What We Talk About When We Talk About Idiocracy
I recall happening across Mike Judge’s Idiocracy on cable at about the time of its premiere there. I remember being astonished that a twenty-first century film would so blatantly make a case for dysgenics — specifically the prospect of (presumably) low IQ “poors” out-breeding the (presumably) high IQ upper strata — as a danger to civilization. However, I took it for an edgelordist chase after cheap laughs by the man who brought the world Beavis and Butt-head (it still seemed possible to take ultra-reactionary material that way back then, with South Park exemplary). And I probably would not have given the film very much thought afterward were it not for its exceptional persistence in the pop cultural memory, the particular character of which says a lot — only a few critics noticing the more disturbing elements of the premise (which, if anything, seem the more apparent in the wake of Judge’s later work, like his six-season prestige TV hit on HBO, Silicon Valley — “Elitist porn,” Rick Paulas calls Idiocracy, words equally applicable to Judge’s HBO show). One of those few who has noticed, Adam Johnson, raised an important point when he noted who it was that treated the film as such a reference point in recent years — liberals invoking Idiocracy again and again in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent electoral ascent. This seemed to him deeply incongruous — enough so that the title of his piece asked why liberals “love referencing” what was “one of the most elitist and anti-social movies ever.” However, the fact may be less incongruous than it seems. If by liberal we mean “left” then this is indeed unfitting — the tendency plausibly reflective of liberals having ceased to be liberals, as many have charged has been the case, with Chris Hedges, for example, announcing the “death” of an American liberal class corrupted and demoralized by its proximity to and the temptations of power, by endless war, by its own hostility to the more fully leftward counterparts against whom it consistently sided with the right, and one might add, by its defeat after defeat after defeat for decades.
However, if by liberal we mean “centrist” then there really is no dissonance. American liberalism, after all, emerged less from adherents of socialism of the Marxist or any other variety, or from movements of labor or the poor, but a more upper-class Progressivism that was afraid of the left rather than influenced by it, and certainly as it developed at mid-century looked more like an update of classical conservatism for the realities of twentieth century America. That package most certainly included an insistence upon society’s dependence on an elite — and distaste for the “swinish multitude” it feared would trample everything it valued into the mud under its hooves — such as is all too clear in that film.
Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.