The Simpsons Against the State

American culture has a populist libertarian streak that stretches back to colonial days. The "Don't Tread on Me" spirit is clearly thriving in the delightful subversiveness of the longest running sitcom on television, The Simpsons. Although most of its writers are liberals, the reclusive John Swartzwelder is a hardcore libertarian and has been credited with writing the most Simpsons episodes. With the show having just celebrated its 20th anniversary, it would take an entire book to describe all of the episodes, characters, and gags with libertarian themes. Below, I summarize some of my favorites and explain their basis in truth.

NASA

In the episode Deep Space Homer, NASA sends Homer into space as a publicity stunt to raise TV ratings for Shuttle launches. The mission nearly ends in disaster after Homer opens a bag of potato chips and crashes into an experimental ant farm.

Assistant: Sir, the TV ratings for the launch are the highest in ten years.

Everyone: Yay!

Scientist: And how's the spacecraft doing?

Assistant: I dunno. All this equipment is just used to measure TV ratings.

Basis in truth:

Public interest in space launches has been dropping since the 1960s – for good reasons. The Space Shuttle serves no real scientific purpose, it has failed to achieve its primary goal of reducing the cost of access to space, and NASA's flawed safety culture has caused three space catastrophes. Four decades after NASA put a man on the moon, observers still collectively hold their breaths for every Shuttle launch, half expecting another group of heroes to be incinerated. As former NASA employee James Oberg wrote, "…each of these three disasters could have been averted. That the NASA space team failed to do so not once or even twice but three times is the true disaster." One former astronaut called the Shuttle the most dangerous spacecraft humans have ever ridden. You can hardly blame astronauts for flying drunk!

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NASA is consistently embarrassed by scandals like climategate, that crazed love triangle, and the loss of the $125 million Mars orbiter. NASA promises to put a man on Mars but it can't pass an audit. It is a myth that NASA has invented scores of useful products like tang and semiconductors. Even the Federation of American Scientists has concluded that NASA's rate of return from "spin-offs" is low.

NASA: If you want to send a bunch of drunks and nutjobs on suicidal space missions that serve absolutely no purpose, DO SO AT YOUR OWN EXPENSE. It's funny on the Simpsons; it's not funny in real life.

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Prohibition

In Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment, Springfield enacts Prohibition after Bart accidentally gets drunk at a St. Patrick's Day Parade. Helen Lovejoy screams, "Oh, won't somebody please think of the children!" Homer fights the law by becoming a bootlegger known as the "Beer Baron." The incompetent Chief Wiggum is replaced by Rex Banner, an officer of the U.S. Treasury Department who starts harassing everyday citizens in his futile attempt to stop people from drinking:

Rex Banner: Are you the Beer Baron?

Ned Flanders: Well, if you're talking about root beer, I plead guilt-diddily-ildly as char-didily-arged.

Rex Banner: He's not the Baron, but he sounds drunk. Take him in.

Springfield finally ends Prohibition because it is pointless, cruel, and a violation of individual freedom. Marge declares, "Prohibition has cost us our freedom – our freedom to drink!" Rex Banner then lectures Springfield about the need for upholding the rule of law:

Rex Banner: It's not up to us to choose which laws to obey…Our laws are in place for a reason…

As he rambles on, he inadvertently steps on a catapult that was meant for punishing bootleggers. Chief Wiggum says, "Send him back to Mamma, boys," and Banner gets catapulted out of town.

Basis in truth:

Just as prohibition in Springfield was on overreaction to the dangers of alcohol, the war on drugs has been driven by propaganda and exaggerations about the dangers of drugs. Most people can handle casual drug use. When drugs were legal (for most of U.S. history), civilization did not implode. Marijuana is not a gateway drug, and crack and cocaine do not excite users to commit criminal acts.

