Idiocracy: Can We Reverse It ?

We're rapidly becoming idiots, even as you read this.

Posted Jul 04, 2011

The 2006 film Idiocracy was meant as a Wake Up call to America. Obviously, first and foremost, the film was meant to make money, and it did. But its social message was unmistakable: America is on a precipitous slide toward Idiocy. The most obvious signs of the decline we see around us are growing illiteracy, lack of education, widespread obesity, and religiosity: an overweight, uninformed, irrational people. For savvy commercial reasons the film backed off the religiosity point for the most part*, leaving it for social commentator Bill Maher to skewer in his 2008 film Religulous. But the common message of these two films is clear: Stay on your present course, America, and you are headed for an irreversible decline into mental and physical decay.

Idiocracy, created by TV's Mike Judge (Office Space; King of the Hill), chose comedy and satire over Maher's heavy-handed documentary style which, itself, owes much to film-maker, Michael Moore. Moore's film Bowling for Columbine set the tone for this kind of social commentary. But make no mistake about it: Idiocracy's commentary was deadly serious, even if its point was blunted by yuks.
An average-guy, Army private wakes up 500 years in the future and finds a radically dumbed-down America that is populated by Idiots. They are slow-witted, under-educated, and borderline illiterate. Their culture is a bizarre amalgam of present day trailer-park trash, inner-city strutting, and Valley-girl emptiness. Everything that is prevalent but devalued today has risen to the top. Intelligence, education, literacy and ambition have all but disappeared.

This unexceptional time-traveler has become the smartest guy around. "How could this have happened?" he wonders. Of course, the unspoken answer is that it is happening even as we speak. It's just that it's happening very slowly. There's never a single day when our descent into Idiocracy crosses the threshold and spurs us into the kind of action it will take to remedy the problem.
The Earth we live on is also paying the price in Judge's movie. It is literally turning to dust and its inhabitants are too stupid to do anything about it. They can barely keep civilization going and are lulled into dim-witted complacency by state-sanctioned monster truck rallies. Will this visitor from the past, who is initially shunned because he "talks funny," be able or inclined to save what is left of America?

How do we intervene and hold back the tide of Idiocy? How do we tell morbidly obese people, for example, to eat less and more wisely? How do we convince high school dropouts that literacy isn't such a bad thing? How do we get the attention of a country that used to be the envy of the world in science education, infant mortality, and job opportunity and is now slipping off the charts in just about every category except religiosity, where it rivals nations like Turkey and Lebanon? Is there a day when we can wake up and say to our fellow Americans - many of whom will be on their way to church with a corn dog in their hand - that things have gone too far?

Idiocracy, starring Luke Wilson, is only a movie. Perhaps it's all a joke. Maybe there's nothing to worry about. Maybe we're still the envy of the world and nobody is being told to put down their bible or to stay in school, or to eat something green that hasn't been deep fried.

But an odd thing happened when I was watching Idiocracy on TV. The film (which is presently being run on Comedy Central - a popular cable channel) was interrupted for commercials. Unlike the movie, these commercials are real. They are not parodies. They are there to sell products. You do that by appealing to consumers, and focusing on what they care about. You reflect their priorities and lifestyle. You reach out to them and service their needs and reinforce their values. A lot of time and money goes into developing these 30-second spots. They're expensive and they reveal a lot about us and what really matters to us. They may not be fancy sociological surveys but they do offer a no-nonsense look at our culture.

And guess what: these commercials include people, ideas and values that come straight from Idiocracy. Only this time, they are not joking. They contain, each in its own way, characters drawn directly from the film. They offer a relentless parade of unsophisticated, unintelligent, shallow people. The kind of people who would rather go to a monster truck rally and see things "blow up real good" than read a book, or learn some actual things about the world around them and how it works.
Seeing Idiocracy in a theatre makes it easier to dismiss it as an over-the-top, couldn't-happen-here comedy. Watching it at home, interrupted every seven minutes by commercials for Mike's Hard Lemonade; Car Fax; Twizlers; Pep Boys; Fosters Beer; Progressive Motorcycle Insurance; Subway Sandwiches; Farmer's Insurance; AT&T 4G Network; Lowe's; Fuji Film makes it difficult to keep the film's message at arm's length. In fact, it's often difficult to figure out where the film stops and the commercials begin.

Mike Judge and Idiocracy aren't just kidding to earn a few bucks. It really is scary out there. There really are a lot of obese people with room temperature IQs and priorities and ambitions that should have us all shaking in our boots. Unless, of course, you believe that 2% of us can keep the ship afloat for the other 98% who are too busy deep frying donuts and praying to Jesus. If you're reading this, you're probably in the 2%. What do you think we can or should do about it? Is the descent into Idiocracy inevitable? 

Illustrations by: Athena Gubbe

* Footnote * But the content is not entirely secular. There is that hilarious glimpse of the "Church of Saint God", complete with faulty construction and spelling mistakes on its marquee.

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