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'High Castle' Weighs the High Stakes of Losing WWII
November 21, 2015  | By David Hinckley
 

One of the many things Amazon’s new The Man in the High Castle does well is to refresh our perspective on freedom.
 
The ambitious series, based on the Philip K. Dick novel and now available on the Amazon Prime streaming service, projects what life would have been like in America in 1962 had we lost World War II.
 
After the Axis apparently beat us to the atomic bomb and nuked cities like Washington, D.C., the country was divided into a Nazi zone in the East and a Japanese zone in the West, separated by a shadowy no-man’s land called the neutral zone in the middle.
 
One of the first orders of business for the winners, to no one’s surprise, was eliminating inconveniences like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  
 
This strikes home for real-life viewers because Americans all across the ideological spectrum regularly warn against the erosion of the freedoms embodied in those documents.  
 
Government wants to take away our guns. Government wants to take away our civil liberties. It’s a drumbeat fueled partly by genuine concern and partly by the somewhat less noble calculus that it’s an effective war cry for rallying the troops.
 
The debate is hardly new. It goes back to the fractious meetings of the Founding Fathers and has rolled through Abraham Lincoln suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War, the Japanese internment camps of World War II, the Patriot Act and a million smaller points of contention in between.
 
It’s an essential American discussion, because the surest way to lose those elusive freedoms is to assume they will always exist. Better to hear unfounded, even foolish alarmism than to hear nothing.
 
The Man in the High Castle paints a world in which freedom has vanished to a degree far deeper than the most radical real-life alarmists would conjure.
 
It’s a society that demands conformity to the wishes of the state. Dissent is not permitted in actions and it is swiftly and harshly punished if it is found or even suspected in thought.
 
Culture is controlled, used as a pacification tool. Movies are limited to light comedies, television largely to cartoons. Rock ‘n’ roll never got started and the Bible is considered suspicious, a potential incitement to subversion.
 
In the larger personal scope, the state likes its subjects insecure. Friends, neighbors, coworkers, even family cannot be trusted, since the price of their survival might be destroying yours.
 
It’s an Orwellian world, one we associate with the world’s most extreme dictatorial regimes. Josef Stalin, Pol Pot.
 
The only faint ray of hope is that resistance to this world never quite seems to die. Outgunned, outflanked and outnumbered, the rebels are always there, pecking at the ankles of the empire, driven only by the defiant belief that someday it will stumble and fall to its death.
 
But The Man in the High Castle isn’t a quick, neat story of how good rises against the odds to slay evil.
 
On the contrary, it’s a portrait of life under a brutal thumb, and much of its power comes from the very smart decision by the creators to roll out that portrait gradually.
 
The story doesn’t take place in a camp. It takes place in the everyday America we recognize, with many of the familiar trappings. People drive cars, they own television sets, they go to work.
 
Then, slowly, we see the bleakness. While German technology has created pockets of glossy progress, much of the country is poor, run-down and beaten down.
 
The state blankets the land like fog on the moors. Just overhearing a whisper of potential rebellion puts you in danger, because even if you have no personal involvement, you now have information the state wants.  
 
While we don’t see an SS herding Jews into mass camps, the concept has not been abandoned. If someone is thought to have the proverbial drop of Jewish blood, he or she may be politely ushered into what looks like a standard waiting room lounge – equipped with a ceiling device that dispenses Zyklon-B. You walk in, you’re carried out.
 
We learn from a cheerful policeman explaining a sprinkle of fine ash in the air that “cripples” are incinerated on Tuesdays, because they’re “a drag on the state.”
 
The fact he’s not horrified or even very interested intensifies the brutality and the inhumanity.
 
It also underscores how freedom can disappear – when individuals decide that what happens to someone else doesn’t matter as long as it’s not happening to them.
 
If your only goal is to protect yourself, The Man in the High Castle tells us, that’s the practical choice. Maybe you win the battle.
 
You just lose the war.
 
 
 
 
 
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