#Idiocracy: still not a documentary, bro

So the screenwriter of Idiocracy, Etan Cohen (who is not Ethan Coen, though it's an easy mistake to make, and one that led me to believe for many years that one of the Coen brothers wrote episodes of King of the Hill), goes on twitter and he says,

He says this because Idiocracy is a sci-fi satire about a dystopian future where the President is stupid and everyone else is stupid, too, and he takes this counterfactual situation to parallel our current, actual situation because Donald Trump... and so forth. The tweet then gets picked up by lots of news outlets, who deem it newsworthy, and so it bombards my -- and perhaps your -- various social media feeds.

I would like to float the idea that this thing Etan Cohen said is significantly less clever than it seems to think it is, for at least a couple of reasons.

Let's start pedantic: Idiocracy is still not a documentary. And in fairness, Etan Cohen never actually says it is one, when he reports he never thought it would become one. But plausible deniability aside, I hope we can agree that documentaries are, by definition, about things that already happened. If you make a documentary about the future, you are a goddamn necromancer, or else an innocent Trojan woman gifted with the power of prophecy, but also cursed never to be believed, by the god Apollo, as punishment for refusing to sleep with the god Apollo, which is the actual-mythical story of Cassandra of Troy, whose generally situation is pretty amazingly captured by the FML expression on Frederick Sandys's "Cassandra":
And to characterize a prophetic foretelling of imminent catastrophe as "a documentary" is to bury the lede, i.e., that you are a wizard or a witch or at any rate have special and probably sacred powers with which we all must reckon.

If this quibbling over definitions seems humorlessly literal, recall the words of our late philosopher-laureate, Mitch Hedberg:
Idiocracy was made in the mid-2000s, at which point, of course, the President of These United States was a Rhodes fucking Scholar named George W. Bush, who nicknamed his Chief of Staff "Turd Blossom," and whose education platform included the lapidary insight, "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" and who once rehearsed in public the timeless folk axiom, "Fool me once, shame on... shame on you. Fool me... You can't get fooled again." (Disclosure: George W. Bush was not a Rhodes Scholar.) This was nearly as stupid as that time, a rough decade before, our whole national consciousness was embroiled in a controversy that centered on a President's penis,

which in turn was about as stupid as the time, another rough decade before, a President went on television and said, "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not." Ronald Reagan was King Truthiness.

This nation's political thunderdome has survived idiots of every conceivable stripe doing stupid shit in every imaginable flavor and variety. It is either hubris or laziness to imagine that we have reached Peak Idiot. I feel confident in saying this because, for instance, in 1790, a bipartisan committee resolved that any attempt by Congress "to attempt to manumit" slaves, or anyone who might become a slave by importation or birth, was unconstitutional until 1808. They decided that, in other words, not only was slavery legal and constitutional, but that trying to make slavery illegal was unconstitutional. Isn't that just too stupid? In 1910, to take another example, when a black boxer named Jack Johnson beat a white boxer named Jim Jeffries, white people were so angry that they rioted in more than 50 U.S. cities, and killed dozens of black people for some reason that at the time must have seemed to them very compelling.
These were monumentally stupid times to be alive. There have perhaps been stupider. There will surely be stupider still.

But maybe the knee-jerk anti-populism that says "we're dumber now than we've ever been before!" is the smart set's apocalypse, the cynical flipside of the grimly optimistic (and, to me, entirely unintelligible) compulsion to
Make America Great Like It Used to Be: slavery Civil War Jim Crowe, you know the routine of national triumphs, uninterrupted until 1999 at least. Great like when our first generation of truly gifted robber barons bought, bribed, and grifted themselves into heritable monopolies on steel and oil and infrastructure and then named universities (Vanderbilt!) and concert halls (Carnegie!) and urban palaces (the proto-Trump, Rockefeller!) after themselves so we would remember them fondly for fucking us forever.
"Merry Christmas! We own everything!" -the Rockefellers
Or the First Great War, or Prohibition, or else the Great Depression. Or when we took vengeance on the Japanese military by atomically bombing the Japanese citizenry. Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia. MLK, JFK, RFK. Watergate! Watts and Harlem. Stagflation. Gordon Gecko. The Iran Contra, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again. Just the very highest highs, the stuff of which a million chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" have been built, like great choral pyramids, ascending to the heavens.

For decency's sake, let's not let the stupidity of our current situation, which is ample but not unprecedented, blind us to the truly revolutionary thing about democracy: it makes stupidity -- yours, mine, anybody's -- politically viable, even vital. Here's something Gordon Wood -- to historian Will Hunting mocks that ponytail goober for regurgitating in the Harvard bar -- said, a thing I really quite like, about what Americans realized when they thought about what they had wrought: “If men were all alike, equal in their rights and in their interestedness, then there were no specially qualified gentlemen who stood apart from the whole society with a superior and disinterested perspective. All people were the same: all were ordinary and all were best represented by ordinary people. That was democracy." As if to say, What a wonderful mistake we have made!

Then again, we don't live in a democracy. We live in a republic, where representative leaders are supposed to be chosen from the "natural aristocracy of talent," the common pool of our best and brightest. So maybe we're totally fucked. I dunno. I drank too much coffee for dinner.

No comments: