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.