On Naive Readings of A Mind Forever Voyaging

A post-naivete reading of A Mind Forever Voyaging.

CW: Sexual violence, mental illness, self-harm, racist language

Peace in Our Time

I have lousy teeth. Not aesthetically, mind you, but structurally. They are too close together; it’s hard to floss thoroughly. Two were unusually small, and had to be replaced with an implant. They’re fragile; I don’t know how many root canals I’ve had. One of my molars lies sideways underneath my lower-right teeth. The first time I saw it on an x-ray, I thought it was a tumor. How else could a tooth be there?

I inherited my teeth from my mother, who inherited them from her mother. I don’t think anyone knows—there’s nobody left alive who would know—whether my grandmother inherited her teeth from her mother or her father.

***

We do know, however, that we all got our bipolar disorder from my great grandfather, an alcoholic with a thoroughly Americanized French name: “Boulter” pronounced “BOLT-err.” The Boulters came out of west Texas: Borger, Denver City, and the like. If you’ve been out that way, you can probably imagine how people from there might come to no good.

The Boulters believed that being sick was a character failure. They had a refrain they’d use to describe themselves: “Boulter tough.” Of course, that didn’t stop them from getting sick; it only kept them from getting or asking for help. My mother died a problem drinker and untreated bipolar II and would have likely preferred setting herself on fire to admitting to either. I have no idea how long she had been sick. If I had to guess, I’d say she was probably in significant pain for a long time but had been raised to hide it. Boulter tough, indeed.

Speaking of setting yourself on fire: I’d put up with just about anything to avoid being under the same roof with any of those people.

***

Why do I bring this up? The 1980s were the absolute worst in terms of my mother’s mental health, and the only period in her life where she accepted treatment. The causes of her illness were likely many. Thanks to a bit of bad genetic luck, she was a time bomb whose payload was craziness. No matter what we did, it was going to go off eventually. She had likely experienced one or more major depressions before The Big One went off in the mid-80s.

The other “big one” in the background was nuclear war, of course. Everybody I knew thought it was supposed to happen eventually. The elementary school that I attended was was a shoddy place, made of cinder blocks and painted concrete. Every once in a while, the teachers—each of them a woman in her forties—would lead us to the gymnasium where, when the bombs eventually fell, we would wait to be covered by irradiated dust blown in from Little Rock and Russellville. Those of us who had seen the poor, doomed people of Missouri, standing agape in a flurry of poison ash in The Day After, knew that there was no place—and no one—that could protect us when the end came. Not even parents.

Especially not parents.

***

My mother and father were not revolutionaries, nor were they socialists. Instead, they were good liberals (I say this unironically) of the sixties sort who believed that a government ought to work for its people, that it should protect the rights of its vulnerable citizens, and that the more one had, the more one owed. They were Episcopalians who imaged the Kingdom of Heaven as a sort of “great reconciliation”—a time and place where the equality and justice impossible in this world might finally be realized. I think the 1980s must have felt like the clanging end of everything they believed in as young people.

When Phil Ochs killed himself in 1976, I imagine that my father saw the writing on the wall—he never yelled at the TV news like my mother did. In fact, I think the last time that my father was surprised by current events was the death of Robert Kennedy.

***

In 1980, the year that Ronald Reagan was elected the 40th President of the United States, four Catholic missionaries were murdered and raped by members of the El Salvadoran National Guard. Out of respect for the dead, I will write their names: Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan. The Reagan administration was not yet in charge when this happened, though Reagan was the president-elect.

Still image from Ronald Reagan's "Morning In America" campaign. It shows the silhouette of a tractor at sunrise. The sky is orange.
Still from Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” ad campaign.

It was later proven that these crimes were not committed by a few bad apples. In fact, that kind of behavior was endorsed all the way up the food chain. Nevertheless, the Reagan Administration aggressively defended the National Guard. Foreign Policy Adviser and ghoul Jean Kirkpatrick attempted to shift blame: “the nuns were not just nuns. They were political activists. We ought to be a little more clear about this than we actually are.” I remember my mother yelling at the television. “What’s a nun?” I asked her. I think I was seven.

***

Imagine being surprised, thirty-something years later, when a Republican candidate publicly made fun of gold star families and disabled people, as if there were a way downhill from Kirkpatrick. As if there were a new bottom to find.

***

Like a fish, I forget too much. I was surprised and surprised at American voters. It was like I kept waking up here in the USA for the first time, again and again.

The Critic Grapples With the Palative Effects of Memory

While there has been a tendency to criticize Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging as too “on the nose” or “over the top,” perhaps, in the spirit of radical critique, we should ask instead: how would a critic know the end of the world if they saw it? Would they at least recognize the end of America? What if America ended, and only Steve Meretzky noticed?

