Mike Judge and C.M. Kornbluth: A Case of Plagiarism?

A reader writes:

    The one uniform
characteristic in all the buzz surrounding the "stealth" release of
Idiocracy by 20th Century Fox is the acknowledgement that the notion of
a genetically dumbed-down future population resulting from overbreeding among
the "feeble-minded" is not just morally whacked but also without any scientific
validity whatsoever. 
 
    The whole "Jukes and
Kallikaks" idea – which was current in the years leading up to World War II (and
carried over into 1930s NSDAP policies of forced sterilization and euthanasia
from its robust health in these "progressive" United States as the result of
work by social pseudoscientists like Henry Goddard, who introduced IQ testing as
a way of screening out immigrants from "less desirable" foreign nationalities
and ethnic groups) – has been scrubbed out of the Western way of thought since
the late 1940s. 
 
    Curiously enough, the only
strongly surviving remnant of that concept – which I like to call "breeding for
dumbth" (vide Steve Allen) rather than Dumbing Us Down (see
John Taylor Gatto) – is a widely anthologized science fiction short story called
"The Marching Morons" by C.M. Kornbluth (originally published in
Galaxy
magazine, April 1951, and
still currently in print) that bears a wonderful likeness to the plot of Mike
Judge’s much-discussed but virtually unmarketed bolus of toilet humor.
 
    And now the idea is revived
and under discussion as "too hot to handle" because of this movie, with many
flagrantly mundane commentators speaking of this central plot element as if it
were an indication that this malignant concept is coming back into popular
thought because Mike Judge presents it, and Mike Judge is supposed to be a
brilliant insurgent satirist who is at odds with evil-awful-greedy-nasty
Corporate America. 
 
    Think about this instead:
Mike Judge, searching for something resembling a plot upon which to hang yet
another Dumpster-load of fart jokes, jerk-off quips, and the other varieties of
sniggering tastelessness that appeals to his acknowledged Beavis and
Butt-Head
core audience, ripped off a stefnal short story that’s still
under copyright protection, and Fox has – doubtless under some sort of
contractual obligation – put it into strangulatedly limited theatrical release
at no venue closer to Manhattan (and the Kornbluth estate’s literary
agency, Curtis Brown, Ltd) than Schererville, Indiana.

    Don’t go too deeply into
navel-gazing over supposed sociopolitical profundities when straightforward
intellectual property rights violation offers a much more credible
explanation.

Not being much of a science fiction reader, I confess I was shamefully unfamiliar with C.M. Kornbluth’s story, "The Marching Morons,"  but Wikipedia’s detailed synopsis and a somewhat schmaltzy audio dramatization were enough to bring me up to speed.  And I must admit, the core story elements uniting Kornbluth’s yarn with Mike Judge’s screenplay are not easily dismissed.  As with Judge’s Idiocracy, Kornbluth’s story centers on a present day everyman — actually, a self-interested real estate huckster — who is transported hundreds of years into the future by dint of a cleverly conceived "suspended animation" gimmick.  More significantly, however, both stories envision a future in which dysgenic forces have led to widespread dumbing down of the general population. 

Is that enough?  Honestly, I’m not sure.  Other than in its unsurprising paucity of fart jokes, Kornbluth’s story differs in important respects. In Kornbluth’s plot, for example, a pre-Bell Curve cognitive elite has survived to impose Draconian order over the teeming multitude of "mundanes," a point which sets the stage for a satisfying if predictable twist of old-style irony (suffice it to say that Kornbluth’s protagonist only thinks he’s the smartest person in the world). Such an angle  appears to be absent from Judge’s comedic romp. But even with the understanding that Idiocracy is playing closer to contemporary pop-cult sensibilities, it could well turn out that Judge’s central premise was plucked from a marginally obscure work of science fiction. The man responsible for Beavis & Butthead, lest we forget, started out as a frustrated engineering student, and those guys — the few I’ve known, anyway — are notorious for their sci-fi habits. Especially, it seems safe to venture, the ones who daydream about making movies.            

