Yesterday morning I woke up, and, for the first time, I participated in the “Black Friday” race to the socioeconomic bottom. There could be no more reproduced image of your typical American capitalist denizen than that of a lower-middle class, minimum wage-earning white male handing over a credit card to a Target employee in his early twenties in order to purchase an iPad. As I walked out of the store I looked down at the box in my hand and thought, “Because it’s got electrolytes.”
Then, last night, I went to see the film Arrival for the second time. The first time I saw it I was alone in the theater, and even surprised the theater employee when I stood up to walk out. She almost dropped her broom when she realized I was there.
I mentioned the film to a mentor of mine, Nancy Ward, curator of the Artistic License Fair. She had already seen it, she said “It was amazing– a poem.” I couldn’t agree more.
As I walked out of the film the first time I couldn’t help but wonder that, if the film had come out before the election, would it have had any effect on how people voted? At the moment, I can’t point to any evidence to support the notion that the broader American audience is capable of understanding a film like this. My “heart mom,” Lisa Marie Oxenham, said “We may have to accept that people aren’t ready for this kind of film.” However, there is a very striking line in the film. Louise, the protagonist of the film, says to her daughter, “You’re unstoppable.” The little girl, Hannah, responds, “I’m unstoppable.” Inevitability. The ineluctability of the girl’s presence, her significance, should be absolutely arresting to anyone whether or not they are “ready” for her. That is, everyone should recognize Hannah as an image of the inevitable change that our species and the planet will experience. Whether or not we survive that change is anyone’s guess at the moment.
Matt Taibbi wrote an editorial in Rolling Stone about the experience of the surprise Trump win of the presidency for journalists and others in the media. Of course, the film Idiocracy just celebrated it’s 10th anniversary and many have referred to the film this past year. Taibbi points to the film saying that it is “ostensibly a comedy but destined now to be remembered as a horror movie” (Taibbi, 38). He goes on to say that many reporters “found themselves thinking about this film when we [heard] voters saying they were literally incapable of understanding the words coming out of Hillary Clinton’s mouth. ‘When [Trump] talks, I actually understand what he’s saying,’ a young Pennsylvanian” told Taibbi, “‘But, like, when fricking Hillary Clinton talks, it just sounds like a bunch of bullshit.’”
This is, of course reminiscent of the scene in Idiocracy when Joe wakes up after 500 years of cryogenic sleep and is unable to communicate with people. He is “able to understand them. But when he spoke, he sounded pompous and faggy to them.”
It’s a humorous moment, for sure, but when we begin to recognize, further still, our current judicial system in the courtroom scene of Joe’s trial the humor turns to dread, especially considering Trump’s Supreme Court nominees are likely to be as technologically, sociologically, and scientifically illiterate as his executive cabinet is turning out to be.
I’m reminded, also, of something Jim Jefferies says when referencing the distinct repudiation of even the most basic form of critical thought on the part of Trump supporters.
What happens is, he says really simple shit that means nothing, and then fuckin’ dummies…right? If you’ve ever said this sentence, ‘I like him because he’s a straight talker,’ you’re as dumb as shit. Just because someone says something simple that you understand, it doesn’t mean they’re a straight talker…he says ‘I’m gonna make America great again,’ and you’re like, ‘I got every word in that sentence!’
If posts on social media from my Trump-supporting friends are any indication of the sensibilities of the rest of the 42 million Americans that voted for him, then I, along with many others, I’m certain, are greatly concerned, not simply about the way his election has emboldened neofascist groups, or the racist and sexist rhetoric during his campaign speeches, but with the “wave of anti-intellectualism,” to borrow Bill Hicks’ phrase, that has defined the the cultural identity of this country. I will acknowledge that there is always some headline, “Americans are increasingly X,” “Y is on the rise in America,” and so on. Yet, when our federal government, ostensibly directed by an internet-troll, of all things, has vowed to remove itself from the Paris Accords much to the dismay of all of the other COP20 nations, when the Education Secretary does not have a degree in the field of education, etc., it is absolutely alarming when direct parallels can be drawn to the Executive Cabinet in Idiocracy.
Zizek argues that the mechanisms of manufacture of consent are broken, but I think it’s quite the contrary. Those lulling mechanisms– media, tech companies, prime time, advertising agencies, etc. –have done their job so well, that now Americans are statistically unable to distinguish an articulate career politician (for all her failings) from a developmentally stunted schoolyard bully who brags about sexual assault, and the same being true for down-ballot races across the states. Disney, HBO, Netflix, Call of Duty, and UFC have all done their part well to lull the electorate. To quote Zach De La Rocha, “They packed the 9, fired into prime time. The sleeping gas, every home was like Alcatraz…You’re brain dead, you got a fuckin’ bullet in your head.”
