Wednesday, November 23, 2016

KISS: Idiocracy

Keep ISimple, Stupid:
A concise analysis of Idiocracy

Idiocracy is a 2006 satirical film built on a simple premise: smart people aren't breeding enough so dumb people are going to take over the planet. The protagonist is an "average Joe" who wakes up from cryogenic sleep in a future where he's the smartest person on the planet. At the end of the movie, he and another frozen "normal person" produce children who are also "the smartest people on the planet" while the idiotic ex-wrestler president produces a bumper crop of idiots. This explicitly validates the idea that smart people only produce smart babies and dumb people produce dumb babies as being a "reality" of this film's world.

Why am I talking about a film from ten years ago? Well, let's just say it's making the rounds again. Internet critic MovieBob suggests that Idiocracy is not a eugenicist movie, because eugenics is not about "identifying the problem" but "positing the solution".  The thing is, there are really two parts to an ideological argument. First, you have to accept a premise: things are this way, people behave like this. Next, you have to accept a solution: this should be done. MovieBob sets this up, but he only does so to jettison the former and focus all attention on the latter.

Look at a film like The Birth of a Nation. The "premise" of that movie is that black people are animalistic savages who run rampant on respectable white people. The "solution" of that movie is to form the KKK. A person who agreed with the first part would be considered racist and ignorant in our society, regardless of whether they agreed with the second part. So why would it be considered okay to say that Idiocracy's premise ("stupid people produce stupid children") is accurate or morally acceptable when it's not?

Idiocracy is really useful for a person like me in a meta sense because people keep citing it as an influence on real politics. The same with Harry Potter or Game of Thrones or Parks and Recreation or the Hunger Games or whatever else. Even Giantbomb's Dan Ryckert (not exactly a fount of critical thinking) admitted that "[action movies are] kind of the prism in which I saw the world growing up". Fiction affects the way that people, in general, think about the world, for good or for ill. And this is just talking about pop culture - nevermind "respectable" stories like 1984 or Brave New World, which are widely accepted as valuable political works despite their fictitious nature. It is getting harder and harder for people to argue that fiction doesn't affect them when they keep bringing fictitious scenarios and values into real life.

If you stop looking at narrative works as "entertainment" and start looking at them like "soft propaganda" then it changes a lot about how we talk about them. Soft propaganda means movies with a political bias that entwines itself in a "normal" story in order to make its message more palatable and less overt.  This is in comparison to hard propaganda, which is what most people think of when they think of propaganda - imagery of jackboots and formation marching and chanted slogans. One of the iconic pieces of "hard propaganda" is Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, which made the Nazi government seem like the head of an unstoppable juggernaut and, for many German citizens, reinforced the feeling that the Nazis had absolute control over them. I have two observations to make about that movie.

1) Like D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation, Leni Riefenstahl fervently denied that Triumph of the Will was a work of propaganda, but was instead simply a secular piece of art and storytelling that did not advance any sort of racist ideology. This refrain should be familiar to pretty much anyone who has even the slightest connection with modern discussions of politics in film. It's the most common reply to someone pointing out a movie's bad implications or political undertones - to simply deny that these things exist at all, because how can a work of mere entertainment be used as propaganda? And yet works that are UNDENIABLY political were also defended as being not so.

2) Hitler himself preferred another movie as a propaganda engine. It was called The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and is an action-adventure movie depicting a group of British soldiers in India defending themselves against hostile natives. Hitler wrote, "I like this film because it depicted a handful of Britons holding a continent in thrall. That is how a superior race must behave and the film is a compulsory viewing for the SS". He saw it as being more effective than a lifeless work like Triumph of the Will because it caught up the audience in emotional attachment. In short, Hitler himself thought that a "work of entertainment" with political undertones (the aforementioned soft propaganda) was more effective as a cultural influence than overt, directly-delivered "hard propaganda" was.

So what is Idiocracy, then? It's a movie that posits a situation that is unrealistic and impossible, based on actual statistics, but it ties into a lot of people's understanding of "how the world works". Those people do not hesitate to cite it when discussing real politics because its message is considered to be common and understandable - the perpetual sigh of "ugh, dumb people, ruining everything again". They treat it as fact because they want it, desperately, to be fact.

Our society hates idiots. In my opinion, people resist the idea that they are affected by fiction (or advertising or propaganda) because it makes them feel like an idiot. But the average person is not a steadfast rock of sincere rationality; they are a lump of clay being constantly impressed upon by a thousand different forces. Idiocracy exists because people want to blame society's problems on an dehumanized "other" (in this case, "idiots") while separating themselves from bad thought, bad behavior or moral responsibility.