But I think we should be cautious about this.  In this here digital
age, it’s hard to imagine that the studio brass could expect to escape legal action simply by releasing a feature film on terms calculated to avoid jurisdiction or to escape the notice of
prospective litigants.  Such a scenario, it seems to me, gives Fox execs
at once too much and too little credit; on the one hand we have to imagine someone in the corporate hierarchy being savvy enough to sniff out the potential for a copyright dispute, but then we have to accept that the big dogs would respond with a risky limited distribution scheme that has thus far only drawn more
attention to the film and it’s putatively tort-courting premise, Q.E.D. Wouldn’t it have been more prudent to shelve the reel altogether, or perhaps give Kornbluth a story credit and pony up for the creative rights? And even if it turns out, as our reader suggests, that Fox was simply attempting to strike a low-profile balance between prospective litigation and some broader contractual obligations, we’re left to speculate over why Mike Judge would risk his satirical creds by passing off a widely anthologized fiction as his own. 

I know, people do dumb things.  And the contextual irony is tough to resist.               

Henry Goddard‘s antiquated nostrums over feeble-minded fecundity may have been flushed down the memory hole along with the whole delicious raft of progressive-era eugenics-touting polemics, but it is a mistake to assume that such ideas have since been "scrubbed out of the Western way of thought."   While overt flirtation with dysgenic theories has been rendered impolitic through long practiced allusion to brown-shirt excesses, the underlying questions have a way of resurfacing like Herpes sores.  It was Arthur Jensen who released the first post-war depth charge with his much-maligned but still unrefuted Harvard Education Review article, "How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement," but only a few years later  Richard Herrnstein tripped into a whole nuther thicket of sociopolitical trouble when his syllogistically framed meditation on the paradox of meritocracy was published in the Atlantic Monthly

And while the guardians of correctitude have always done their best to parry the thought-goblins with a steady supply of warmed over, doth-protest-too-much egalitarian pseudo-salvifics, I get the sense that the latest seismic event to blot the intellectual radar just may have been enough to bring the simmering undercurrents to a slow boil. The lurid specter of Jukes and Kallikaks has surely receded from our collective imagination, but the stealth influence of The Bell Curve — a bestseller that openly entertains the reality of dysgenisis — remains conspicuous  in the careful parsing of every No Child Left Behind headline and in the implacable drift of every popular account of the sperm economy.   Who needs Steve Allen’s humanistically salted musings when Charles Murray has invited Godzilla to the party?

So color me intrigued, but not convinced.  And as amused as
I am to be counted among the "flagrantly mundane," I sincerely have no
problem swallowing the notion that Judge’s premise
could just as easily have been hatched innocent of the appropriative
liberties suspected, however plausibly, by our reader. It’s Futurama meets The Bell Curve, kids. All you have to do is  riff on the zeitgeist and play down the middle.

Effective satire invariably plays on contemporary conventions and fears, often, if not necessarily, at the expense of originality.
That’s the nature of the game.
And regardless of one’s taste for
scatological gags, my perhaps too charitable sense is that Idiocracy is slumming on honest turf.
 There are only a few
ways to get your guy to the future, and once you’ve latched onto a servicible trope, your choices are bound by the writing on the wall. If your aim is to construct a farce around a subject as incendiary as dysgenics, well, I’m not sure how else you could pull it off.  It could easily be that in skimming off the ripples of this particularly dodgy strain of modern anxiety, Mike Judge has unwittingly
stumbled upon the skeleton of a tried narrative.
  

Or it could be that he’s just ripping off  C.M. Kornbluth. Whatever works.