Because drug dealing is a victimless crime, law enforcement must resort to intrusive measures like snooping, warrantless searches, racial profiling, and no-knock raids in their attempts to stop it. The war on drugs has allowed the U.S. government to declare war on its own people, causing a devastating amount of collateral damage and serving as pretext for abuses like asset forfeiture. Just as Springfield turned to a federal agent to enforce Prohibition, the war on drugs has led to the federalization and militarization of law enforcement. And just as Rex Banner was outsmarted by the normally hapless Homer, the war on drugs has been a miserable failure despite an annual cost of $50 billion and the incarceration of half a million citizens.

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Rex Banner represents the "law-and-order" conservative. He sees government as the thin line between civilization and chaos. Such people tend to believe that all laws must be followed and enforced to the letter, even if they don't make any sense, because the alternative is "chaos." They fail to see that the social order is spontaneous; government is more often the cause of disorder and chaos. People have the right to resist unjust laws by any means necessary, including the catapult!

Let Rex Banner's fate be a warning to drug warriors everywhere: Cease and desist your war against the American people. It's funny on The Simpsons. It's not so funny in real life.

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The Military

The episode G.I. (Annoyed Grunt) begins with two Army recruiters trying to enlist Dolph, Jimbo, and Kearney:

Recruiter 1: I don't know what I dig more: hip hop, crunk, or serving my country.

Jimbo: Are you guys hittin' on us?

Recruiter 1: No, man. We just want to talk to you about something near and dear to us.

Dolph: What? Being gay?

Recruiter 2: Close! The Army! Because of exciting current events the Army needs new members!

Recruiter 1: New members that want to earn money for college and see a part of the world that tourists never go to.

Kearney: Doesn't the Army have to fight in wars?

Recruiter 1: Not "wars!" "Global struggles."

Recruiter 2: You guys like globes!

Dolph: Let's go, dudes!

Recruiter 1: Damnit! Even the dumbest teenagers in the dumbest town in the dumbest state know better than to join the Army.

Recruiter 2: We'll just have to go younger!

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The recruiters then give a presentation at Springfield Elementary:

Recruiter 1: How many of you like video games?

Students: Yay!

Recruiter 2: What if there was a violent video game, plus its real life, and not a game at all? Wouldn't that be slammin'?

Students: Yay!

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The recruiters show a video that glamorizes soldiers as knights in shining armor who kill bad guys during the day and perform rock concerts at night. The video closes with, "The Army: It's everything you like."

Recruiter 1: You can't "legally" join the Army until you're 18. But if you pre-enlist now, we will save you a spot in America's next unresolvable conflict!

When Bart tells his family that he has pre-enlisted, Marge sends Homer to the recruiting station to get Bart out of his contract. A sign outside the station reads, "Suicidal teens welcome!" The recruiters agree to terminate Bart's contract but manage to convince Homer to take his place. Homer ships off to basic training.

Colonel: Gentlemen, I'll be frank: Never before has the Army accepted recruits with test scores as low as yours!

Homer's unit is chosen to play the enemy in a training exercise. They escape into Springfield and realize that the Army is testing live weapons against them. The Army invades Springfield, destroying property and imprisoning innocent citizens in their search for Homer.

Soldier: Sir, you can't just invade an American city without authorization.

Colonel: I sure as hell can! Congress slipped it into the National Broccoli Day Proclamation Act!

Marge organizes a resistance movement that spikes the city's water supply with alcohol, causing the soldiers to get drunk and pass out. The soldiers awake the next morning to find themselves surrounded by armed citizens of Springfield, and the Army surrenders.

Basis in truth:

Military recruiters use coercion, deception, and sexual abuse to enlist new members. In recent years, the military has lowered its standards for minimum-intelligence tests and has made it easier for criminals, gang members, and non-citizens to enlist. And yes, the military is recruiting children: Military recruiters are prowling the halls of middle schools and showing up at Boy Scout Jamborees. The Army built a $12 million arcade in a Philadelphia mall where local kids can play high-tech combat simulations. The military spies on American teenagers to find potential recruits, analyzing everything from their athletic skills to their video game preferences.

