Writer/director Mike Judge is best known for Beavis and Butthead and Office Space. Yet Idiocracy remains a hidden gem in Judge’s body of work, probably because it’s a brutally blunt satire that targets thoughtless consumerism and shallow advertising. The premise: An Army bureaucrat and a hooker agree to be frozen as part of some experiment, which loses funding. The cryogenic capsules in which they are preserved get forgotten in a gigantic garbage heap for 500 years. During that time, humanity degrades into a mass of mindless consumers addicted to fast food and reality shows about groin injuries. The president is a professional wrestler/porn star. Water fountains spout out a sports drink (which is also what they water the crops with because “it’s what plants crave”). Starbucks is a brothel. The protagonist wakes up as the smartest man alive and is thus enlisted to solve all of humanity’s problems. Judge’s portrayal of society 500 years hence is a grotesque caricature, with people eating mass processed junk out of giant buckets and gawking, slack-jawed at the sites of crashes and explosions; but it’s also not too far off the mark.
I picked this book up despite the criticisms I’d read. I mean, hell, it’s Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s take on human evolution contrasts that of Judge. Here, humans’ big brains are the problem. We think too damn much and get ourselves into everything from petty worries to ceaseless, pointless warfare. It’s in the midst of a combination of war/famine that a handful of people end up on a ship bound for the Galapagos Islands. Prior to departure, the ship is stripped of all food and tools. All that’s left is the Mandarax, a machine programmed to translate languages and spit out bits of the collective human knowledge. The Mandarax becomes essentially useless when they finally reach the islands, which are barren and lacking in food sources beyond birds and fish. They manage to survive and propagate the species despite this. Humanity goes the way of the dodo, except for this handful of people. The narrator describes how, over a million years, humans become something completely different in response to the harsh environment: no egos, tiny brains, flippers instead of arms, etc. Not that I’m quite ready to give up my brain, but Vonnegut sure knows how to make one question the very definition of progress.
“Trouble Every Day”
This tune doesn’t chronicle humanity’s descent into a thoughtless mob state. For Zappa, we’re already there. Rather this tune, off the 1966 album Freak Out, calls out a number of society’s most troubling aspects: racism, class warfare and sensational news media. The tune was obviously inspired by the Watts riots of 1965 and the news coverage they spawned: “Wednesday I watched the riot/Seen the cops out on the street/Watched ‘em throwin’ rocks and stuff/And chokin’ in the heat.” Nearly anyone—anyone who thinks, at least—can appreciate the way Zappa slams the mainstream news media for insisting on being on the scene of every tragedy as they compete with other networks for viewers (or, more accurately, to deliver eyeballs to advertisers): “If anybody gets the news before it hits that street/they say that no one blabs it faster; their coverage can’t be beat/and if another woman driver gets machine gunned from her seat/They’ll send some joker with a brownie and we’ll see it all complete.” The tune is kind of a talkin’ blues that’s absolutely packed with some seriously scathing lyrics about how stupid humans can be when you stick them in groups. You can listen to it for free at songza.com. MTW