Elsewhere…

  •  Selective Justice is Injustice – I suppose I could have done without the fatuous lefty-baiting Talmudic relativist shtick, but Paul Grubach’s letter to Amnesty International on behalf of imprisoned Holocaust historian/revisionist/skeptic/denier Germar Rudolf  remains a well-reasoned defense of intellectual freedom.  I’ve mentioned it before, but you can read about Rudolf’s truly appalling extradition and imprisonment here.  You can read the book that got him in trouble here.  And here is an essay by Rudolf that I found interesting.
  • Duesberg’s Bulldog – Speaking of insalubrious skepticism, I was not so surprised to discover that Celia Farber is still keeping the faith. Lo a decade ago, you may recall that Farber’s dispatches for SPIN magazine — remember SPIN? — played an important role in popularizing the once-intriguing notion that HIV does not cause AIDS. I remember thinking there may have been something to it, too, until I read Steven Harris’s devastating takedown, "The AIDS Heresies," in Skeptic magazine.  Alas, with the thudding reception attending the long-delayed publication of leading HIV skeptic Peter Duesberg‘s magnum opus, Inventing the AIDS Virus, it seemed that Farber’s reputation as a maverick journalist with a story would recede into the the collective static where Tim McVeigh’s mugshots are filed alongside those lurid McMartin preschool headlines. But maybe not.  Judging from the intemperate response to Farber’s recent Harper’s article, "Out of Control," and the marginal buzz surrounding the publication of her new book, Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS, it looks as though the AIDS heretics may be poised for another round.  The smart money says they’re wrong, but what do I know?

More on “Idiocracy”

I’m naturally hesitant to comment since Mike Judge’s Idiocracy is playing in only a handful of theaters nowhere near me, but  David Bezanson’s review for  Filmcritic.com offers an insightful account of the publicity blackout surrounding what may be the first — and probably the last — Bell Curve-inspired social satire to reach American screens:

Political correctness is an annoying term, and an even more annoying
concept. At first it was supposedly bad to be "politically incorrect,"
then it was supposed to be good, then Bill Maher used it as the name of
his lame, pseudo-political celebrity talk show, and it became
meaningless.

But every once in a while… something that really is politically incorrect comes along, like Mike Judge’s new comedy, Idiocracy.
And instead of the self-congratulatory smugness of Maher’s show (and
other so-called satirists who pretend to be daring but are actually
mainstream), there is only embarrassed silence, except for the sounds
of corporate sponsors bailing and studio executives caving in.

Skipping over the plot spoilers, Bezanson turns to the intellectual dynamite behind the slow-mounting blogospheric buzz and otherwise inexplicable corporate pusillanimity:

Many people – at least, a few people – have noted the dumbing-down of
America, but no one until Judge has blamed it on genetics. Now that’s
politically incorrect. Most sociologists foolishly assert that natural
selection favors the beautiful and smart. But Judge is correct: natural
selection favors only one thing, the willingness to have lots of
children, and people who let their careers or the costs of college
deter them from parenthood end up on the wrong side of the fertility
gap. His future scenario is a warning; in a way, it’s an update of H.G.
Wells’ classic The Time Machine,
the first pessimistic dystopia written a century ago. No one can
predict what the future holds – probably not gangsta rap – but Judge
has a point. If we don’t want the future to be hellish, we all need to
do our part… and raise some decent kids.   

There really is no other plausible explanation, folks.   By all accounts, this was an easy sell. A raunchy star-billed American comedy, market-ready on the basis of Mike Judge’s Office Space and MTV creds alone. The studio brass simply caught a late whiff of the genetic drift, and pussied out.

