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I recently rented the movie Idiocracy, having heard from several people that is was hilariously funny and, from a few others, that it would make me weep. As usual, the few were closer to the mark.
Idiocracy is the latest film from Mike Judge, who also brought us the biting satire of Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill and Office Space. Clearly, the man has a fascination with the less cultured side of what is known as 'American culture'. He has however found a rich comic niche for himself that others have left largely untouched. It isn't that others haven't dealt with the less palatable side of American life, it's just that no one else has done it with such verisimilitude. The characters in this movie are not caricatures. They are real. Far too real.
The premise of Idiocracy is simple. The most average man in the world - the guy at the very middle of the bell curve, literally - and a prostitute are put to sleep in a military cryogenics experiment. Like Planet of the Apes, our cryogenically frozen heroes awake much later than anticipated, finding themselves on a drastically altered, future Earth. Unlike Planet of the Apes, in which the dominant species were apes that had made the evolutionary leap to human-like intelligence, the world of Idiocracy is run by humans who've gone a long way down a devolutionary slide toward ape-like intelligence. And wackiness ensues. I suppose I would've found all that wackiness a lot funnier if it weren't so depressingly close to modern day reality.
While I can't be sure about the plot of Planet of the Apes, I can assure you we are in no danger of ever facing a world like that of Idiocracy. There will never come a time when there are only idiots left in charge, as portrayed in this movie. Maybe that sounds like optimistically good news. It isn't. What is happening is far worse.
I used to teach inner city kids. I taught at one of those technical "colleges" that caters to the underprivileged and poorly educated. As it turns out, this particular school was really only interested in using these kids to suck money out of the Pell Grant program and SallieMae via student loans that almost none of the students intended to pay back. In order to qualify for these grants and loans, these kids would have to pass a test of their basic skills. The school, wanting to get as many loans as possible going, would hedge things in favor of each entrant passing by allowing certain "testing aids." For example, students were allowed to use calculators for the arithmetic portion of the test.
Sadly, I would see kids coming out of those testing rooms each week beaming with pride at having passed. They were proud that they'd just passed an arithmetic test using a calculator! For some of them, this was quite possibly the first time in their lives that they had a feeling of accomplishment and acceptance. I found their excitement pitiful, heartbreaking and sweet all at the same time. Emotionally and intellectually, they were still small children.
The problem isn't that these kids are black, Hispanic, poor or were descendants of slaves. These populations did not become how they are today because they have simply been disenfranchised or were dealing with the wounds of their past.
They have been mercilessly manipulated by a government that is anything but compassionate.
Ignored, perhaps they would've created a subculture that met their needs with what they had available to them. But, they have not been ignored. They have been the target of an ongoing campaign of abuse and psychological warfare with the specific goal of keeping them under the thumb of law enforcement and trapped in an economic prison.
Consider, as an example, The Black Panther Party. The Panthers were, without a doubt, a revolutionary organization. Were they anti-white, as has often been claimed? Two of the original Panthers had white wives. Were they violent? They were not opposed to the use of force in defending themselves, but they did not promote the use of force as part of a revolution against the tyranny of an oppressive government. While the Panthers did march to the California capital building fully armed to protest the legislatures attempt to outlaw the carrying of loaded weapons in public (a cause since taken up by the largely white National Rifle Association), their only action on that day was the reading of a statement of protest by Bobby Seale.
What the Panthers did was far more radical than carrying guns and calling for political reforms. Instead, they took positive action to address the problems of the inner city. In January 1969, they began the Panther's Free Breakfast for School Children Program at St. Augustine's Church in Oakland, California. By the end of 1969, the Panthers were feeding over 10,000 children across the country, for free.
Just what were the Panthers trying to achieve through this program? According to the article To Feed Our Children in The Black Panther magazine of March 26, 1969:
"The Free Breakfast for School Children is about to cover the country and be initiated in every chapter and branch of the Black Panther Party. This program was created because the Black Panther Party understands that our children need a nourishing breakfast every morning so that they can learn."
"It is a beautiful sight to see our children eat in the mornings after remembering the times when our stomachs were not full, and even the teachers in the schools say that there is a great improvement in the academic skills of the children that do get the breakfast. At one time there were children that passed out in class from hunger, or had to be sent home for something to eat. But our children shall be fed, and the Black Panther Party will not let the malady of hunger keep our children down any longer."
In response, then head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, called the Panthers the "greatest threat to the internal security of the country." What is it about poor children receiving adequate nutrition so that they can learn that bothered him so? It does make one scratch their head in wonder, doesn't it? Could it be that our government wanted these children malnourished and poorly educated?
It is easy to look at the chaos of our inner cities today and assume that they brought it on themselves or that they are simply weak. In fact, many put up a valiant fight. The Panther's Free Breakfast program was begun the year following the killing of unarmed 17 year-old Bobby Hutton (one of the original Panthers) by Oakland police and the assassinations of both Martin Luther King (just two days before Hutton's death) and Bobby Kennedy. It would've been easy to let anger overtake them, but they didn't. Instead, they organized in a peaceful manner to feed children. A threat to the internal security of the country?
The attacks on the Panthers and other groups seeking to organize and improve the lives of oppressed populations at the time - attacks that included violence, infiltration, planting of false evidence, faking letters and literature and planting false news stories - were carried out for the most part by COINTELPRO. This was the FBI's counter intelligence program, begun specifically to destroy these kinds of organizations. We could go on and on with stories about COINTELPRO and their destructive actions. They attacked every organization that worked for social justice and equitable treatment of the disenfranchised and downtrodden. But, let's take a look at the present and results of their work.
Far too many people today believe COINTELPRO ended. They believe that Black and Hispanic populations today are a product of their own laziness or, perhaps, genetic inferiority. They believe these people are given ample opportunity to rise above their poverty and history to become productive members of society. Nothing could be further from the truth.