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Just as the Army tested live ammunition against Homer's unit, thousands of U.S. soldiers have been used as guinea pigs in nuclear tests, vaccination trials, and mind-control experiments. The Pentagon knowingly exposed troops to cancer-causing chemicals. Rape and sexual assault are rampant throughout the military, which seems unable or unwilling to prosecute rapists in the ranks. The U.S. government buried information about POW's left behind in Vietnam, it covered for the Israeli government after it murdered 34 crew members aboard the U.S.S. Liberty, and it denied the existence of Gulf War Syndrome.

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Just like the people of Springfield, American citizens have become victims of the military that is supposed to protect them. The Pentagon carried out secret radiation tests on thousands of non-consenting patients, including children, many of whom died or lived to endure excruciating health problems. The military tested deadly bioweapons on an unsuspecting American public during the Cold War. Pollution from military bases has created a staggering number of health and environmental problems for surrounding communities. Military lawyers are experts in shielding higher-ups from accountability and denying compensation to victims. The Pentagon bureaucracy is trying to seize hundreds of thousands of acres of private property from ranchers in Colorado. The U.S. Navy knowingly exposed millions of shipyard workers to deadly asbestos during World War II. The 2008 crash of F/A-18D outside San Diego amounted to "murder through depraved indifference." The Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed committing terrorist attacks against American citizens with Operation Northwoods. Military leaders wanted to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, and they pushed for an invasion of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. General Lucius D. Clay recklessly escalated a standoff between U.S. and Soviet tanks at the Berlin Wall in 1961. Any one of these events could have led to a nuclear holocaust and the deaths of millions of Americans, which was seen by military elites as an acceptable way to "win" the Cold War.

The Simpsons scenario of martial law is not so far-fetched. The military forcibly relocated and interned 120,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese during World War II. The Ohio National Guard fired on unarmed college students during the Kent State Massacre in 1970. The military participated in the federal atrocities at Waco and Ruby Ridge. The National Guard confiscated firearms from law-abiding citizens during Hurricane Katrina. Americans are already being policed by the military and private security forces. Plans for martial law have been taking shape for decades, hidden behind continuity of government programs, but have accelerated during the economic crisis. Combat units are being redeployed from Iraq to the United States to assist with crowd control in the event of civil unrest. Military units have set up checkpoints and have conducted urban warfare training drills in American towns. The Bush Administration twice threatened martial law: first when it considered sending the U.S. military to arrest the so-called Lackawanna Six in 2002, and again in 2007 if Congress refused to pass the banker bailout. A secret Homeland Security program has been training clergymen to preach obedience to the government in the event that martial law is declared. The federal government is classifying its critics as "terrorists," and up to eight million Americans are listed as subversives who can be detained under the slightest pretenses during a national emergency. Even misdemeanors can be classified as "terrorist activity," and the executive branch now has the legal authority to detain U.S. citizens, torture them, and imprison them in undisclosed locations indefinitely. Government contractors are building mysterious facilities that could serve as internment camps for political dissidents. Martial law can be declared at the President's whim for practically any reason thanks to a secret directive that was signed by President Bush in 2007. Finally, it serves as a dark warning that some of the worst atrocities ever committed by the U.S. military were against civilians who opposed the federal government's War to Prevent Southern Independence.

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Let the words of Lisa Simpson be a warning to members of the military who might be called upon to suppress a modern-day American Revolution:

Lisa: Colonel, I hope you've learned that an occupying foreign force can never defeat a determined local populace.

The Environmental Protection Agency

The episode The Frying Game begins with Homer finding a screaming caterpillar, or "screamapillar," in his backyard. Just as he is about to kill the obnoxious bug, an EPA agent steps out from behind a tree:

EPA agent: Mr. Simpson, allowing an endangered species to die is a federal offense under the Reversal of Freedoms Act of 1994. You are now legally responsible for the safety and well-being of this screamapillar. Everything you need to know is in this pamphlet.