Chalk it up to hyperactive pattern recognition, but I seem to remember back during the halcyon days of mid-nineties Bell Curve hysteria, there being a spate of mostly forgettable Hollywood movies that evinced a telling — if safely postured — preoccupation with the same implacable questions.  Underneath all its lazily conceived Zelig-derived allegorical pretense and sentimentality, Forrest Gump‘s portrait of a young tard as mythic ubermench was perfectly timed to keep the hobgoblins in abeyance. Further downmarket, there was IQ, which used a happy-go-lucky Albert Einstein to reassure viewers that cognitive brawn was no match for the power of love. Stripped of its irenic flavoring, Victor Salva’s Powder served to remind us that rarefied genius is an extra-genetic force worthy of fear and awe.  And nearer the top of the crop, I suppose, we might recall Gattaca, that curiously Randian parable of a genetically engineered dystopia. Care to guess who the hero is?

It adds up to something, I think.  However securely cloistered these moguls and cultural arbiters may be in their Hollywood nests, they enjoy a unique perspective on the dumb show that keeps unfolding.  They see the detritus in the periphery.  They market to it.  They employ bottom-wage Mexican gardeners and housemaids.  And  — if they have children — they worry that those third-world nannies, for all their homilic superstition and charm, may be depriving their precious progeny of carefully cultivated, Mozart-effected cognitive graces. Better get the kid tested soon.  The Princeton admissions are only a decade away, and that exclusive pre-school is, by reliably informed accounts, a fucking prerequisite. 

Thus, Mike Judge is a man for our time.  A satirist with populist sensibilities who has that subtle knack for rattling the zeitgeist.  Just watch Office Space and Fight Club back to back. Both films play off the same signposts, the same seldom-articulated sense of insidiously emasculating cultural momentum, yet without the weight of all that warmed-over situationist gloss and flair, Judge’s pop-cult gesture is ultimately more mature and memorable.

But now that the creator of Beavis and Butthead has, however playfully, tapped into the marrow of our collectively felt post-genomic discomfiture, it seems the gatekeepers have quietly taken notice.  As well they should.  They drive past the wreckage, after all.  And while they may scoff at Charles Murray, they know precisely who they are.

Racial Realities and Kierkegaardian Despair

Been thumbing through Race and the American Prospect, Sam Francis’s posthumously published collection of essays on "The Racial Realities of Our Nation and Our Time." It’s a hefty volume brimming over with heretical musings that straddle the line between inconvenient empiricism and spuriously conceived white nationalist identity politics.  I always enjoy getting my mitts on books of this strange genre, these marginally marketed, academically phrased curios that exist somewhere just off the plane of permissible discourse.  It’s fun — and occasionally challenging — to grapple with arguments that respectable intellectuals disdain to even acknowledge. And having long shed any residual fetters of culturally rehearsed outrage, I tend to digest even the most overtly racist gestures with the kind of objective bemusement  that comfortable secularists reserve for public access cable televangelists.  To paraphrase Jim Goad, I can tolerate intolerance just fine thank you.

Which, of course, is not to imply that the contributors to Race and the American Prospect are casting their lines into the din of anything so entertainingly retrograde as boilerplate bigotry.  Whatever you think of him, Sam Francis was a smart tack on a different track; he earnestly sought to foster an explicitly racial dialectic, and even if his perspective is rejected as unseemly by the learned majority, it nevertheless provides a useful vantage for intellectually adventurous ginks like me to articulate our differences.  Once you defang a taboo subject, your left with a conversation. 

It is thus worth noting that the indefatigable Steve Sailer has answered Francis’s collection with just the sort of thoughtfully critical response that such a book needs and deserves, but seldom receives. By stumping for "citizenism" as a pragmatic alternative to the racialist credo favored by Francis and his fellow travelers (and by slyly anchoring his argument with references to Francis’s own pronouncements), Sailer casually reduces the dread specter of racial consciousness to size. Notwithstanding their externally cultivated reputation as intellectual persona non grata, these white nationalists — at least the ones of more thoughtful disposition — are really just wistful pussycats with another point of view.  To quote that old ARC PSA, they’re just like you and me. And personally, if I have to choose my company among intellectual dissidents, I’d rather park  my barstool next to a philosophical racist than anyone from the fucking Discovery Institute. Whatever their faults or biases, racists at least have the advantage of  serving up their arguments in delineable metaphysical terms; they have a grip on reality.  With those intelligent design noisemakers, it’s all premise-shifting snowjobs and post hoc damage control. What’s worse, the ID guys never pick up the tab. 