I’m conditionally inclined to agree with Taibbi when he and others suggest that identity politics have gotten in the way of a clearer vision of the true issues (climate change, nuclear proliferation, the global refugee crisis, healthcare, and so on), and that “America’s cultural elite [has] trained for so long to think in artificial distinctions like Republicans and Democrats instead of more-natural divisions, like haves and have-nots.” Go figure, Rollings Stone’s editorial board, in its endorsement of Hillary Clinton earlier in the campaign, outright dismissed Bernie Sanders by arguing that these issues were fringe, marginal, but now those very same issues seem a distant utopian future where national dialogues might include such elevated topics. However, I agree, also, that we must be careful not to level blame at those who have fought for civil rights and basic cultural and legal representation, for as Melissa Warnke writes in her LA Times editorial “progressivism isn’t a cause divorced from consequence.” Those representations are, predictably, likely to be met with social resistance from other ethnic and cultural groups, but they are still a noble and just cause.
I will likely come back to Arrival in a later post because there is much to be unpacked from the film. As I’ve told all of my friends, it combines three of my favorite elements in narrative: linguistics, aliens, and stunningly gorgeous redheads. Until then, if there’s one theme from the story that I think is worth articulating as clearly as possible, it’s this– we, as a species capable of drastic global consequence, absolutely must raise the level of literacy in all academic fields. We need to “Make America smart again,” said Neil deGrasse Tyson during a spot of the Late Show.
America, in particular, must rediscover the value of intellect rather than disregarding it as elitism or “liberal bias.” As Albert Einstein once warned even as far back as 1934 when addressing the Progressive Education Association, the stakes are too high. “Security of the United States, as for other countries,” he says, “lies only in a satisfactory solution of the world peace problem. Youth must not be allowed to believe that safety can be obtained through political isolation” (Einstein, 57-58). I would go a step further to argue that cultural and economic isolation are equally obstructive. “The spirit of international solidarity should also be strengthened,” Einstein continues, “and chauvinism should be combated as a hindrance to world peace. In schools, history should be used as a means of interpreting progress in civilization, and not for inculcating ideals of imperialistic power and military success.” Education should be valued by a society, it’s the greatest investment in it’s own future that society could ever make as a sort of insurance plan. Much like genes are passed down through biological generations, knowledge should be passed down through the generations to “interpret [the] progress” of society, and the education system is the conduit for that knowledge. Never again should our society tolerate the fact that its electorate was able to vote for a candidate who has promised to “bomb the shit out of” someone in another country without being able to so much as point out where that country is on a map.
And yet, our government attacks, and defunds it’s own education system for the specific purpose of lowering educational standards and privatizing and monetizing schools. To yet again quote Chomsky, at some length because, I think, he brilliantly summarizes the value of public education:
We see it in the attack on public schools. Public schools are based on the principle of solidarity. I no longer have children in school, they’re grown up. But, the principle of solidarity says that I happily pay taxes so that the kid across the street can go to school. That’s normal human emotion. They have to drive that out of people’s heads, ‘I don’t have kids in school, why should I pay taxes. Privatize it,’ and so on. The public education system, all the way from kindergarten to higher education is under severe attack. I mean, that’s one of the jewels of American society. You go back to the ‘golden age’ again, the great growth period in the 50s and 60s. A lot of that is based on free public education…The US is way at the lead of developing extensive public mass education at every level…Now in half the states, most of the funding for public colleges comes from tuition, not from the state. That’s a radical change… In the 1950s, there was a much poorer society than there is today. It could never the less handle, essentially free, mass higher education. Today a much richer society claims it doesn’t have the resources for it. That’s just what’s going on right before our eyes. That’s the general attack on principles that, I mean, not only are they humane, they’re the basis of the prosperity and health of this society.
Again, more on Arrival soon. Until then, as President Not Sure says, “I don’t know, read a book or something.” Just don’t do it in a waffle house.
Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviewed three women who are directly involved in the fight to protect American public education– former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, Center for Media and Democracy Executive Director, Lisa Graves, and member of the Detroit Board of Education, Tawanna Simpson. Ravitch brings up an important point, that education voucher systems break “the long history of a separation of church and state because most of the vouchers that are used in the states that now have vouchers are for religious schools. And most of them are not going to — it’s not enough money to go to an elite school or to the best school, it’s usually very, like in the South, it’s backward fundamentalist church schools that have uncertified staff.” Watch the whole interview here:
Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions. Ed. Cal Seelig. NY: Three River Press, 1982. Print.
Taibbi, Matt. “Trump’s Payback: Journalists and politicians blew off the warning signs of a Trump presidency– now, we must all pay the price.” Rolling Stone. Issue 1275, 1 Decmber 2016. Print.