Who’s Making Us Stupid?

The other night I rented the film Idiocracy, a satire by Beavis and Butthead creator Mike Judge that appeared in theaters last year for about two seconds, probably because its critique of the mass media hits too close to home. It’s about an average guy who awakens from a government cryogenics experiment to discover that in the year 2505, the human race has become unutterably stupid because all the educated yuppies stopped having babies while the trailer-trash and ghetto gangstas bred like rabbits.

The humans of the future water their crops with Gatorade because advertisers have told them that water is only for toilets. Television now only has two channels, the Violence Channel (featuring the hit show “Ow! My Balls!”) and the Masturbation Channel. Porn is everywhere (Starbucks offers a “Gentleman’s full-body latte”). If this doesn’t sound too different from today, well, you can understand why the entertainment industry gave this film minimal promotion.

Most Hollywood movies that use broader social/cultural problems as the backdrop for their characters’ storyline are written as if the resolution of the individual conflict means that the systemic problem has also gone away. Think of all the Cinderella stories about one talented individual’s escape from the ghetto (e.g. Good Will Hunting), the endless crop of heroic-teacher movies (Coach Carter, Freedom Writers) or the environmentalist critique of suburbia in the nearly-brilliant Over the Hedge. Idiocracy rejects this individualist escapism, another reason it was less popular than its wit deserved. The two unfrozen people from 2005 may make things better for their cretinous brethren in the short-term, but their three children don’t stand a chance against their idiot buddy’s thirty-two. The gene pool is still doomed.

I do think this film is worth seeing, but I also found its worldview troubling in some ways. I’m sure its creators took pains to avoid seeming too racist (the ratio of morons is about 70% hillbilly to 30% ghetto). My beef with the film is that decadence isn’t only an IQ issue, it’s a values issue. Are the lower classes stupider, or do they simply have fewer resources to shield them from the effects of society-wide pathologies? The non-breeding elites, after all, own the media companies that brought us gangsta rap and Geraldo. They become lawyers for the porn industry or write memos telling our president how to evade the Geneva Convention. Being “smart” doesn’t make them wise. The elites can distract themselves from their despair by hoarding more stuff; the poor throw bricks through their own windows.

I’ll leave the last word to the inestimable Garret Keizer, from his book Help: The Original Human Dilemma:

Conservative sociologists and the spawn of conservative think tanks speak of “the culture of poverty.”…What, pray tell, is a culture of poverty? I would guess that it is one of waste, ignorance, substance abuse, petty squabbling, random violence, sexual irresponsibility, shabby child rearing, and a sweet tooth for scandal. I would guess it is a culture with no meaningful conception of the future and no ability whatsoever to know the proper value of anything….

In short, I assume that a culture of poverty would look exactly like the dominant culture of America, which more and more resembles that of a tenement or a trailer park. Lu Ann called Peggy Sue a slut. Monica gave Billy a blow job. The poor are with us always because the poor are us….

I grew up during the building boom in housing projects. We had simultaneously declared war on poverty in America and war on the peasantry in Vietnam. I can remember overhearing the barber shop diatribes on what “those people” down in the city had done, how the spendthrift federal government had moved them out of the slums into brand-new apartments where they lost no time yanking out the faucets and the doorknobs and anything else they could pry loose to sell, probably to get money for liquor and dope. You could not help people like that.

Thus I was taught that a culture of poverty is one in which you trash a place that isn’t even yours and sell whatever you can for a quick buck. In other words, you behave like a coal company in Kentucky. Or like the present administration wants to behave in Alaska. When Republicans say that theirs is the true party of the disadvantaged, I have no trouble keeping a straight face. (pp.204-05)

11 comments on “Who’s Making Us Stupid?

  1. Hank Rodgers says:

    Great discussion Jendi, on one of my favorite subjects too: our culture and its impact on our actions (and vice versa, of course), both individual and organizational.

    The excerpt from Keizer was most appropriate. It seems to me that the culture helps the poor and powerless to cope, however; lacking which there is only their despair, which is forstalled only by the distraction of “frantic animation”, and by pallative drugs.

    I have never seen this movie, but would definitely appreciate it; though I very much doubt that the world it apparently depicts, one of redneck cretins and ghetto gansters, would have any kind of Starbucks.

    Your point that “decadence” is not so much an IQ as a “values” issue is particularly worth comment, however. My Websters defines decadence as a decline, a fall, presumably from something greater. Unfortunately, we can hardly read our human history quite that way…

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