Disclaimers: Spoilers to follow; quotations from the movie itself are from memory and might be slightly imprecise.
After a full eighteen seasons, The Simpsons has at last come to the silver screen. I love the show, but I’m sure I haven’t seen all 400 episodes. Jeff Albertson, aka the Comic Book Guy, the show’s character famous for his firm grasp of comics and other facets of nerd pop culture, would undoubtedly mock me for my egregious and unpardonable deficiency.
The Simpsons, having started a generation ago, bridges our current place in pop culture back to the conclusion of the Cold War, back to the late 1980s Tracey Ullman Show, where the now-famous characters got their prime-time debut in short segments of mostly slapstick humor. As far as I remember, my first exposure to the Simpsons family predated even their national TV break — it was at an "Animation Celebration" festival to which my dad took me that I first saw father Homer, mother Marge, and children Bart, Lisa and Maggie. At the time I thought the two-minute sketches of this yellow-colored cast of characters were amusing, but had I been told then that the phenomenon would last twenty years I would never have believed it.
In the years since that introduction to The Simpsons, South Park has become my favored animated sitcom. The latter is a more raunchy and more specifically libertarian series [1, 2], which has certainly not made it less popular among my friends.
But if South Park is at times more hysterically uncouth, The Simpsons is simply classic, if similarly irreverent, and has achieved its hilarity with less obscenity and more traditional plot devices and sight gags. Without its high standards, television programming in the last decade and a half would have likely been significantly different for the worse.
As for ideology, if South Park is libertarian, The Simpsons at least approaches the classical liberal posture; it is antiestablishment, critical of the political status quo and aware of the follies of overbearing government. Criticism of both mainstream left and right in the modern political system has been a theme of the show since its beginnings. In an episode from the fourth season, Bart and Lisa Simpson submit scripts to the Itchy & Scratchy Show (their favorite cartoon, which had been slipping in quality), using for their submissions the name of Abraham Simpson, their grandfather. When Grampa Simpson begins receiving payments and does not react with any curiosity, Bart asks, "Didn’t you wonder why you were getting checks for doing absolutely nothing?" to which Grampa responds, “I figured because the Democrats were in power again.”
Then there were the episodes that took on prohibition ("Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment"), the war on medical marijuana, and, in an ultimately timeless installment of political satire, the 1996 presidential election: Malevolent extraterrestrials Kodos and Kang descend and, posing as Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, run against each other in a conspiratorial election where either result would mean brutal alien rule for the humans. Kang, impersonating Dole, even admits to the public, "It makes no difference which one of us you vote for. Either way, your planet is doomed. DOOMED!" When Kang wins, bringing despotism to the land, Homer utters, "Don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos." But Kodos is there, acting as authoritarian taskmaster under the Kang administration.
In terms of both rough yet classic comedy and roughly classical liberalism, The Simpsons movie delivers as well as the series’ best. In the movie, the federal government stars as the chief enemy of the Simpsons family and their beloved town Springfield. We might concede that our antihero Homer, in all his bad judgment, is Uncle Sam’s one indispensable ally. But the evil and heartless federal bureaucracy overreacts to Homer’s admittedly terrible shortsightedness with calculated cruelty and heartlessness.
The great thing for us libertarians is seeing the antagonists in one federal office in particular: The Environmental Protection Agency. If The Simpsons leans in one direction, it is, like the winds of much of popular culture, leftward. This makes it even more a treat that the left’s favorite bureau is skewered. To my knowledge, this is the most negative light cast on the EPA in a widely viewed work of lampoonery since the wonderful 1984 movie Ghostbusters in which the agency, despite all the pleas and resistance of the ghostbusting entrepreneurs, shuts down the ectoplasmic containment facility in response to regulatory violations, unleashing all the ghosts and goblins the men had busted, allowing the freed paranormal entities to join the evil forces circulating in the air in commemoration of the return of the Sumerian god Gozer. Truly, the EPA comes off in Ghostbusters as the enemy of common sense and the real public interest, but in The Simpsons the agency is responsible for an even more sustained and deliberate war on human decency and everyday people. And what better name for a town representing everyday people than "Springfield"?
