canary in the coal mine

A number of years ago I spent an evening with some friends on a sleety winter night. It was dark well before evening, and these friends had just finished a rec room that featured a TV as big as a car. We decided the inaugural voyage for the media system should be something light, a comedy.

Over the next few hours we dropped into the world of Idiocracy, starring Luke Wilson as Joe Bowers, a man who’s a thoroughly average American soldier. Bowers is chosen for a “top secret” military hibernation program that’s billed as an experiment to test storing the world’s citizens for a future date, when they might be needed most. He’s joined in hibernation by Rita, played by Maya Rudolph, a woman who’s running away from her pimp. It’s a ridiculous experiment and plot line, of course. Scandal ensues, and the officials in charge close the program down and forget they’ve cold-storaged Bowers and Rita, who wake up 500 years later to a world that’s changed in every terrifying possible way. Mountainous terrains of trash grow as far as the eye can see. Costco is the central business of the world. Citizens subsist on a drink called Brawndo, supposedly rich in electrolytes, which has replaced water for drinking and is used for irrigating plants. A food shortage plagues the land.

Bowers and Rita are the Adam and Eve – the smartest people in the world – in the new landscape where every conceivable commodity is built around convenience, desire, and pleasure. Together they come to understand the call to arms set before them: they must educate citizens and ultimately serve a stint in the White House, run by President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.

I made it through the film without falling asleep on the couch. Not because it was good. Like other Mike Judge work – Beavis and Butt-head Do America, Office Space – its satire is built around the sort of basement humor that’s somehow funny every time: farting and burping and other crude cultural jokes you’re slightly embarrassed to be laughing about.

Don’t rush to see this movie.

I’m writing about it here because I recall how it agitated me in the weeks after. It was absurd and low, yes, but there was enough possibility for reality underneath the idiocy, enough prescience at its core.

I’ve spent the last year mainly listening more than writing, as events in my own life haven’t left much bandwidth for creating words. A natural introvert, I’m on friendly terms with listening. This is how we quiet types make sense of the world. Writers especially listen in on the world, transforming what we witness and hear into story lines and scenes, eavesdropping on conversations to hear how people talk and what silences in conversations sound like.

It’s been hard to listen to the avalanche of words from both sides in the last few months. I’ve purposely not used this space for political discussions. But this last week, these election results, feel like what happens when the premise of Idiocracy and McCarthyism have a baby.

I normally love babies. What better testament to new beginnings, to love, to hope? But this baby is genetically engineered by people who don’t speak for much of what I believe in.

This baby is going to develop at an abnormal rate. It’s on its back in the crib, soaking in the shiny bright dangling mobile of hateful rhetoric, intolerance, and anger. It’s drinking the milk of corporate interests, of stripping away protections for the common good, of sowing the seeds of fear. This baby is walking and shouting and pointing a finger. It’s developing hand-eye coordination by using a sledgehammer. Swinging away at environmental protections, healthcare for the underserved, justice that makes sense for democracy, protection of the arts and education and refugees and carefully crafted global partnerships.

I’m a parent. A teacher. I’m concerned about the first years of this child. What happens when it goes to school and has to play nice with others? When it becomes a teenager? When a childhood devoid of wrangling with facts and compassion cannot curb the impulsive choices it makes because its frontal lobe isn’t yet formed?

And since I’m throwing around such loud metaphors, I’ll add one more. How was it so many of us missed the canary in the coal mine? I’ve been listening all year, hard, but I wasn’t, clearly, listening to the voices that could’ve indicated all the air would be leaving the chamber. How was it so many of us couldn’t hear – more, acknowledge as a possible majority – that frequency?

Tending to this rogue baby is going to take a village. The future will require all of us to listen to each other in ways we haven’t. I hope enough of us will be brave enough to try.

Categories: community, parenting, writing | Tags: | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “canary in the coal mine

  1. timfearnside

    Thanks for this, Laura :). It’s indeed hard to look at this baby with a great deal of hope for its prospects. Nor does looking at its parents inspire much confidence. Idiocracy and McCarthyism — who among us would have conspired to try to pair those two up?

    Still, the baby analogy requires me think hard about compassion. Is there a place for compassion in all of this? Surely we need compassion more than ever, but does it extend to that ugly, malformed baby with such dismal prospects? To its ill-suited parents who are already all grown up and seemingly beyond hope?

    I really don’t know — only, that it’s asking an awful lot. But perhaps it’s a piece of this never-ending culture war, one ingredient in how we might go about starting to heal, starting to bridge that chasm between us.

    Or, perhaps it’s simply a time in our history where we need to take a clear stand, choose sides, and let our competing ideals duke it out. Again, I don’t know, but this is something I think about a lot.

    Thanks, as always, for the brain food. It’s good to hear your voice in the chaos.

    – T

    Oh – and I saw this quote from Mike Judge, attributed some time before the election. Your noted parallels to the movie Idiocracy were clearly not lost on its director!

    “It’s surreal. I didn’t want Idiocracy to get popular by the world getting stupider faster. I guess I was 450 years off! But yeah, it’s a tad bit scary!”

    • I hear you, Tim, and I don’t know the answer either. I’m inclined to say there’s always a place for compassion. What are we without that, in the end? I, for one, don’t want to live in a place that’s deselecting compassion as fundamental. The way forward, I think, is to foster compassion – even for those loud voices we don’t understand – and to model and insist that civil discourse frames the way we try to communicate. Much easier said than done but worth the hard work, the brewing war. Maybe this work we’re called to engage in now will be the seeds planted for our daughters to harvest, to use a few more loud metaphors…

      Poor Mike Judge – I imagine the forward-thinking message of his film IS quite surprising!

  2. I think you have nailed it. Listening, fully and wholly, paired with discussion, not shouting, is the only way to move forward.

  3. Reblogged this on Reflections on Gender and Postcolonial Issues and commented:
    My friend Laura shares some wise metaphors–even if they are, as she calls them, “loud.” I like loud. Especially at the current moment. Read and join the village.

    • Thanks for sharing this on your site, Col. These are some hard times, built to stay that way for a while it would seem. I’m so glad to have strong, articulate, passionately tolerant friends as we head into battle.

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