Sunday, May 16, 2004

Perspective

Tonight's episode of The Simpsons was more disappointing by far than I expected. To sum up: Bart accidentally moons the flag, the entire family are treated as un-American pariahs, and eventually sent to a "Re-education camp" (Alcatraz, interestingly, which hasn't been a prison since 1963) which also houses such violators of the "Government Knows What's Best Act" as Michael Moore, the Dixie Chicks, Al Franken, Bill Clinton (!) and a man who refuses to say Californian wine is superior to imports. In a tellingly badly timed moment for the episode's airing, the "Anti-American Simpsons" become a cause celebré in the Arab world, with en-burqa-ed women triumphantly holding up photos of Homer in a riot during a newscast. To say this is somewhat paranoid hyperbole is an understatement. Though the politics of the writers and producers have always been evident, they've never before tipped their hand so far. It's pandering, and fairly repellent pandering at that. Would the same writers willing to denounce prison camps dedicated to political indoctrination in a fictional depiction of the United States have the same opinions of such camps in Mao's China, or Castro's Cuba? It's easy to stand up against a straw man. It does remind me of something else, however. Of late I've been reading anthologies of short sci-fi. In every volume, there's one or two pieces with the central premise of America having become a theocratic police state. There's rarely any actual plot; most are just an elaborately masturbatory scenario of righteous leftist (is that an oxymoron?) indignation at the horrible repression. There's little doubt that the authors suspect conservatives to be latent fascists at heart. For some reason such stories appear more frequently in the annual anthologies dating from periods of Republican administrations. I can understand that. There are some people who see tyranny around every corner, except perhaps for corners that look onto North Korea or Iran. But they've long been a fringe element of the literary world, and expected. Could anyone imagine an episode of The Simpsons so pointedly political back in the early seasons? 1990's "Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish" was a subtle and clever indictment of media-centric politics in general. Yet it managed to avoid being mean-spirited and petty, to say nothing of its failure to match tonight's excursion into outright paranoid fantasy. Clearly the writers believe it is necessary to make a Profound Statement, using what they likely believe to have been outrageously clever satire to illustrate the argument, in no uncertain terms, that BUSH=HITLER. In comparison, I've recently viewed some WWII shorts - Der Fuhrer's Face, The Ducktators, and Herr Meets Hare, among others. I had known of their existence, a priori. I had known that they were rarely aired and quietly buried, due to their explicit handing of the wartime subject matter. Yet it was still a shock to see animated satire that was so firmly taking a side, acknowledging a war as well as the existence of a moral high ground in fighting it. There was no moral equivocation, (obviously) no po-mo snark about the self-evident evil of America. The only modern counterpart I can think of is South Park, which has had several brilliant episodes on current events in the same vein; see, for example, "A Ladder to Heaven"'s take on pre-war UN inspections in Iraq. However, South Park serves a far more niche audience; it's still on a basic cable channel, not a broadcast network. It doesn't have the same captive audience, and so enages in wacky fantastic hoo-hah in a way that's certain to offend someone on a regular basis. In contrast, The Simpsons is rarely so overtly political. Moreover, it even more rarely depicts such outright fantasy. Or, at least, it actually does depict it as fantasy, rather than the 'real world.' For this kind of episode to have made it to air suggests that the writers are deeply worried. They've become the same self-righteous dissenters as those aforementioned sci-fi authors, imagining a world where their beliefs are outlawed; it would, after all, confirm their worst expectations. All I can hope is that the stunningly deluded and ugly plot of "The Bart-Mangled Banner" went far enough in its fantasizing that it might cause others to gather the same thoughts on reality, fantasy, and perspective.

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