It is in response to a real environmental hazard, caused by Homer, that the EPA overreaches. Lake Springfield had been terribly polluted for a long time. This tragedy of the commons is so bad that the nearby shore dissolves into the contaminated lake, as does the floating stage where rock band Green Day plays to promote their environmentalist agenda. Green consciousness is moderately satirized in the movie, and becomes the plot device uniting young Lisa Simpson with her new similarly environmentally-conscious boyfriend. She and he, along with the town, do all they can to clean up the lake, only to have the absent-minded, high-time-preference Homer dump a silo filled with pig manure into it.
This creates a huge environmental calamity for Springfield. I enjoy the fact that a real problem brings on the EPA’s overreaction. It makes the absurdity and cruelty of central planning even clearer when we see that even a genuine threat to the public health can only be worsened by bureaucratic intervention. The most realistic portrayals of socialist failure depict authentic human failings addressed by far greater governmental disaster.
President Schwarzenegger and the EPA, which appears to be directed by a slimy, well-to-do, power-mad social engineer (fiction must, after all, reflect reality somewhat), first respond to Lake Springfield’s contamination by covering the entire town with a huge glass dome. This isolation drives the town to insanity. Mob rule threatens vengeance upon Homer and his family for his bringing this fate upon the town, but the Simpsons escape the dome and take refuge in Alaska.
Recognizing that the dome is an imperfect solution as it fails to prevent escape, the EPA moves on to Plan B: Destroy the entire town in an explosion; kill everyone and all life within the dome. What a magnificent portrayal of federal environmental policy! If a patient’s thumb is infected, just shoot him in the head.
The EPA is at one point represented by an environmentally destructive van, but most of its jackbooted agents are in attack helicopters and militarized ground vehicles suited for the "death squads" they are described as. This great depiction of a supposedly benign regulatory agency as a lethal paramilitary force persists throughout the film.
The audience gets to see other tentacles of the government whacked. We see the presidency and its "leadership" role subjected to ridicule. We see the National Security Agency, with thousands of employees sitting at desks listening in on Americans’ phone calls, find the Simpson fugitives through random luck, a discovery that leads the successful agent to jump out of his chair in celebration of the fact that the government "finally found someone we’re looking for!" If only terrorists and interstate murderers were as conspicuous as the Simpsons.
The local cops, headed by Police Chief Wiggum, are, as always in the series, shown to be impossibly incompetent and unaware of their surroundings. The purpose of America’s absurdly immense nuclear stockpile is implicitly questioned. Tom Hanks appears in a desperate commercial on behalf of the US government in which he asks, "If you’re going to trust a government, why not this one?"
A general cynicism of such blind trust in government is the most important libertarian element throughout the series. For this alone, I am glad that my generation was so thoroughly immersed in the Simpsons’ world, a world much more skeptical of national central planning than the era in which the Baby Boomers sat to watch the The Flintstones.
As Paul Cantor has put it, when asked by Reason Magazine about the shift in cartoon politics between the 1960s and 1990s,
"The Simpsons debuted as a regular series six months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Once the Soviet threat was muted, people were less inclined to rely on a national government, to turn to it as their savior, and more inclined to see things from foreign lands as not necessarily threatening."
I have heard my elders decry the irreverence of The Simpsons as they yearn for the supposedly more family-appropriate animated universes of Disney and Warner Brothers from yesteryear. But the nationalist collectivism seen in these universes seems to me worse the further back we go. If we rewind all the way back to the Greatest Generation, we have to confront vulgarities ranging from Popeye’s mindless propaganda on behalf of conscription and Donald Duck selling the nation on high income taxes to Bugs and Daffy pimping the warfare state and Dr. Seuss’s nakedly racist demonizing of the Japanese.
Contrast this to The Simpsons’treatment of the war on terror, which some Americans consider as unquestionably crucial as World War II. In an episode from last year, we see those aliens, who in Season 8 tricked the people of Springfield into voting for the lesser of two evils, return to wage "Operation Enduring Occupation" — an obvious parody of Bush’s Iraq misadventure — which ultimately ravishes the whole landscape in a failed attempt to find "weapons of mass disintegration."
As popular culture has moved away from the mid-20th century faith in the establishment — and through the easily lambasted years of Bush I, Clinton and Bush II — the Simpsons has been there to put a lot of it into perspective, indeed serving as a propelling force, urging Americans not just to laugh at their leaders but also to deconstruct leadership itself, to question authority beyond questioning the particular authoritarians. In our time when the news media and many intellectuals are so enthralled and intimidated by power, so unwilling to question the status quo and point out the inconsistencies of the political and social zeitgeist, we are lucky we at least have some great cartoons to fill the void.