Black Mirror and the 2020 Election: The Waldo Moment

Part II: The moral of The Waldo Moment

Posted Dec 01, 2019

In my last post, I began exploring the Black Mirror episode “The Waldo Moment” in an attempt to find its moral. We discovered that it can't be as simple as "politicians are fake." I argued that the key lies in a scene that explains how Waldo made the fascist world we see at the end of the episode possible. In this scene, Jamie and Jack (the producer who owns Waldo) meet with Jeff Carter, an American from “The Agency.” He explains why Waldo is the “perfect political figurehead.”

“The bear, people like. The fact he's a bear is an assist…. You look at human politicians, you're instinctively like, "brrrr"—uncanny, right? Like the girls in porn. You know something's wrong, cos why else are they doing it? It's usually daddy issues, eh? Just like politics. Waldo bypasses that. You already know he's not real, so no personal flaws…. He's a team, and you're open about that, which is fantastic. The honesty thing works. Waldo is a construct people [don’t] just accept but embrace. At the moment, he's anti-politics, which is a political stance itself, right? But he could deliver any brand of political content, minus the potential downsides of a human messenger. In a debate, your team could Google every word the other guy says, then let Waldo hit him with debunk stats and spit a Twitter-ready zinger into the next sentence. He's the perfect assassin…."

If we stopped there, one might think that the message of the episode is about the dangers of technology—a warning about the rise of digital animation technology, which could allow for a cartoon to run for office and participate in discussion and debate in real-time (and be the best candidate on the stage, because people can be googling the right response behind the scenes). And maybe that is a warning the episode calls out.

Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons
Black Mirror creator and producer Charlie Brooker
Source: Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons

But Brooker (the show’s creator) has said that (despite common opinion) the dangers of technology is not what Black Mirror is about.

"Occasionally it’s irritating when people miss the point of the show and think it’s more po-faced [humorless or disapproving] than I think it is. Or when they characterize it as a show warning about the dangers of technology. That slightly confuses and annoys me, because it’s like saying [Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic] Psycho is a movie warning about the danger of silverware. Black Mirror is not really about that…“[I]t’s not a technological problem [we have], it’s a human one.” [Source]

In other words, Black Mirror is about human foibles. The technology in the show just amplifies them so that they are obvious for all to see. And if we continue with Agent Jeff Carter’s quote, we can see the human foible that Waldo magnifies.

"…of course he won't win. You started out too coarse off the bat. There's no substantial basis to what you offer, and the whole nihilist "democracy sucks" thing, yeah, is kind of wack-a-doo. But with a targeted, hopeful message, which we can provide, energizing the disenfranchised without spooking the middle via your new platform, you got a global political-entertainment product people actually want. You could roll this out worldwide."

That is what makes Waldo so dangerous. People like his anti-establishment, f*ck-the-status-quo stance, but he doesn’t stand for any specific alternative. He has no plan. He has no position. He offers no fix.

As Gwendolyn (his labor party opponent) put it, “if you were preaching revolution, well that’d be something. But you’re not, because that would require courage and a mindset… what have you got? Who are you? What are you for?”

A lot of people are, rightly, fed up with the system as it stands; they are the disenfranchised Jeff speaks of. They are anti-establishment. And so they like Waldo. But in what direction do you go after the establishment has been overturned? You could go anywhere, even straight into fascism. And since Waldo stands for nothing else, even fascists could use him to rise to power.

And so, at least as I now read the episode, this is its message: A person with a political mindset that only goes as deep as “f*ck the establishment” is monumentally dangerous. That’s the human foible. Such a person could be manipulated into voting for any candidate; all a candidate has to do is declare themselves to be “anti-establishment.” And the same would be true of those who say, like Jamie, that they “aren’t interested” in politics.

Not only does democracy require an informed electorate, and not only does low voter turnout usually hand an advantage to the worst candidates, but dissatisfaction with the status quo is usually the reason such people give for their lack of engagement. And even if they aren’t tricked into voting for the wrong person (because they don’t vote), such disengagement will lead them to be complicit when a fascist uses an anti-establishment platform to rise to power. They can’t be bothered to worry about the concentration camps, and the illegal behavior, and the lifting of environmental regulations—because ‘It’s boring,” or because “all politicians are corrupt anyway, so what does it matter?”

Another way to make the point is to observe that 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 and exploited by fascists to trick people into political complacency so that they can rise to power. 

But does the episode have someone in mind when it makes this point? I’m saving that for my next post, the third act.