Idiocracy builds itself on dehumanization of a kind that is becoming scarily common in liberal circles - the right-wing idea that poor people are inherently stupid and lazy and should not be appealed to. This is an astonishing betrayal of progressive values, which are meant to champion the vulnerable and the underclass, not make justifications for abandoning them. MovieBob was not citing Idiocracy because he thought it presented a rational plan for helping people, he was citing it because he wanted to feel better about himself as "the last intelligent man on the planet". And he's the kind of idiot who uses a mediocre Mike Judge comedy from a decade ago as if it has actual, supported claims to make about real politics.

My book should be out before Christmas. It is in the final editing phases.

15 comments:

  1. Great piece as always.

    Not wanting to feel like idiots is a decent hypothesis for why people are so quick to shoot down any criticism of art as potentially problematic. I think that we can also look to how censorship has traditionally happened, with McCarthyism etc. People on the left want the narrative that art is always wholesome and good. If there are potentially ill effects on society from art, this makes things significantly more complicated than "f*** the right-wingers who want to suppress art ever, for any reason! They're trying to take our video games away!"

    Many on the left would roll their eyes if their Great Aunt said "I licked lead paint all day and nothing bad happened", but they say the exact same thing about their fondly-remembered youth watching the disgusting rapist hero Pepé Le Pew, playing Leisure Suit Larry, or mowing down thousands of brown people in Call of Duty.

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    1. Yeah, I love when people are like "I played [x] and I turned out fine", and it's like, why do you assume you're in a position to judge that? Our country just elected a Mussolini-style Fascist, it's a little late to pretend that pro-military cultural propaganda hasn't had an effect on us.

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    2. Not familiar with Leisure Suit Larry, but isn't that a game with a lot of cheap sexual innuendo? I would consider the effects of that game and the effect of mindlessly murdering "terrorists" in Call of Duty a bit different. It may be promoting casual sexism, but I don't think it promotes violence necessarily.

      The main point of course stands. Art always has an effect on us, no matter how subtle or overt. It's important that artists recognize this and actively rectify problems in their works.

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    3. I don't think either of us was suggesting that the effects are the same, just that they both have an effect on people by normalizing certain behaviors. Although in my experience it's much easier to point out sexist content than violent/dehumanizing content; both get resistance and pushback, but the former gets a lot more support than the latter.

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    4. My LSL choice was softer than the others, but a series where the goal is to have sex with as many women as possible, or to "win" a woman's true love by finding the right item to use on her, could definitely be an issue.

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  2. Jshea you view all this right wing propaganda yet you are staunchly left wing, is it because your IQ is 420 and thus you are impervious to propaganda? Or do you watch left wing propaganda to balance it out? If a person were to watch a bunch of mutually exclusive propaganda pieces, what political position would they end up taking?

    sincerely,

    Wes S.

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    1. That's a good question, Wes! Obviously I don't think I'm immune to emotional manipulation, nor would I say that most people are. Stoically overcoming that sort of thing by force of will has never really been the answer I put forth. Instead, being aware of a work's political views and how it might affect you is how you deal with it. It makes you aware of how you're being manipulated and allows you to balance the evoked emotions with real-life information. It's the difference between "watching 300 and just taking it at face value" and "watching 300, knowing Frank Miller is an insane racist/fascist, and also realizing that the story being told has almost nothing to do with reality because of that". One of those gets you a lot more skepticism and awareness than the other.

      I mean, be real about this: if I thought I had some innate immunity to propaganda, why exactly would I waste my time writing about propaganda for other people? It'd be a wasted effort if I thought everyone else was a brainwashed simpleton. And if I thought that "only I was innately smart enough" or whatever you're accusing me of, why would I write an article pointing out the myriad flaws in Idiocracy - a movie that would totally validate that sort of worldview?

      You know, Wes, I feel like sometimes you just make up reasons to try to hate me.

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    2. Hah, atleast you got a good question out of Wes' passive aggressive response. Guess that's better than nothing.

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    3. I don't get it, I see people as being stupid people all the time. And it's their fault.

      The whole point you're trying to make is that you can change people? How about that you can't control anything outside of yourself and you can only control how you take things?

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    4. I don't get it, I see people as being stupid people all the time. And it's their fault.

      The whole point you're trying to make is that you can change people? How about that you can't control anything outside of yourself and you can only control how you take things?

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  3. Alright jshea that was a good reply. I hope you continue to write more articles so i can leave more passive agressive comments. Also, send me a copy of your new book and i will review it.

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    1. My new book is going to be both (a) online and (b) free so I won't have to do that.

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    2. Ew really i dont want go have to stare at a computer screen to read a book it hurts my eyes

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    3. Just throwing it out there that I would most definitely purchase a physical copy if it could be made available. Something like CreateSpace if you were going through Amazon? Not really familiar with all the options. Some searching seems to indicate writers having positive experiences with that site.

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    4. Yea you'll get 20%,so why not.

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