Surely that can’t be the case. After all, our televisions and our cars have gotten so much bigger over the years. We have the biggest televisions and cars, per capita, in the world!

***

A crucial element of Reagan’s election—and the modern evolution of the Republican Party—was racially coded rhetoric. It’s easy to see how my television-hating mother and Meretzky might perceive the electoral success of these tactics as a complete repudiation of the civil rights gains of the 1960s. In 1981, Lee Atwater, rather famously, discussed the Republican approach to leveraging the racial resentment of southern whites:

Questioner: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?

Atwater: Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “[racist language omitted].” By 1968 you can’t say “[racist language omitted]”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “[racist language omitted].”

The truth is that the 1980s were the death of that old, liberal idealism. The US had become the kind of place where we made excuses for people who kill (and worse) nuns. We were the kind of country where a guy could sell guns to Iran, then turn around and give the money to torturers and murderers and who knows what else. He’d wind up rich, on TV, selling books, and running the National Rifle Association. You might ask: “so what else is new?” It’s true, America had always been a colonial power, had never dealt with its slave-owning past, and was quick to prop up any anti-communist tyrant in sight. Maybe it’s as simple as this: it was no longer possible to sing “The Times They Are a-Changin'” unironically here, after fifteen years or so of people thinking that was a good idea.

A young Bob Dylan wearing a black jacket sits near a restaurant table, playing a bass guitar.
Bob Dylan, 1964

Who killed that old, liberal idealism? I imagine my parent’s generation did it themselves. All of those rascally Woodstock grifters finally came home to roost. They cut out their own hearts. Their sacrifice opened the door, invited the vampire in.

***

It’s hard to know how to take critics who argue for “fair” treatment of the Reagan administration or “shades of gray” in our video game criticisms. What is the balanced take on, for instance, the Southern Strategy? Is it enough to say that our uncle voted for Reagan, but that he never forgot our birthday? It is a common thing in our discourse for a person of privilege to mention that their sweet, old aunt voted for a horrible person. How lucky some of us are, that we need not fear such people!

All of these years and all of these philosophers later, and we still can’t tell the difference between a person who’s nice and a person who’s just nice to us.

***

Let’s examine the words of the estimable Jimmy Maher, writing just two years before Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold a vote for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland:

The other obvious complaint to make is thematic: that A Mind Forever Voyaging isn’t exactly the fairest of political critiques. At risk of sounding too inflammatory, I will say that the game puts its finger on a certain authoritarian impulse that strikes me as a bothersome undercurrent to so much Republican political thought. But still, the game’s message that we’re all going to wind up food for roving cannibalistic mutants if we vote Republican is a bit farther than I’m willing to go. In the last act of the game we meet Richard Ryder himself at last. Consistent with Meretzky’s view of Reagan as an “asshole,” he’s content to just make Ryder a mustache-twirling villain, guilty not only of bad policy but of fundamentally bad faith. There’s literally no division in the game’s universe between a Reagan Republican and a full-blown fascist.

Now that some time has passed: what was the division between 1980s conservatism and fascism, exactly? A capacity for politeness in grocery stores? An unwillingness to print “fuck” on shirts, bumper stickers, and flags, perhaps. Decorum, maybe. Where did all of our Trump-voting baby boomers come from, and what were they up to in 1980? What did they like about Reagan, exactly? The coded racist and xenophobic language? The tax cuts for the wealthy? As different as people seem to think that the Trump administration was from previous Republican administrations, the primary differentiator might simply be crassness, general incompetence, and a willingness to say the quiet parts out loud. Both were borne to victory by their ability to appeal to the very worst in people, and by peoples’ willingness to climb into the gutter.

***

I should say that I mention Jimmy Maher, not to single him out, but because he is an especially thoughtful and thorough writer.

***

There are people in my Arkansas hometown who would have been happy to put brown people in cages at any point in my life. They would have been happy to do so before I was even born. Trump didn’t invent racism or cruelty. He tapped into it, and he was hardly the first.

***

Critics have argued that A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s scheduled monkey torturing events are so far beyond anything Reagan could imagine, it just isn’t fair to lay that at his feet. The thing is, whether it’s monkeys or brown children, Meretzky’s underlying point—barbarous policies make for a barbarous nation—is hard to refute. What if, instead of Meretzky’s apocalypse, the US government just shut down disability and Social Security? What if, rather than torturing monkeys, the United States just took rent money away from old people and the disabled, letting them starve in the streets? Rick Scott, with all the warmth of a tooth-scored skull, has been pushing the idea for a while now. It isn’t clear that we are farther away from Scott’s wish—a Senate seat or two, a handful of House seats—than Meretzky was from his monkeys.

