have moved in to Edgestow have wreaked havoc on the town’s daily life. The locals, who figured the Institute workmen were there simply to construct a building, are furious to discover that the plan includes deforestation of the trees surrounding the town, the destruction of a centuries-old Norman church, the requisition of some residential homes, and even the diversion of the Wynd River, along which the town was built two hundred years earlier. The influx of N.I.C.E. personnel into town has also created unwieldy crowds and an astronomical increase in crime and violence.
In just the first few days of the Institute’s arrival, there is an “indecent assault” on one of the main streets, two “beatings-up” in a pub, and dozens of complaints of threatening and disorderly behavior. Curiously, none of the N.I.C.E.-induced violence is reported in the daily London newspapers or even in the local Edgestow Telegraph — precisely because it does not fit the institutional narrative. Instead, residents are surprised to read in the Telegraph that the new Institute is “settling down very comfortably in Edgestow and the most cordial relations [are] developing between the N.I.C.E. and town natives” — the exact opposite of the reality Edgestow residents have witnessed, reminding the 2020 reader of the rioting, looting, arson, and destruction of statues and monuments that took place in many major American cities throughout the summer this year, all of which was universally described by the likes of NPR, CNN, and The New York Times as “peaceful protests” in response to “systemic police racism” following the death of George Floyd, a convicted criminal who, according to the autopsy report, died of “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression” (he had fatal levels of Fentanyl in his body).
Back to Mark. He is now called upon not merely to twist or manipulate the news to curry public favor but to concoct the news itself. Since beginning his tenure as a N.I.C.E. propagandist, this riot assignment is the first thing he has been asked to do that he clearly knows is unethical and immoral. Mark is navigating the slippery slope, well on his way to becoming a bona-fide scoundrel. The purpose of his editorialized news copy is to create a reason for deploying the N.I.C.E. police force to Edgestow to replace the local police, whom he portrays as unequal to the task of keeping the peace. As Hardcastle makes clear, the N.I.C.E. wants absolute control of every aspect of the town. The modus operandi is to engineer chaos so that “emergency regulations” might be put into place — again, all for a contrived “sake of the common good.”
In his first concocted article about the riot, Mark writes, “If any doubt as to the value of such a force existed, it has been amply set at rest by the episodes at Edgestow…. But for the N.I.C.E. Police, things would have taken quite a different turn.” In his second article, a blustering editorial, he opines, “We expect from [the N.I.C.E.] a brighter, cleaner and fuller life for our children, in which we and they can march ever onward and onward and develop to the full urge of life which God has given each one of us. The N.I.C.E. is the people’s instrument for bringing about all the things we fought for [in the Second World War].” Mark’s overall argument is that no honest citizen would ever stand in the way of these “virtuous” N.I.C.E. goals; to do so would be anti-social and unpatriotic.
Not content simply to concoct news for the sake of manipulating public opinion, Mark also vilifies the opposition — the longtime local residents — by imputing to them false motives and false actions. In one of his “fake news” articles, Mark makes it sound as if the riot had been engineered not by the N.I.C.E. but by local residents who object to the Institute’s presence in Edgestow. “I say these disturbances have been engineered,” Mark writes. “The people of England are not going to stand this. We are not going to have the Institute sabotaged. What is to be done at Edgestow? I say put the whole place under the Institutional Police…. It doesn’t make sense to expect these poor old Bobbies to deal with an engineered riot. Last night the N.I.C.E. police showed that they could. Give them a free hand and let them get on with the job.”
It is worth noting that Lewis’s descriptions of the Edgestow riot bear a distinct resemblance to the riots that broke out this summer in Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, New York, Kenosha, and other cities across the U.S., with the throwing of bricks, the looting of shops, the attacking of local cops, and the setting of bonfires in the streets. But Edgestow, unlike our contemporary American cities, had the N.I.C.E. police force directing hapless residents into the fray, instead of away from it. In other words, the N.I.C.E. police were not breaking up the riot or stopping the looters; they were corralling residents into the riot areas so they could be victimized by the N.I.C.E. workmen (mercenary barbarians, to be more accurate), who were being well paid to destroy local businesses and assault anyone who objected.
Fifty miles from the scene of the chaos, back at N.I.C.E. headquarters, Mark enjoys reading his own accounts of the riot in the morning papers as well as seeing the influence of his concocted news stories: “All agreed that the government would follow the most unanimous opinion of the nation (as expressed in the newspapers) and put it temporarily under control of the Institutional Police.” But it isn’t until the following day, when Mark returns to Edgestow, that he sees firsthand just how effective his articles have been at whitewashing the truth. At a pub just outside town, Mark witnesses a long line of families carrying belongings on their backs: “These were the refugees from Edgestow. Some had been turned out of their houses, some scared by the riots and still more by the restoration of order. Something like a terror appeared to have been established in the town.” Mark overhears some of the pub patrons describe what has happened, and what strikes him most deeply is their complete absence of indignation and their lack of sympathy for the refugees. Everyone at the pub knows of at least one outrage that has recently occurred in Edgestow, but all agree that these refugees must be greatly exaggerating their predicament. “It says in this morning’s paper that things are pretty well settling down,” relates the bartender, referring to one of Mark’s own articles. Others respond that it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for those residents since, as it says in the newspapers, they brought it all on themselves by engineering the riot. Clearly, Mark’s manufactured narrative has become, for them, reality.
A little later, when Mark walks into Edgestow, he finds the whole town wearing a new expression. One house out of three is empty. About half the shops have their windows boarded up. Many of these have been requisitioned and bear white placards with the N.I.C.E. symbol: a muscular, nude male grasping a thunderbolt. At every street corner saunters the N.I.C.E. police: helmeted, swinging their clubs, with revolvers in holsters on their black, shiny belts. And “Emergency Regulations” notices are posted everywhere, bearing the signature of Lord Feverstone.
This is the turning point in Mark’s life. Realizing what he’s become as an institutional propagandist and how he’s contributed to the destruction of the town and the livelihood of many of its residents, he attempts to leave the N.I.C.E. But the Left can be brutal even to its own, and one doesn’t just leave an organization such as the N.I.C.E. with impunity. Every one of the Institute’s manipulative tactics is now turned on him: He is framed for a murder he didn’t commit; he is blackmailed, threatened, and psychologically abused with the intent to “recondition” him, much in the same way Big Brother’s goons move to recondition Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (published, by the way, four years after Lewis’s That Hideous Strength).
In the dystopic vein of Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Ray Bradbury, Lewis’s morality tale explores the perennial desire for man to enslave man through a dehumanizing state apparatus. Unlike the other dystopian classics, however, That Hideous Strength is primarily satire, ridiculing academic politics, sham journalism, and the misuse of “science,” to name a few of Lewis’s targets. And it works not only as satire for Lewis’s original 20th-century postwar audience; it’s relevant as an indictment of aspects of our own age. Information technology may have changed, but the propaganda techniques and the political desire to manipulate public opinion have not. The desire to apply “science” to social engineering in order to achieve a stated improvement of society or allegedly to protect the well-being of the masses — in the utilitarian sense — resonates all too well.
But Lewis, as a man, a scholar, and a writer, is someone who understands what it means to be human. He recognizes — in this novel and in most of his other writings (The Abolition of Man, for example) — the perennial threat of dehumanization, including the misuse of science. Given the dubious “follow the science” narrative of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent developments in genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, and human cloning, there is, arguably, no greater subject for a cautionary tale in our own time.
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