Not long after arriving on the island, the castaways discover that there has been an experiment running on the island, one headed by an organization called "DHARMA." According to a film entitled "Orientation", DHARMA were working on a system designed to create a utopian society. DHARMA has a variety of facilities on the island but at the centre of the system is the Swan Station. Inside the Swan, at the desk in one of its round, its domed rooms, subjects are to sit at a desk and enter a supposedly powerful set of numerical values into a computer. If the values aren't entered or the execute button pressed in time, a build-up of power will threaten to destroy the entire system. When the castaways discover the system, which has been maintained for years by Desmond, the original experimenter and subjects long having disappeared, the group is divided over the importance of keeping the experiment running. Some castaways dismiss the maintenance of the values as unimportant, while other regard it as essential.
The name "DHARMA"
What does all that science-fiction silliness about DHARMA have to do with real-life American politics?
Quite a bit, actually. First, take a closer look at the organization's name. According to the official game "The Lost Experience", "DHARMA" is an acronym for "Department of Heuristics And Research on Material Applications." (Don't worry what that means -- we'll be revisiting that in Part Seven). That means DHARMA can be referred to as "The D of H A R M A." That's quite similar to the United States of America being referred to as "The U S of A." In addition to being an acronym, DHARMA also appears to be a pun, because the word "DHARMA-cracy" sounds a lot like the word "democracy". Taken together, those seem like pretty good clues that the island's DHARMA-cratic system symbolizes America's democratic system.
The origins and purpose of the experiment
It's not just the name that has real-world similarities -- the experiment's origins and purpose have similarities to the real-world as well. For example, America's Founding Fathers are often said to have begun "an experiment" in democratic governance, which would make them "political scientists." Similarly. DHARMA began a society-shaping experiment overseen by scientists. The experiment's rules were recorded in writing by the Founding Fathers, and some of these original documents have since been amended. Similarly, the rules of the DHARMA experiment were recorded on film and video by the DHARMA scientists, and some of these recordings have since been edited and updated.
Some of the most visible similarities are found at the centre of the DHARMA experiment, inside the Swan Station. Take the Swan's architecture, for instance. The Swan's main workplace is a round room with a domed ceiling, in the centre of which is a desk and chair. When viewed as a metapor, the architecture of the Swan resembles a composite of two real-life buildings central to America's democratic system: The White House, in which the President works and resides, and the Capitol Building, in which Congress meets.
Take a look at the pictures below and you'll see what I mean. Note how the round room of the Swan resembles the Oval Office of the White House (right down to the prominent desk and chair), and the Swan's domed ceiling is like the domed ceiling of the Capitol Building.
The interior of the Oval Office:
The interior of the Capitol Building Rotunda:
A scale model of the exterior of the Swan: (By the way, as a bit of trivia, look on the right-hand side of Radzinsky's blueprint and you'll see three corridors making the shape of an upside-down peace sign)
The exterior of the Capitol Building:
It's not just the architecture that is similar -- DHARMA and the US Government have similar emblems, too. Take a look at the Swan's logo and the US Government's Great Seal, which both feature sideways-facing birds:
Now, let's look at the similarities between the Swan's operation (or what we know of its operation, at least)and the operation of America's democratic system. The Swan has a set of numerical values; America has a set of Constitutional values. The Swan's values must be maintained or the system implodes; America's Constitutional values must be maintained or its democratic system will collapse. Failing to enter the Swan's values causes a dangerous build-up of power; failing to maintain Constitutional values causes a dangerous build-up of power in the US Government (think "separation of powers"). The Swan's duties require an "execute" button to be pressed; the US Constitution requires government officials to -- in the words of the Constitution -- "execute" their duties.
As for the Swan's name, there are at least two possible connects between it and America's democratic system.
First, "swan" may be a reference to the fable of the ugly duckling, in which a baby swan is mistaken for a duck, endures ridicule and hardship, but eventually grows into an impressive adult. By referencing the story of a swan who overcomes his humble origins, Lost may be saying that the Swan's system is designed to help subjects overcome humble origins and pursue their dreams, just as the American political system is intended to help even those of humble birth pursue the American Dream.
The second meaning (which, I must confess, was suggested by my non-imaginary friend Dave) relates to a radio station used in America's attempts to topple Fidel Castro, which transmitted from the Swan Islands and was known as "Radio Swan." (In my view, both of these interpretations seem to hold up. I particularly like the Radio Swan connection, as I suspect the Swan Station is acting as a kind of transmitter. More on that in Part Six.)
The other DHARMA facilities have real-world meaning also. When you think of them, think of various real-world departments and functions and you'll see what I mean. The Arrow, where experiments on weaponry and military strategies take place? That's like the Department of Defense. The Staff, where medical experiments are performed? That's like the Department of Health and Human Services. The Pearl, in which subjects monitor and report on the behaviour of subjects in other facilities, represents the Founding Fathers intention of having a free press that investigated and reported on the government's activities. (By the way, the Pearl, which symbolizes the idea of the free press, is most likely named in honour of reporter Daniel Pearl, who was captured and murdered by Al Qaeda).
But what does the Swan actually do?
You'll notice that, for all that analysis, I haven't delved into just what it is that the Swan actually does. I'll be getting into that in Part Six, when we talk about Jungian psychology, the infection, the visions, the whispers, and the island's shape-changing shadow creature.
For now, keep this in mind. The motto of the US Government is "E Pluribus Unum," which means "From many, one." The Swan seems to be up to something along those lines -- it's trying to take the island's many individual minds and blend them into a single, coherent collective consciousness.
More on that later.