***

Meretzky’s critique reveals, not in its outcomes but in its machinery, how terrifyingly tentative everything is: our safety, our capacity for art, the infrastructure required for scientific discovery. It doesn’t seem hard to run a thread from the Reagan Administration’s willingness to get in bed with The Moral Majority in 1980 to a general hostility to the sciences in large blocks of federal government, to vaccines, to evolution, to a physics-based cosmology.

Photograph of Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell, then leader of the Moral Majority.
Ronald Reagan with Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell

It isn’t hard, decades later, to find entire states unwilling to teach established science, or, for that matter, American history. Meretzky’s imagined America isn’t so far away: violent, anti-intellectual and anti-information, and increasingly theocratic in some states. If the end-state of A Mind Forever Voyaging is a Hobbesian state of nature, then perhaps Steve Meretzky’s real mistake was underestimating the sedatory effect of an ever-spinning rat wheel baited with ephemeral consumer goods, keeping so many of us in motion and in debt, unable to see beyond the borders of our own simulations. The day may not be far off when we are all held in place by weaponized information, by information as product, getting and spending.

Running, running.

***

Trump was not smart enough to pack the Supreme Court. Our current court is the endpoint of a forty-year-old strategy, a consequence of religious extremism and the politics of cruelty. Imagine showing up for the monkey torturing and finding Amy Coney Barrett there instead! Again: A Mind Forever Voyaging foretold disaster and its causes, even if it misjudged its details.

Cruelty Was Always the Point

A recurring error—I hope “error” is not too strong a word—of A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s detractors is arguing about the particulars of an imagined future instead of the broad consequences of xenophobia, racism, exploitive labor practices, and other, affiliated demagogueries. What might be the consequences of allowing a violent, ultra-religious fringe to dictate the makeup of, say, The Supreme Court of The United States of America?

If Steve Meretzky failed to detail the various small cogs of our national clockwork, he got the question right: what harm might forty years of appealing to our very worst inclinations as a species do? For that matter, surely there must be prices to pay for granting a religious minority potent, albeit illegal, governmental influence. The fictitious (and fanciful) “Church of God’s Word,” likely fabricated as a way to avoid public backlash from entities like the aforementioned Moral Majority, nonetheless gets the structure right. They are a reactionary organization hostile to established science upheld by a cult of personality, and they are allowed to grow unchecked until they seize governmental power.

I won’t insult anyone by belaboring the details, but this must not sound too far away, or, at least, it must not sound impossible.

***

We have at present a fortified immigration law “enforcement” complex, a paramilitary organization and bureaucracy, really, and just like that organization in A Mind Forever Voyaging, agents seem free to kick down doors without warrants, going anywhere that “foreigners” might be minding their own business. They are free to leave parentless children to sleep, uncovered, on concrete floors, eating and drinking who knows what. We have seen what they do, again and again on the news, and they don’t even need a Jean Kirkpatrick to make excuses for them.

Why make excuses? Enough of us Americans get off on it that excusing it is unnecessary. We see these people everyday, at the post office and at the grocery store. Getting off on babies in cages is just a thing a lot of Americans do nowadays.

A cage made of chain-link fence. Several children sre sitting on a metal bench, backs to the camera.
Children detained at the Mexico border

The message of A Mind Forever Voyaging doesn’t lie in Steve Meretzky’s capacity for fortune telling. It’s in the machinery. Again, depraved policy engenders a depraved nation. Appealing to the worst in people inevitably brings out the worst in people, and in this Steve Meretzky was—is—absolutely correct. The differences between the Kirkpatricks, the Norths, the Meeses and a Stephen Miller are only matters of amplitude, scope, and art(lessness).

***

I think that many intelligent people had, during the Obama years, an exaggerated sense of our moral fiber as a nation, as well as of our own future prospects. It must have seemed to many that we as a people were on a grand Hegelian arc toward social progress and egalitarianism.

***

My mother fell out of treatment in the ’90s, and never really went back. She probably figured that if she could survive the 80’s, she could survive anything.

***

Me, I stayed busy in the early tens trying to figure out how to tell people that I was psychiatrically disabled, because—believe it or not—people don’t really respect that. I worried that, should the wrong people assume power, being registered with the federal government as a seriously mentally ill person might be dangerous. I didn’t feel safe. It’s old hat in conservative circles to say people like me are lazy, that we don’t want to work. My wife’s parents still don’t know I’m disabled, and I’ve known her since 2015. It’s easy, especially if you are safe—and I’m safer than a lot of people—to imagine that things might never really change, that any perceived danger is imagined.

