Farewell to Greatness
America from Gilligan's Island to The X-Files
Sep 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 01 • By DAVID BROOKS
I'D NEVER REALLY CONSIDERED the way George W. Bush resembles Gilligan of Gilligan’s Island until I read Paul A. Cantor’s brilliant book, Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization. As Cantor points out, Gilligan is not the smartest one on the island. He doesn’t have the obvious leadership résumé. Yet the audience instinctively sympathizes with him, and the show’s creators were right to put him in the center. In episode after episode, the fate of the islanders usually rests in his hands and he usually serves them well.
That’s because Gilligan possesses a subtle but important set of virtues: the democratic virtues. He is agreeable. He is decent. He never looks down on people; instead he gives others the benefit of the doubt. As Bush would say, he has a good heart.
He is also public spirited. Though humble, he is forever filled with good-natured plans to make other people happy. He doesn’t have a narrow perspective, like the other characters—the Professor, or the Millionaire, or the Movie Star. He doesn’t want to mold other peoples’ lives for them. But because of him the island is a happy community—happier, the show continually implies, than the world the castaways are stranded from.
Though Cantor doesn’t make the connection, Bush is a lot like that. He’s not the smartest one in his administration. He doesn’t possess the aristocratic spirit we associate with, say Churchill, or the intellectual or military virtues of Lincoln or Washington. But he does possess the democratic virtues; he’s decent and grounded and in tune with the aspirations and values of middle-class Americans today, who have democratic souls, after all.
Cantor’s description of Gilligan’s Island doesn’t mean we need watch some old episodes to learn more about the Bushian virtues. Nor does it mean that we should run to the pop-culture section of the bookstore to look for other books about television in order to illuminate the world around us. I’ve been through that section; it’s filled with the worst academic drivel—utterly useless to any normal curious person looking for insights or even readable prose. Books on television written by academics are always terrible. Gilligan Unbound is the exception that proves the rule. Cantor is a professor of English at the University of Virginia (and a contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD), and his book succeeds despite the fact that it is about television. His insights about life today are so intelligent that they sparkle despite being expressed in the context of pop-culture criticism.
The real subject of Gilligan Unbound is globalization. Much has been written about the economic and political effects of globalization, but there’s been less analysis of how globalization influences ideas and culture. Cantor takes four shows—Gilligan’s Island, Star Trek, The Simpsons, and The X-Files—and uses them to show how, over the past four decades, the processes of economic and cultural globalization have undermined traditional attitudes about authority, power, and the role of the nation-state in the modern world.
Programs from the 1960s such as Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek were produced by an America that was benignly confident about its mission to spread the gospel of democracy around the globe. Gilligan’s island, Cantor observes, is sort of an ideal version of America. The castaways have left a decadent old continent and they have come to a virgin land. Old social barriers are eroded and they live in a realm of relative equality and natural peace. They show an amazing ability to tinker and come up with new devices, but they are not ruled by technology in any bothersome way. The assumption is that wherever Americans go, they can settle down and create healthy communities; they can Americanize the globe. "In its own simplistic way," Cantor writes, "Gilligan’s Island portrays America at the peak of its self-confidence, convinced both of its moral goodness and its power to back up its claims to superiority."
THE PROGRAM STAR TREK expressed those same optimistic assumptions—on a galactic scale. Captain Kirk was always talking about the "Prime Directive," which was the order the crew of the Enterprise had received never to interfere in the affairs of other planets. But, in fact, they interfered in almost every episode and almost always in the same way: They deposed tyrants and created democracy. Once Kirk toppled an elite called the Platonians, who modeled themselves on the rulers described in Plato’s Republic. Another time it was a powerful being who played at being a Greek God. In a third episode, it was the "Stratos-Dwellers," an aristocratic elite who lived far above their planet’s plebeian surface. By the end of each hour, anti-democratic structures were destroyed and the inhabitants of each planet were free to live lives of democratic self-determination. There was even one episode about a planet where people were living in a sort of Garden of Eden—which means that Kirk and his crew were willing to destroy even utopia to make the inhabitants control their own lives.