Lisa: Screamapillar care tips! Wow, look at all this stuff! Without constant reassurance, it will die. It's sexually attracted to fire…

Homer: Are you sure God doesn't want it to be dead?

In The Simpsons Movie, the EPA tries to destroy the entire town of Springfield after Homer pollutes a lake with pig feces.

Basis in truth:

Homer is right: God does want some species to die. Even before the appearance of man, 99 percent of all species that lived on Earth went extinct. Fears over human-caused extinctions are overblown: In the 1970s, environmentalists were predicting that up to 80 percent of all animal species would be extinct by 2000. In truth, a handful of known species extinctions have been vastly exceeded by the number of species that have been observed and described over time. Scientists have counted between 1.5 million and 1.8 million species, and up to 100 million might exist. In the last two decades, the number of known mammals has grown by 25 percent – and that doesn't include Bigfoot!

The Endangered Species Act is counterproductive. Landowners face the prospect of draconian regulations and restrictions if an endangered species is discovered on their land. This creates an incentive for them to "shoot, shovel, and shut up" in order to avoid attention from the government.

Public Schools

Springfield Elementary is the ultimate satire of public education in the United States:

Edna Krabappel: Now, whose calculator can tell what seven times eight is? Milhouse: Oh! Oh! Low battery? Edna Krabappel: [sighs] Whatever.

The faculty at Springfield Elementary is abusive, bored, unmotivated, unqualified, and prone to alcoholism. Bart is the antihero who exposes the teachers as emperors without clothes. He is forced to write on the chalkboard, "I will not expose the ignorance of the faculty." The gym teacher Coach Krup is obsessed with Bombardment and enjoys pummeling students relentlessly. Lunchlady Doris serves meals with animal genitalia and ground-up rats. The school puts Bart on a behavioral drug called Focusyn that makes him go crazy. The students are forced to pull the school bus with chains after it breaks down on a field trip.

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The faculty discourages students from reaching their potential and thinking for themselves. The music teacher Dewey Largo resents Lisa for her talent and creativity. In Lisa the Vegetarian, it is shown that teachers have access to secret "Independent Thought Alarms." When Lisa triggers the alarm twice in one day, Principal Skinner complains that "The students are over stimulated," and he forces them to watch a corporate propaganda film made by the Meat Council. In the episode Lisa Gets an u2018A', Principal Skinner tries to cover up a cheating scandal to help the school qualify for more grant money:

Lisa: But we can't accept that money. It's tainted!

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Skinner: Now, now, leave the money out of this! It's not the money's fault you cheated. Besides, I've already started spending it. Check out this new scoreboard!

Students treat each other with harsh cruelty. Bullies are free to terrorize anyone who happens to be different:

Bashir: My religion says I can never eat pork.

Bart: A different religion? Do not tell anyone that because if the bullies around here find out that you're different.

Jimbo: Who's different?!

The Simpsons has portrayed the end of compulsory education as a liberating event. In the episode D'oh-in in the Wind, Homer becomes a hippy and bursts into the school cafeteria:

Homer: Hear Ye, Hear Ye! The Intergalactic Jester proclaims this conformity factory closed!

The students run out of the school screaming with joy. In Bart's Comet, Principal Skinner sees a newspaper headline reading, "Prez Sez: School is for Losers." He falls to his knees in despair, yelling "Noooooo!"

Basis in truth:

Kids hate public schools. "It's stupid," as one student said. "It's a boring waste of time and I don't understand why I should be forced to go. Last I checked this was a free country."

