In his speech to his supporters at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, on July, 25, 2016, Bernie Sanders passionately declared that “We want nothing less than the transformation of American Society.” His message was timely, and especially appealed to young people. While it is clear that Bernie’s vision of transformation is progressive—it seeks equality and justice and an end to racism, sexism, homophobia, and all those other liberal policies—exactly what this transformed society looks like, is not clear. Nor is it easy. It will take work—a kind of world-building. This is the work of the future.
Meanwhile, similar words can have a different vision. Heather Digby Parton writes, “[Steve] Bannon is a radical white nationalist whose main objective, as he has openly admitted, is to blow everything up — essentially to destroy the existing social and political order.” In his first public appearance after Trump’s election, Bannon reiterates the “unending battle for ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’” (Rucker). Bannon’s words are more radical, but they do not sound all that different from Bernie Sanders’s words. Radicals on the left have also used the language of, for instance, blowing up the establishment. These are words that can inspire the disenfranchised (for instance, black people) as well as those who perceive themselves as being disenfranchised (for instance, white nationalists). Bannon’s words alone do not reveal the sinister motives and ideologies behind them that are so different from what Bernie Sanders’ words mean. After Bannon blows everything up, Parton continues, “What that leaves us with after the smoke clears is anyone’s guess, since he is notably vague on the endgame.” Here too, the future is uncertain. The vision of the future, after leaving the “existing social and political order” in ruins is vastly different for Bernie Sanders compared to Steve Bannon, but neither future is spelled out.
We might understand these two futures in the terms of Utopia vs. Dystopia. Bernie’s future is a utopia. We have a difficult time finding utopia in the U.S. and in our fiction—one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia and utopia can quickly turn to dystopia. Using YA dystopia as a lens is far more helpful. For instance, the futures that Girls on Fire navigate are always a result of forces that are already in process—the environment, our global health, political corruption, social chaos. The world that Bannon seeks to create is the world we find in YA dystopia. In fact, Bannon is a perfect model for almost any of the evil hegemons as well as the corrupt power structures we find in YA dystopia’s fictional futures. He has been compared to Darth Vader and Satan and has said in response, that “darkness is good” (Tani). But these comparisons might be giving him too much credit. His attempts to impose chaos might not be effective, and can remind us that, as Dustin McKissen argues, “If what we are looking at is a government with no one at the wheel, then this is an opportunity for each of us to step up and take our places as the real authors of history.” And if the person, or people at the wheel are pure evil, as they often are in YA dystopia, we need Girls on Fire even more.
Utopia has its value toward imagining more, but dystopia reminds us of the urgency of the present. Rebecca Solnit notes that transformations “begin in the imagination, in hope” (4). Dystopia keeps us accountable, reminds us of our collective responsibility. Dystopia even gives us hope, perhaps a more realistic vision of hope than utopia. Solnit describes hope in ways that mesh with dystopian stories: “Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed” (4). Dystopia does not take for granted the progress of the past because this progress has, at least in part, shaped the dystopic world. Girls on Fire know that if they fail to act nothing will change. Solnit continues, “To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable” (4). Girls on Fire are a source of hope; and we all have a stake in the future. But we also have to live in this world and keep it “inhabitable” for the future.
When the lights go out, who will be left to find a new source of light, to discover that human element of fire again?
The Girls on Fire are keeping the fire burning, stoking the fire and keeping watch to ensure that we don’t burn out or burn up.