Business didn’t matter much in Star Trek. If you were a kid watching that show, you’d want to grow up being an admiral or a diplomat. In this way, as in so many others, the show self-consciously mirrored the power structure of the Cold War era. The show also assumed that as history progressed, power would be centralized into big institutions—interplanetary federations and the like. James T. Kirk was a thinly veiled replica of John F. Kennedy. The speeches which he always overacted near the end of the episode were meant to be rousing, Kennedyesque expressions of liberal internationalism.
By the end of its brief run, Vietnam was beginning to shake Star Trek’s self-confidence. And by the time we get to 1990s hit shows like The Simpsons and The X-Files, we have entered a different Weltanschauung. In 1960s television, America is the agent of globalization: Americans go out and transform the world or the universe. In 1990s television, Cantor argues, America is the victim of globalization: Outside forces come in and threaten or undercut American life.
In the earlier shows there was usually a clear distinction between the democratic and good Americans and the anti-democratic and wrongheaded non-Americans. By the later shows, the outlines of American identity have become blurred. Especially in The X-Files, there is no center, no cohesive set of categories to judge truth and falsity, good and evil. It’s never clear who has power, or where authority resides. The political leaders, who are the primary actors in Star Trek’s version of power politics, don’t really exercise control in The Simpsons or The X-Files world. Instead, in our globalized, interconnected, networked society, power is dispersed among a shadowy web of companies, agencies, cliques, and groups. What matters is the local and the global. The national hardly exists.
The Simpsons captures the new social structure in relatively benign form, Cantor observes. In the first place, it is set in small-town America, just like Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best. And unlike a lot of recent sitcoms, it is about a nuclear family, though it’s not exactly a nuclear family with normal lines of authority.
But this small town is regularly swept by globalization. There are immigrants from places like Albania (whose "main export is furious thought," Lisa Simpson notes) and India. The local company gets taken over by a German conglomerate and becomes Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk, while locals study language tapes called "Sycophantic German" so they can prepare for the new bosses. The local Mom and Pop Hardware Store turns out to be a subsidiary of Global Dynamics, Inc.
One of the key characters in The Simpsons is Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who runs the Kwik-E-Mart. Most of Apu’s adventures involve a conflict between his desire to cling to his Hindu culture, while trying, in the economic sphere, to become more American than the Americans. When nativists picket his store with placards that read "Get Eurass Back to Eurasia" and "The Only Good Foreigner is Rod Stewart," the local mobster tells him to pose as a native-born American: "Remember you were born in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Your parents were Herb and Judy Nahasapeemapetilon."
In The Simpsons commerce is what matters. The show, Cantor notes, is scathing about politics. ("I voted for Prell to go back in the old glass bottle. After that I became deeply cynical," Homer declares.) The federal government is virtually non-existent, and when it does appear, it is ludicrous. When the government takes over Krusty the Clown’s television show, it gets renamed The IRS Presents Herschel Krustofski’s Clown-Related Entertainment Show.
Instead the Simpsons live in a world in which the nation-state has largely vanished from their consciousness. The important things are family and neighbors, with an occasional person or force from somewhere around the globe coming in to shake things up. The marketplace is the central arena of life. It’s where people try to get rich, or at least buy the best products. Week after week, the Simpsons face the lures of the marketplace and try to survive as a family and as members of a small-town community through it all.
Cantor spends more time on The X-Files than on any other program, because, he claims, it represents the apotheosis of all the trends he is describing. In this program, all the Cold War structures are gone. The chief metaphor in the show is not power conflict, as in Star Trek. It is infection. Evil forces seep into American life, sometimes in disguise. Early in the series, extraterrestrial aliens seemed to be the menace. Later, illegal aliens emerged as a recurring theme. But in fact secret agencies turn out to be the pervasive threat. In The X-Files the politicians on television are merely puppets of secret forces, who commit Nazi-like atrocities. Early in the series, the producers worried whether they could really portray the United States government so cynically, but when they did focus groups, they discovered that the audience was fully prepared to accept a world in which secret agencies assassinate presidents and cover up horrific crimes.
