Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hank Scorpio as modern corporate titan or How The Simpsons predicted the next 15 years of American history in 1996.

“You Only Move Twice” is no less an excellent Bond parody as it is a prophetic vision of modern American life. The questions this episode raises force us to consider the direction or country is headed and the moral quandaries that today’s successful corporate employees face. Scorpio offers a seemingly perfect life for the Simpson family and all he asks in return is willful ignorance and moral complicity in his megalomaniacal schemes. Now I will admit to exaggerating my rhetoric slightly, but when examining the crimes of corporate criminals such as Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff and international criminals like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, the comparison with Hank Scorpio seems appropriate.

Lets break this episode down. I will examine why each member of the Simpson family at first embraces the neo-feudal kingdom of Hank Scorpio but then fails to adapt to Scorpio's bleak libertarian world where you moral compass is exchanged for perks and fancy houses.

The episode opens with Globex agents attempting hire Smithers to run their nuclear reactor. Notice the limousine has no license plate in another prediction of how some quasi-governmental organizations like BlackWater and Halliburton operate above the law.

But in probably their best prediction in this episode, the writers foresee America’s coming foreclosure crisis. The Simpson family chooses to abandon their home after a failed attempt to sell it for enough to cover what they owe on their mortgage. The similarities between the millions of homeowners who are stuck holding underwater mortgages today and the Simpsons' choice are obvious. Scorpio’s offer of employment includes a free house and a virtual free pass out of normal society and the obligations the Simpson family leaves behind (including stealing Ned's TV trays.)

Bart:

At first Bart is enthusiastic for the new adventure of living in Hank Scorpio’s town. He embraces the chance to start over and be the popular kid in a new school.

But Bart fails in Cypress Creek partly because of the inadequacy of Springfield’s public schools and partly out of his own willful rejection of learning. So I have little sympathy for Bart’s plight of being sent to the remedial class at Cypress Creek Elementary.

On a more psychological level Bart’s experience in the “Leg up” program is both a powerful critique of special education and a scathing indictment of behavior modification and modern psychology. The scene that struck me as the most depressing involves Bart playing musical chairs with many more chairs than people. Bart struggles unsuccessfully to convince his teacher (and embodiment of authority) that he doesn’t deserve to be treated as someone who is mentally disabled. Bart’s plight reminds me of a “This American Life” story that revolves around a man who fakes insanity to avoid punishment. Ira Glass’s investigation raises fundamental questions about modern psychology and focuses on the paradox of attempting to convince people who think you are crazy that you are in fact sane. Here is the link, it is totally worth a listen: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/sites/all/play_music/play_full.php?play=385

Marge:

Marge’s new luxury home has all but eliminated the daily chores that kept her occupied in Springfield and has freed her to either have a career or embrace the lifestyle of the leisure class. Homer’s new Globex salary could easily let Marge live a very comfortable life, if that is really what she really wanted. But Marge chooses to leave the house with the “autovac set on dirt patrol” and return to her monotonous and seemingly unfulfilling life in Springfield. Marge is either a creature of habit who can’t appreciate "the good life" or she subconsciously rejects the idea that life should be as easy as Globex is making it.

Homer:

Homer is recruited to Globex based on his 10 years of experience at the Springfield Nuclear power plant. To anyone who has ever had a boss that you could tell didn't really understand your job, this plot line should resonate. Homer’s new job is to motivate a team of nuclear engineers and get a reactor online to power Scorpio’s death ray.

Homer succeeds while working for Scorpio and Globex, its the best job he has ever had. He gets the reactor online and allows Scorpio’s plan of seizing the East Coast to become reality. As a West Coaster this is also very satisfying and hints at how disconnected we really are from the power centers on the East Coast.

Homer’s success can be chalked up to either total ignorance or willing complicity. Obviously the episode is funnier when Homer displays the former but the moral questions remain. Homer willingly accepts Scorpio’s Faustian bargain and takes the big house, large salary and other corporate perks in exchange for his moral complicity in Scorpio’s crimes (not to mention Homer’s open complicity after he tackles James Bond.)

