Black Mirror and the 2020 Election: Conclusion
Part IV: We might live through the worst Black Mirror episode yet.
Posted December 2, 2019
Last time, in our examination of the moral of the Black Mirror episode "The Waldo Moment," we left off with Jack’s argument that we should eliminate all the politicians.
"Look, we don't need politicians; we've all got iPhones and computers, right? So any decision that has to be made, any policy, we just put it online. Let the people vote thumbs up, thumbs down, the majority wins. That's a democracy. That's an actual democracy."
But Jamie’s retort to Jack is biting—and spot on.
Jamie: So is YouTube, and I don't know if you've seen it, but the most popular video is a dog farting the theme tune to Happy Days.
Jack: Well, today, it's Waldo.
Jamie: No. It's still the dog.
Jamie is exactly right.
Since democracy was first conceived, it’s been known that pure democracy—where everyone gets exactly one vote, and everything is decided by the majority opinion of the entire populace—is dangerous. To borrow and modify a thought experiment from Plato’s Republic, if you owned a ship, how would you rather its navigation be directed? By a majority vote of the people who happen to be upon it? Or would you hire a navigational and sailing expert, who understands the science of sailing and navigation? Obviously, the latter.
This is why America’s founding fathers did not establish a pure democracy but a representative democracy. They didn’t want a dictatorship, but they also recognized that the average person doesn’t have the relevant expertise to know which laws should be enacted or how governments should be run. The middle-ground solution was to have the people, by majority vote, elect representatives who, at least ideally, would have the relevant expertise and know-how to accomplish that which was the best for everyone.
Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, and there is nothing wrong with being unhappy with the current political leadership of either party. It’s not bad to be anti-establishment. There’s plenty wrong with things as they stand.
But merely being anti-establishment isn’t enough. You need plans. You need a vision of how things should be changed, and a working argument for why those changes would be for the better. Tearing down the system is one thing, but not building another in its place would be even more disastrous than keeping the status quo. As Monroe, Waldo’s Tory party opponent, puts it, “If [Waldo] is the main opposition, then the whole system looks absurd. Which it may well be. But it built these roads.”
Just think of how different the world would be if the American public had been warier of those who said they would “drain the swamp” and “make America great again” without being specific about what those phrases meant in practice. Notice that both are slogans that appeal to dissatisfaction with the status quo. But also notice that they tell us nothing about what comes next. To what era of American history are we going to return? If you drain the swamp, who are you going to fill it back up with? People just assumed Trump was going to do what they wanted, leaving him free to do whatever he wanted once elected.
It turns out, however, that the episode, "The Waldo Moment," was inspired by the election of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London.
“It was that whole notion of cartoon Boris,” Brooker said. “He goes on some TV panel show like Have I Got News for You, and everyone thinks he’s a legend.” “And it doesn’t matter what Boris says,” Producer Annabel Jones adds, “as long as he’s entertaining. We’ll forgive you [for] anything if you make us laugh.”
Indeed, even if Jamie did something wrong, Waldo would be blameless. People loved Waldo, not Jamie; Waldo is the one that makes them laugh. In the same way, Boris has created a cartoon version of himself—with disheveled hair and outrageous outfits—at which it’s almost impossible not to laugh. As a result, it’s almost impossible to make any criticism of Boris stick—even when he outright lies or disbands Parliament.
God knows how "The Waldo Moment" would have been different had Brooker and Jones known that Trump would be elected president in 2016, or Boris would have spearheaded Brexit and then be elected as Prime Minister in 2019. In the wake of Trump’s election, protesters in the real world held up signs reading “This Episode of Black Mirror Sucks.” It was definitely “The Waldo Moment” they were referring to (which is ironic, because, if I recall correctly, critics said that episode sucked, because it was too “unrealistic”).
A TV celebrity had decided to run for president, as a publicity stunt, on the platform “f*ck the status quo.” If we’re not careful, if we don't heed the warnings of "The Waldo Moment," 2020 will be an even worse sequel to the original: the Black Mirror episode no one wanted. And we might just end up in the dystopian fascist nightmare the end of the episode envisions.
Copyright David Kyle Johnson (2019)
 Charlie Booker and Annabel Jones with Jason Arnopp, Inside Black Mirror (New York: Crown Archetype, 2018): Chapter 6.