During my tenure teaching kids from areas like South Central, East LA and Compton, places that only appear in the news in conjunction with a drive-by shooting, drug bust or gang activity, I saw a clearer picture of what these kids face today. In these neighborhoods, attempts to get out only mark them for abuse. The abuse might come from gangs or friends, but it will just as likely come from the police.
I had a student who was handcuffed and shoved face first into the hood of a police car simply because he was alone in a Laundromat doing his laundry. Another was kept in a cold cell for hours then threatened with prison time because the officers who picked him up claimed that someone identified him as the person who had committed a robbery at gun point several hours earlier, during which time he was in my classroom. Tellingly, he was never placed in a lineup for a more positive identification. He was just let go after several hours of psychological abuse.
We could go on and on with these stories, too. The abuse by authority is endless in these neighborhoods. If you walk in a group of three or more there, you are considered a gang. If you walk alone, you are suspected of planning something nefarious and, most likely, picked up by a passing patrol car. After a round of threatening remarks and claims of "knowing what you are up to" you will be dropped of in a neighborhood controlled by a gang that is unfriendly to the one that controls your home neighborhood.
In the world of gangs, there is no such thing as being neutral. If you live in a gang neighborhood, you are considered an affiliate of the gang, like it or not. You take your life in your hands walking in a rival neighborhood. The common phrase used to determine your affiliation is, "where you from?" delivered in a cool, vaguely threatening manner. The officers that dropped you off in the rival neighborhood are well aware of these dynamics. Given the history of COINTELPRO and the civil rights movement, the reason for playing these dynamics to an often disastrous conclusion is clear. The fear and hatred generated is a hedge against another Black Panther Party, Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King ever rising up from their ranks.
The abuse, the beating down, the counter intelligence attacks continue unabated and largely unnoticed by anyone outside the inner city. In that sense, nothing has changed. In another sense, quite a lot has. Today, the revolutionary spirit that once drove the inner cities to action seems nearly dead. A sort of stupefaction has overcome these people after decades of attacks they didn't understand and, so, could not protect themselves against. Their lives are more miserable than most of us can comprehend. (Why do you wear your shoes to bed in the 'hood? Because you can't afford to turn on the heat and you never know when you might have to run for your life in the middle of the night.) Yet, something is still there. The struggle continues. A spark is still alive. And, there is still the shoe of governmental authority doing its level best to stamp out that spark.
In an article on the website http://awol.objector.org/mumia/son_cointel.html, Mumia Abu-Jamal states the reason for the attacks on groups in the civil rights movement by COINTELPRO succinctly and, I think, accurately:
"When King and Cesar Chavez were vilified by the FBI, it wasn't because they threatened public order, but because they threatened the private accumulation of capital. They were thus enemies of Empire. For this, they were harassed, harried, humiliated, and run aground."
The manipulation of the inner city is only a part of the plan to accumulate capital and power in the hands of a few. That is why we are in no danger of ever living in the world of Idiocracy. Not as it is specifically portrayed. Most of the world may become functional idiots, but they won't be the ones in power. The goal is to turn you and me into cattle. Sadly, the sound of mooing is getting louder every day.
I have to admit that I did chuckle a few times while watching Idiocracy. That the only thing that hadn't changed at all in that dystopian world was Fox News was kind of funny. Even the style of speech and overly dramatic mannerisms common in the inner city make me laugh in a sad sort of way. It's hard for me to keep a straight face when I hear someone say, "It off da hizzle fo' shizzle" [English translation: it's off the hook for sure]. On the other hand, making them the brunt of a crude joke without any thought as to why this has happened to a large segment of our population is, in my opinion, not funny at all.
When I first began teaching, I was horrified by what I found in my classroom. I had been warned before hand that I would spend most of my time entertaining and acting as a surrogate father. The warnings didn't prepare me for the reality of the situation. The kids were all past high school age, yet most of them would struggle with school work at a third grade level. The few who had managed to learn something in school were so traumatized by their environment that their efforts to learn or "go straight" could be derailed by one carelessly spoken phrase. They were, in short, casualties of a war that most of us have no idea is being waged.
What the authors of Idiocracy don't seem to understand is that these things don't happen by accident. In the 60's, Black and Hispanic groups were fighting hard to make a life for themselves that was more than mere survival. They saw clearly what the government of the U.S. was about and were working to make a positive change. For that, they were attacked and, eventually, brought to their knees.
If you still find Idiocracy a funny take on the degradation of American culture, take a moment to consider the inner city back in 1968, when The Black Panther published the following on December 26th of that year. Think about the spirit of the people in the inner cities then, how far we have fallen since, and why it happened. Think about the fact that the attacks to keep them down are ongoing. And, think about this: those attacks are spreading to other segments of the population.
Black Child's Pledgeby Shirley Williams
I pledge allegiance to my Black People.
I pledge to develop my mind and body to the greatest extent possible.
I will learn all that I can in order to give my best to my People in their struggle for liberation.
I will keep myself physically fit, building a strong body free from drugs and other substances which weaken me and make me less capable of protecting myself, my family and my Black brothers and sisters.
I will unselfishly share my knowledge and understanding with them in order to bring about change more quickly.
I will discipline myself to direct my energies thoughtfully and constructively rather than wasting them in idle hatred.
I will train myself never to hurt or allow others to harm my Black brothers and sisters for I recognize that we need every Black Man, Woman, and Child to be physically, mentally and psychologically strong.
These principles I pledge to practice daily and to teach them to others in order to unite my People.
My greatest passion is understanding what is really going on in the world today and helping others understand...if they want to. That last part is critical. I have no interest in beating anyone over the head with what I think is correct. It is up to (more...)