But in an even more impressive prediction of today’s political debate, the writers also made Homer actively agree with Hank Scorpio’s well spun explanation for the government troops storming his compound:

Homer: Say, what's going on?
Hank: I'm having a little trouble with the government.
Homer: Oh, those jerks always walking over the small businessman. Don't get me started about the government.

Homer accepts Scorpio’s morally scandalous argument that it is the government who acting immorally by trying to stop his plans to enrich and gain power for himself. Scorpio represents the philosophical culmination of extreme libertarian laissez faire economic theory. Scorpio is the perfect example of what the Koch Brothers and others want to be, above the law and able to amass personal power and wealth by any means necessary. Scorpio is so good at spin that he even convinces Homer, a civically illiterate working class guy to support his radical philosophy with what boils down to bribery and propaganda. Can anyone say Tea Party?

Robert Nozick would be proud of Hank Scorpio’s private town and corporation dedicated to world domination. According to Nozick’s interpretation of politics, since everyone entered into their contracts with Globex willingly, no one’s rights were violated and thus Globex is a morally sound venture. But does this really make it sense? Weren't things like government and regulations created because we feared that enterprises restrained by nothing but the will of their owners were very dangerous to society at large? Yes we did. And Nozick is wrong. We can’t achieve moral utopia under a libertarian framework of competing and unrestrained corporate entities.

When they created the Globex corporation, the Simpsons writers accurately predicted the accelerating collapse of the nation state and the increasing privatization of government services. With the blurring of the lines between corporate and national interests, the goals of the Globex corporation seem perfectly reasonable.

Lisa:

Lisa’s situation is the most troubling. Because it basically makes no sense.

Lisa should thrive in Cypress Creek. The town has excellent schools and all the opportunities Lisa could ever want. But her allergies stop her.

This seems like a pretty lame reason to leave Cypress Creek. Modern pharmaceuticals should be able to treat Lisa with no problem. So we must examine Lisa’s experience in Cypress Creek with a little more depth. I assert that Lisa should have been phenomenally successful in Cypress Creek and that the writers had to create a problem for Lisa so we wouldn’t think about what would more realistically happen. Lisa would likely embrace the opportunities for intellectual advancement that Cypress Creek offers. Because of her intellectual superiority (which is well established by the 8th season) Lisa should love the society that Scorpio has created, it rewards her talents and intelligence. 

So what is the final message of this episode? Is it that moral complicity should be traded if you get a good enough deal? Seemingly yes. At the end of the episode only Homer has gotten closer to his dream of owning the Dallas cowboys. Homer was succeeded because he is either too dumb to realize what is going on or because he is perfectly willing to exchange his moral culpability for corporate perks.

This is the same conundrum that many successful and talented Americans face today in their career choices. Many Americans are fine with trading their integrity for a large salary from Exxon-Mobil.  Because remember, the perks corporate America and Scorpio can offer are awesome as the song at the end of the episode suggests:

“Scorpio! He'll sting you with his dreams of power and wealth. Beware of Scorpio! His twisted twin obsessions are his plot to rule the world And his employees' health. He'll welcome you into his lair, Like the nobleman welcomes his guest. With free dental care and a stock plan that helps you invest! But beware of his generous pensions, Plus three weeks paid vacation each year, And on Fridays the lunchroom serves hot dogs and burgers and beer! He loves German beer!”

2 comments:

  1. I have two flaws with your interpretation, mostly with the Homer part:

    1. The comparison to the Koch brothers doesn't work for me. Scorpio has no political ambitions, he isn't funding astroturfing a political movement; he just wants power and money. You could argue these are different ways to same end, but I think that difference is what matters.

    2. This is more of a Simpons issue than the point you're making-Homer is not unengaged civically. He routinely is aware of political issues even if he thinks voting is "fruity." He even campaigns against immigrants (then for immigrants), against bears ("We're here, we're queer, we don't want anymore bears!), and in a season 9 episode is against proposition 305 (discount bus fares for war widows). It's not as though the Tea Party doesn't have people who have been politicall involved in it, but the stereotype of them is people who were previously uninvolved and Homer does not qualify there.

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  2. Love it Adam! You are right, taken as a whole Homer is very inconsistent in his degree of political engagement. Maybe that is another blog on its own, the political evolution of Homer?

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