Of course, Sailer’s debating points aren’t likely to gain much attention outside the cloisters of paleoconservative shadow punditry.  So I figure what the fuck — for the nothing it’s worth I may as well rebound off Francis’s tome to flesh out my own ill-considered perspective on the never-so-vexing questions at hand. 

But I want to take a different tack. Because the questions that churn through my cerebra never seem to yield to practical consideration or commonly derived values.  For good or ill or nil, I always find myself playing closer to the extra-rational quick of the matter, where Heideggerian shards dot the path, and where few even bother for the perfectly sensible reason that it doesn’t much matter. The thing is, as much as I value the rational trajectory of data-driven disputation, I can never quite avert my sights from the morbid punchline that resides just off the plot of every regression.   

As fortune would have it, one contributor to Race and the American Prospect has thrown a bone to my lonely corner. The contributor is one Robert S. Griffin, who is best known I suppose as the hagiographer of the late William Pierce, author of those deliciously psychotic racist fantasy novels, Hunter and The Turner Diaries. But setting aside that dubious distinction, Griffin’s afterword is noteworthy for the way it cuts through the well-hewn thicket of stats and graphs and racially filtered historicism to zero in on the existential meat of the racialist weltanschuaang.  Griffin frames his bait with reference to two modern novelists of modern anxiety, Bret Easton Ellis and Michel Houellebecq, writers whose work, according to Griffin, "articulate[s] the fear and fatalism and sense of futility" of these ostensibly dark days. 

The stage is set with a choice cut of modern-style fear and trembling from Ellis’s Lunar Park:

The newspapers kept stoking my fear.  New surveys provided awful statistics on just about everything.  Evidence suggested we were not doing well….No one knew what normal behavior was anymore, and some argued that this was a form of virtue. And no one argued back.  No one challenged anything.  Anxiety was soaking up people’s days…. Most troubling were the fleeting signs that  nothing could transform any of this into anything positive. You couldn’t help being afraid and fascinated.  Reading these articles  made you feel that the survival of mankind didn’t seem very important in the long run.  We were doomed.  We deserved it.  I was so tired.

A well-chosen Houellebecq passage, from his 2003 novel, Platform, follows.  It charts the anomistic resignation of the novel’s narrator who…. well, maybe I should just let Griffin set it up:

The protagonist, a mid-life government official, is injured and the woman who is the love of his life killed in a hail of bullets from Islamic militants.  His response is to "give up on life." He resigns his position in the French Ministry of Culture and travels to Thailand to live out his remaining years.

I understand death now.  I don’t think it will  do me much harm. I have known hatred, contempt, decay, and other things; I have even known brief feelings of love.  Nothing of me will survive, and I do not deserve for anything of me to survive.  I have been a mediocre individual in every possible sense….  A death certificate will be drawn up, a box will be ticked in a registry office, far from here, in France.  A few street hawkers, accustomed to seeing me in the area, will shake their heads.  My apartment will be rented out to another resident.  I’ll be forgotten.  I’ll be forgotten quickly.

Having neatly punctuated dual notes of declension and despair with carefully chosen excerpts from these latter-day Dostoyevskys, these nihilist-cum-moralist messengers of pessimism and chasmic ennui (both of whom  I always read with interest), Griffin takes his cue to serve up the salve you’ve been expecting. 