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Public schools operate more like prisons than centers of learning. For six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, twelve years of their lives, students must go through a dehumanizing, mind-numbing routine of being bused like cattle to warehouse-like buildings where thousands of kids sit in cell-block-style confinement and get trained to reflexively obey orders. They suffer daily humiliations like walking through metal detectors, having their lockers searched, being attacked by security guards, having their movements dictated by a ringing bell, and asking for permission to use the bathroom. They are subject to a constant battery of standardized tests that strip them of the responsibility and independence to develop their intellectual capacities. Public schools are rife with physical and sexual abuse – not to mention the horror stories involving seclusion rooms and cage fights. Schools pressure parents into putting their kids on addictive behavioral drugs. The meat served in school cafeterias is less safe than the meat that is served at fast-food restaurants. While schools fail to protect students from gangs and shooting rampages, they insist on enforcing ridiculous zero-tolerance policies. Children are "socialized" by living through twelve years of cliques, cruelty, bullying, gossiping, and other forms childish, petty, and immature behavior.

Teachers hate public schools just as much as students. As John Gatto writes, "anyone who has spent time in a teachers' lounge can vouch for the low energy, the whining, and the dispirited attitudes, to be found there." Who can blame them? Schools do not reward the good teachers or fire the bad ones. Nearly every detail of their job is dictated by strict guidelines on what to teach and how to teach it. They cannot innovate or challenge their students in any way. Teachers spend most of the year drilling kids in order to help them perform well on standardized tests. Depth of understanding, context, creativity, and intellectual curiosity are forgotten in the effort to raise scores. Teachers are pressured to dumb down standards, help students cheat, and pass failing students to make the school look good. It has become impossible for public schools to attract and retain qualified teachers. In Massachusetts, nearly three-quarters of the people who took the state elementary school teacher's licensing exam failed the new math section. Nearly half of teachers leave the profession in the first five years.

Studies routinely show that students in public schools lack basic knowledge and skills in history, math, and reading. Underfunding is not the problem. Public schools spend nearly $10,000 annually per student. The average public school teacher makes almost $48,000 per year with good benefits and lots of vacation time. There is no connection between education spending and student achievement.

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Public schools don't fail to educate students. They succeed at dumbing them down. The true purpose of compulsory education is to make people childish, docile, conformist, obedient, and predictable – and to squash qualities like dissent, originality, leadership, and independence. Cloistering children around other children is designed to perpetuate childish behavior. Compulsory education was inspired by the military state of Prussia and was imported to America by an unholy alliance of politicians, industrialists, and intellectuals who wanted to make the population "manageable." Politicians wanted a harmless electorate that would never challenge the government. Industrialists wanted a servile labor force and a virtual herd of mindless consumers. Intellectuals wanted a populace that could be molded to fit their ideological preferences: pietists wanted to Protestantize Catholic children; utilitarians wanted to assign each person his proper role in a more efficient social machine; and eugenicists wanted to tag the genetically unfit and make them socially undesirable for breeding.

Let Springfield Elementary be a reminder of the true nature of public schools. Close down these conformity factories!

Conclusion

The Simpsons' anti-government messages seem to be getting more radical with time. In the 1991 episode Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington, Lisa gets disillusioned with government after witnessing a bribery scandal. After the politician is caught, she says, "The system works!" and her faith in government is restored. So, whereas an early political episode focused on run-of-the-mill corruption balanced with assurance that democracy works, newer episodes have themes like genocide, martial law, and armed rebellion! In the 1998 episode Treehouse of Horror IX, Marge encourages Kang and Kodos to kill every politician in Washington. Hokey patriotic themes have disappeared from the show. In the 2006 episode See Homer Run, Homer runs for mayor dressed as the Safety Salamander:

Homer: People may not love Homer Simpson, but they love this suit. Ha. Just like they love their stupid American flag.

Perhaps some of this can be attributed the show's general drift toward zany antics, but I think it also indicates that more Americans are disillusioned with government and could be supportive of radical challenges to the status quo. If you want to see evidence of declining faith in government and the possibility of revolution (while being entertained in the process), look no further than America's First Family.

Happy 20th Anniversary, Simpsons! Keep fighting the State.

February 25, 2010