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Black Mirror and the 2020 Election: Political Corruption

Part III: Corrupt politicians lie and say all politicians are equally corrupt.

Last time, in the wake of discussing my course and new book Black Mirror and Philosophy, we discovered that the Black Mirror episode “The Waldo Moment” is a warning about political compliancy—those who are disengaged or whose political opinion only goes as deep as “f*ck the establishment” or “all politicians are equally corrupt.”

The idea that all politicians are equally corrupt—that (for example) those who are opposed to fascism are just as corrupt as the fascists themselves—is a lie told by fascists to trick people into political complacency. The fallacy they are encouraging us to commit is called “false equivalence,” thinking two things are equivalent when they are not. Every political party has faults and scandals, but pointing out some of “their” mistakes doesn’t mean yours aren’t worse or more numerous.

In reality, the fault of political complacency is a privilege—and it is a privilege that can only last as long as one is not being affected by political decisions. Early in the episode, Jamie says he doesn’t care about politics; but I guarantee he cares at the end of the episode when he’s living in a fascist state and being tased for throwing a brick at a screen with Waldo’s image. But by the time you are homeless on the streets, the lead is in your water, your schools are being deprived of funding, shot up by a gunman, or the members of your ethnic and religious group are being killed by police or rounded up, it’s too late.

What’s more, when it comes to dangerous political disengagement, Brooker may have had a particular audience in mind. As Jack puts it:

"Waldo has got the attention of the young, and the young don't give a shit about anything except trainers and pirating films…. [but] they care about Waldo. They'll vote for Waldo."

Indeed, according to Roksolana Suchowerska, political disengagement is more common among young people than in any other age group. Part of rectifying this might be “increased flexibility in the practice of politics” that makes it easier for young people to be engaged, but the solution also has to come from young people themselves. One might think it’s hard to keep up with politics these days, but it’s actually never been easier. It’s all at your fingertips; it’s on your phone.

One good half-hour podcast once a week, for example, would be enough to keep at least current. Part of the reason King’s College requires its students to take philosophy is to make them into better persons: to give them the kind of mind worth making up, to make them valued, contributing members of society with informed positions on important topics. But one can’t be that unless one is, at least to a minimum degree, politically informed and engaged.

A meme trying to make a point about the severity and dangers of climate change via the "10 years challenge."
Source: Panoramaam/NASA

That’s not to say that there isn’t a good reason for young people to feel disillusioned and disenfranchised. There is a lot of corruption in politics, and some politicians don’t behave well or have their best interests in mind. The world is literally burning, and young people know that climate change poses a direct threat to their continued existence. By the time they are adults, food shortages and extreme weather may make it impossible to not only live comfortably but to live at all.

Nevertheless, the leader of the political party in power now is pulling us out of the Paris Climate Agreement (the election result determines if we will), moved to eliminate lower polluting cars because he says they are less safe (they aren’t), moved to repeal clean water standards because they hurt economic development (they don’t, and even if they did, clean water is more important), moved to eliminate energy-efficient lights bulbs because he says they make him look orange (that’s not why, really it's not), and said there is nothing to worry about because climate change is a Chinese hoax (it's really, really not). You can’t blame the youth for being frustrated.

But this is not a reason to think all politicians are all that way. That would commit a fallacy called “hasty generalization,” extrapolating to a whole population based on too small or biased a sample size. Speaking of the whole population, however—one might think that if we just eliminated politicians altogether and turned over all decisions to the popular vote, things might actually get done. As Jack puts it in the episode:

“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.”

We shall be examining that idea in my final installment.