***

It might be easy, too, to miss Rockvil’s deforestation for the trees.

Next

Next week, Gold Machine will be in familiar territory with a transcript-focused critical introduction to A Mind Forever Voyaging. Why is the fourth post about AMFV an introduction? I’m just getting warmed up, of course! As always, get in touch with comments or questions.

PS. Thanks to Critical Distance for mentioning last week’s post! With a nice pull quote, no less.

11 thoughts on “On Naive Readings of A Mind Forever Voyaging

  1. I still remember playing this game in the very early 90s (I’d missed it originally because I was still stuck on the C64, not to disparage it or anything, but I know it didn’t have enough memory for this) and being pretty damn scared but also thinking/hoping we’d gotten past a point where this could happen. Then watching Buchanan’s speech at the RNC and realizing we were not and this was totally possible. I guess I was lucky to get my idealism crushed at 14! Yet it’s still kind of crazy he was able to predict so much that really came true. If anything this game really needs even more exposure for that alone.

    1. I played it late, too. 1994, I think. I think my outlook was rosier at the time. I thought: “people will come around.” Some of them did!

      When I replayed it again in 2001—not long after Al Gore’s loss—I had a much darker outlook on things. The older I got, the more credible the critique became. Now, even though it is already well regarded, I agree with you—it deserves more credit.

  2. This is a pretty good essay about the political context of the game and the writer’s personal relation to it. Though at a few points I suspect there was a certain veering from outlining (and agreeing with) Meretzky’s criticism of Reaganite conservatism, and of connecting it to American conservatism in 2022, to a more general “America sucks” kind of bashing. I guess that’s easy to end up doing considering the influence those conservative trends have had on the country.

    1. Forgot to add: while there’s definitely things to criticize about immigration policy, I was under the impression that as of 2022, the former president’s policy of putting immigrants and immigrant children in cages was no longer being followed.

      1. The policy was changed by an elected official and could be changed by another elected official. The discretion afforded our immigration enforcement organizations remains quite broad compared to other federal enforcement agencies, and there’s no hard countermeasure in place to prevent child separation and other human rights abuses from happening again AFAIK.

        The infrastructure hasn’t gone anywhere. We have an enforcement complex that is both able and willing to do this kind of thing, and those policies had (presumably still have) a disappointing amount of support among citizens and lawmakers. They haven’t gone anywhere. In fact, there always seem to be more of them running for office. How does that bell get unrung?

        I personally wouldn’t say that we have moved past this without legislation and structural changes in ICE/INS etc., though of course I’m glad that the current president will not be doing that sort of thing.

        Re: “America sucks,” that’s not a case I’m making here. That would have taken a lot more work and would have needed to start before the 20th century.

  3. I think that part of the reason A Mind Forever Voyaging works is precisely because the startpoint looks so inocuous.

    Some people will have started out believing “the worst” – but not everyone. Some people will have voted in the 1980s knowing there were serious problems with the Republican philosophy, some even wanting them to happen – but many did not. Many voted because they actually believed that the parts that sounded positive were positive, or because they’d always voted Republican, or because they had some issue (perhaps on a more minor level) with the other candidates.

    What happens then, is that there is a temptation to believe these people who voted for reasons other than “worst impulses” voted because of the “worst impulses”, which encourages future campaigns to be louder about the “worst impulses” while doubling down on whichever claims were believed to have made those impulses acceptable. Even though some of these people did not accept those impulses at the time.

    Give people enough exposure to a particular way of thinking, gradually give people enough positive comments about that way of thinking, and even people who would previously have rejected it are at risk of believing it – especially if social engineering and personalised advertising is employed to accelerate the effect (both of which have been employed since the 1980s). This all helps build a situation where people actually believe the “quiet stuff”, even if they did not before, and encourages a situation where the “quiet stuff” can be said and done out loud.

    A Mind Forever Voyaging may not spell out much of this (we see the consequences in each decade, not the process), but it does a convincing job of showing how a a set of policies that sounds innocuous but has a problematic root could eventually become openly corrupted. For me, it’s slightly more powerful if considered slightly to one side of the specific Reagan example, because it’s also the story of a fair number of other ideologies (conservatism in the UK, Fidesz in Hungary, probably a dozen other examples across the world right now…) This also means less worrying about whether Steve got this detail or that particular right – the arc is the meaning, the detail is simply to improve the immersion of the gameplay experience.

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