Oh yes:

I’ve found in my own life that white racial identity and commitment can serve as counterweights to living with feelings of meaninglessness and hopelessness. I have learned that white racial consciousness can give someone the sense of being part of something and having a responsibility to something beyond one’s self.  It can lead to the conclusion that one’s life matters and that there are things worth doing while there is still time to do them.  I don’t feel cut-off and alone and adrift now.  I am continuous with a racial heritage and connected with racial kinsmen who share the gift of life with me and to the white people yet to be born, and that makes all the difference.  All that I do now, even the smallest of things, counts. I’m not as afraid as I was.  I don’t get so tired now. What I do in this life will have an impact on the future; I will leave a legacy.  Something of me will survive, and I won’t be forgotten.

Now I imagine myself to be a pretty live-and-let-live kinda guy, so if racial consciousness serves to allay Robert  Griffin’s acutely felt sense of nihilistic momentum, I say fine; run with your pack, my friend.  Recite your 14 words and sleep white.  But make no mistake, you will be forgotten. And while you may have chosen your existential prism with earnest passion and care, I do hope you are not blind to the Mad Lib logic buttressing your ditch. 

Multiple choice, anyone?

I’ve found in my own life that (a. white racial identity and committment b. scientology and devotion to the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard c. radical feminism and pro choice activism d. drugs and alcohol) can serve as counterweights to living with feelings of meaninglessness and
hopelessness.

Or:

I have learned that (a. white racial consciousness b. Libertarian Party affiliation c. Satanism d. a collection of vintage Dukes of Hazzard memorabilia)  can give
someone the sense of being part of something and having a
responsibility to something beyond one’s self.

Ever been to an Amway seminar?  Ever argue with a Jehovah’s witness?  Ever talk bioethics with a PETA votary? Ever heard of Prozac?

Am I being snide? 

Damn right I’m being snide.  And not because I have any particular gripe with those who prop their meaning with racialist crutches, even if I find their tenuously wrought naturalistic conceits to be especially grating and desperate.  You’re free to choose your own opiate, kidlings. Just don’t kid yourself with the notion that  it adds up to anything beyond some atomistically reducible shuck and jive.

It’s been years since I read Camus, but the Sisyphean challenge doesn’t bend with time.  And I remain happily up to the task. Yeah, I look into the abyss. Every fucking day.  And the abyss looks back into me. But somewhere in that endless spiral of cosmic meaninglessness I cannot but discern the dim echo of an ever-changing clarion call.  Yet curiously, no matter how powerfully this call may resonate within the depths of my mortal meat, somehow it never bides me toward any grandiose leap of faith, and it never tempts me with the elixir of racial identity.  No, this clarion call, in all its visceral profundity, beckons me instead to enjoy another beer. Sometimes it commands me to pay more attention to my girfriend’s clitoris, to explore Bela Tarr’s filmography, to take the .357 out for a few rounds of target practice, to make time for Ethiopian cuisine.

Or is it Eritrean?  I should take better notes.  After all, this is important stuff.  These are urgent, life-defining choices.  Far more so than the epiphenomenal static attending even the most studious contemplation of the question of race. Mother died in a miserable heap, and she will be forgotten as surely as will I.  I am not tired, but I’m looking forward to the next nap.  Consciousness may be a biochemically rooted memetic illusion, but the Schmenge Brothers still make me laugh.  And my life bleeds over with meaning.

I remember reading something by another contributor to Race and the American Prspect, my hands-down favorite white nationalist epicurean, Jared Taylor. It may have come up in an interview with Arthur Jensen.  I’m not sure.  Anyway, I remember Mr. Taylor was expressing sincere horror over the possibility that Western Civilization might one day collapse under the forces of dysgenics and racial peregrinations. He said something to the effect that this was the worst thing he could possibly imagine

I had to laugh at that one.

All I can say is, enjoy the spread, my Homo sapien kinsmen.  Race is as real as life is short, but Idlewood Blue  infuses my Caucasian robot soul with the most sublime joy. I notice your NetFlix queue is on empty, but the possibilities may as well be endless. 

And I can promise you this much: the end of civilization is written on your tombstone. 

Memento mori.   Stop wasting your time.