The first story is Robert Heinlein’s The Year of the Jackpot. A consulting statistician with the unlikely name of Potiphar Breen observes that many strange social trends are on a strong upswing. One such trend: young women removing all their clothes in public. Potiphar sees one such disrobing in process, shoos away the police, covers the girl with his raincoat, then takes her home and asks her why she did it. She doesn’t know.
Potiphar informs her that nine other girls have done the same thing, in Los Angeles alone, on that very day…and goes on to tell her that this is a small part of the overall pattern of increasing craziness that he is observing. A man has sued an entire state legislature for alienation of his wife’s affections–and the judge is letting the suit be tried. In another state, a bill has been introduced to repeal the laws of atomic energy–not the relevant statutes, but the natural laws concerning nuclear physics. Potiphar shows the girl (her name is Meade) the graphs on which he has plotted the outbreak of bizarre things over time, and notes that many different indicators, all with different cycles, are all converging in this very year. Still, Meade wants to look at her disrobing episode on an individual basis: “I want to know why I did what I did!”
“I think we’re lemmings, Meade,” Potiphar says. “Ask a lemming why he does it. If you could get him to slow up his rush to death, even money says he would rationalize his answer as well as any college graduate. But he does it because he has to–and so do we.” When Meade tries to defend free will–“I know I have it–I can feel it”, Potiphar continues with another analogy: “I imagine every little neutron in an atom bomb feels the same way. He can go spung! or he can sit still, just as he pleases. But statistical mechanics works out anyhow. And the bomb goes off.”
As Meade and Potiphar become romantically involved, Potiphar’s indices of bizarre behavior and events continue to climb. Transvestism by draft-dodgers has resulted in a mass arrest in Chicago and a gigantic mass trial–but the (male) prosecutor shows up in a pinafore. At the All Souls Community Church of Springfield, the pastor has reinstituted ceremonial nudity. Two weeks later, a hundred and nine other churches have announced the same policy. California is suffering a major water crisis, but people continue watering their lawns as usual. Hardly anyone is interested in the upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions; all the excitement is about the revived Know-Nothing party.
Foreign affairs, too, are disintegrating into chaos…topped off by a nuclear exchange. Meade and Potiphar manage to survive, and Potiphar’s cycle charts seem to indicate that things will soon get better…(read the story to see how it comes out.)
The fictional events of Heinlein’s Year of the Jackpot (set in 1952–it was written in 1947) don’t seem any more bizarre than the kind of headline stories that we are seeing every day in real-life:
In a small town in France, a rhinoceros is observed running wild…and soon, there is more than one. People speculate about whether the rhinos are real or a figment of someone’s imagination; there is discussion about whether these are one-horned or two-horned rhinoceri, a logician talks about syllogisms and gives a long-winded and incorrect example involving cats and paws.
Soon, it becomes clear that the animals didn’t just appear–people are actually turning into rhinos.
The leading character, Berenger, is a borderline alcoholic slacker who feels that just about everything in life is too much trouble. When we meet him, he is being chastised by his friend Jean for his slovenly appearance, his lackluster pursuit of the woman he loves (Daisy), and his lack of interest in culture. But Jean himself is not a very appealing character; he is quite arrogant and his visits to art museums and such are motivated not by genuine interest but rather by social climbing. Indeed, Jean is one of the first humans to turn into a rhinoceros, and perhaps the transition in his case isn’t really all that fundamental…as the SparkNotes analysis says, “When Jean vows that, as a rhino, he will trample Berenger and anyone who gets in his way, it is clear that his transformation was a mere exchange of bodies, and not of morality.”
Some argue that the rhinoceros plague was simply made up by journalists in order to sell newspapers. But the evidence becomes too strong to ignore, as rampaging rhinos spread destruction throughout the town. Still, people continue in their accustomed ruts rather than planning and acting to solve the problem. When Mr. Boef, a worker at Berenger’s office, is transformed, the department manager is mainly concerned with deducting the change as a business expense. Botard, the office skeptic who had earlier said it was all a made-up story by journalists, now asserts that he never said any such thing but rather that the rhino plague was instigated by “traitors.”
More and more people are turning into rhinos–even the firemen, who had earlier rescued Berenger and his fellow workers from their rhino-collapsed office–and increasingly, people who have not made the transformation begin making excuses for the beasts. Their power is admired, they are said to be ‘beautiful’ (indeed, the stage direction says that the heads of the rhinos, which are shown only as shadows, are to actually be shown as increasingly beautiful), and one man refers to the rapidly-growing rhino population as the ‘universal family.’
As just about everyone else succumbs to the threat and the appeal of the rhinos, Berenger begins to find his own manhood and to resist the transformation. Daisy finds herself increasingly attracted to him, and Berenger speaks hopefully about the pair becoming the new Adam and Eve, and regenerating the human race. But Daisy, too, becomes powerfully drawn to the rhinos. When she says, “We must adapt ourselves and try to get on with them…We must try to understand the way their minds work, and learn their language”…and Berenger responds: “They haven’t got a language! Listen…do you call that a language?”…she snaps at him contemptuously:
“How do you know? You’re no polyglot!”
At the end, Berenger is left alone, and the last words in the play are his:
“I’m not capitulating.”
Leaving the play for the actual world, it increasingly seems that talking with a typical “progressive” is about as effective as attempting to have a conversation with a rhino. And especially those leftists who call themselves “social justice warriors” are showing the destructive instincts of Ionesco’s rhinoceri.
These tendencies can also be found in some of the more conspiracy-oriented corners of the extreme Right, but in general, rhinoceros transformations are a lot more common today on the Left.