I enjoyed J.C. Hallman’s The Devil is a Gentleman several years ago so when I had the opportunity to receive a review copy of his new book, In Utopia, I couldn’t refuse. Starting from Thomas More’s book Utopia, Hallman examines how the concept of Utopia made its way through history both theoretical and in actual communal attempts at achieving it and brings it up to date by looking at a variety of communities today that are attempting to create utopia or, sometimes their founders failing to admit that’s what they are doing, are heavily influenced by utopian ideals.
It is difficult to read this book and not be both cynical – utopia is some pie in the sky idea that could never happen, ever – and hopeful because I think there is a small part of all of us that that can imagine his or her own utopia. For most of us the cynicism wins out and utopia is just a fantasy, but for others, like the people in the communities Hallman visits, utopia is very real.
What became clear to me as I read, and something I had never thought about before, is that everyone’s concept of what is utopian is different. Those whose ideas match the most are able to form a community, but what their utopia is may be very different than yours or mine. One person’s utopia is another person’s Hell.
Take Front Sight. Hallman went out to Nevada to take their four-day defensive handgun course. Most of the people he talks to during his stay seem like nice people. The only thing creepy about them is they carry guns. Everywhere. And they believe everyone should do the same because if everyone is packing then someone will think twice before committing a crime, particularly a crime that involves a gun. People will be nicer to each other too in a sort of sick cold war-like reasoning, the threat of mutual destruction makes people more respectful. But Front Sight’s vision doesn’t stop at gun training. The ultimate goal is to build a community out in the Nevada desert in which everyone can carry a gun openly. It, will, they believe, be the safest town in America.
I particularly liked the chapter on Twin Oaks, a community in Virginia. It is the longest lived secular intentional community in America. I liked this chapter best for a personal reason. I briefly worked with someone a few years ago who was thinking about going and living there. You can’t just go and move in, you must go stay as a visitor for a few weeks and then at the end of your stay the community of residents decides whether or not they will invite you into the community. The person I worked with had visited them already, and knowing him, I suspect he was not invited into the community. That explains why he was so very vague about possibly going for another visit. But just trying to imagine this person living there cracked me up. He was a nice guy but seriously lacking in all forms of social skills yet desirous of living communally.
I could go one about all the various visions and the people who have them, it’s so fascinating. Hallman writes about them all respectfully and honestly. There were so many opportunities to be sarcastic or make fun, but Hallman refrains. For the most part he doesn’t make any kind of overt judgment, allowing the reader to come to her/ his own conclusions. Sometimes I wish he would have expressed a firm opinion but it’s a minor quibble.