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
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
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

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.