"What is most uncanny about the series," Cantor concludes, "is that we never know who is making the decisions that determine the fate of the world....Moreover, the threats to the world may come from any direction in The X-Files. Something that happens in a remote research station in the Arctic or on the tundra of Siberia may have the potential to destroy life on earth as we know it."
What Cantor is suggesting is that the people who sit at home with 160 channels and watch The Simpsons and The X-Files look at the world in fundamentally different ways than the people who sat at home and watched Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island. The culture now shown in ancient repeats was centered on a few dominant institutions. The new culture is radically and permanently decentered.
People who are fanatical about these shows will want to argue with Cantor about whether he understands their essential meaning. For the rest of us, what Cantor is describing is a world in which people regard it as normal that their basic units of self-government are continually overwhelmed by powers beyond their control, whether it is the bond markets, infectious diseases, illegal immigration, or global capitalism.
At rare moments in Gilligan Unbound, Cantor steps out from behind his pop-culture analysis to drive home the point of the book: "Far from marking the end of history, the triumph of the nation-state in the twentieth century may eventually appear to be equivocal from the point of view of later historians. Someday they may look back on the nation-state as the way-station between the purely local markets of the medieval world and the fully globalized markets of the third millennium." Just as the Greeks wrenched humanity from the notion that the family was the basic social unit, so—Cantor argues at the end of the book—we may be abandoning the notion that the nation is the basic political unit.
Of course, others have argued that the nation-state is withering away, but they have usually done so from an economic perspective. These writers tend to be blissfully unaware of the power of national culture, history, and consciousness. From these writers’ perspective, there shouldn’t be any conflict in the Middle East because it doesn’t make any economic sense. But Cantor’s version is far more compelling, because he suggests that faith in and consciousness of the nation-state is withering primarily in the minds of its citizens.
You may want to ask upon finishing the book whether this is just a view one gets from watching too much television. It could be, for example, that all Cantor is really describing is a cynicism fashionable among Hollywood liberals. They used to believe government could do everything; now they’ve discovered that it can’t. So like adolescents who come upon the stunning revelation that their parents aren’t perfect, these producers and writers have now decided that government can do nothing. It could be that this cynicism is just a phase or a pose that producers—and their viewers—use to show how sophisticated they are.
But there could also be more to it than that. As Bush’s efforts to regulate stem cell research indicate, it really is true that nation-states have trouble ruling these days, since stem cell researchers can easily go overseas. And it is also true that there has been a massive and long-standing loss of faith in national government. The most important poll result of our lifetimes, after all, is this: In the mid-1960s, three-quarters of Americans said they had a great deal of confidence in the federal government to solve the nation’s problems. Today, only about a fifth of Americans say they do. That does signify something.
If Cantor is essentially right—that the nation dominated the twentieth century, but the twenty-first century will be dominated by institutions that are either local or global—the question then becomes: What caused this shift? Cantor calls it "globalization," but it is never clear what that means. Americans are less aware of the outside world today than they were in, say, the 1950s, when the media really covered foreign affairs and when intellectuals felt compelled to stay up with trends in France and watch movies from Sweden. Sure, the guy behind the counter at Seven-Eleven now comes from Bangladesh, but does that explain a fundamental shift in attitudes?
It could be that Americans’ trust in the nation-state has declined because Americans have had thirty years of relative peace. War does force people to rally around the center, and it could be we are so thrilled with commercial abundance that politics and self-government seem like a bother.
Or it could be that the nation-state has simply become a mature industry? Throughout the twentieth century, some large portion of the populace felt that government could grow or change in some dramatic way to herald in a new age. Some thought that change would be realized through the Progressive movement, the New Deal, or the Great Society. Others thought Thatcherite or Reaganite scaling back of government would herald the new tomorrow.
But now government is big and immobile. It’s not getting much bigger or much smaller; it’s just turning into a machine for churning out Social Security and Medicare checks, and serving as stomping ground for the likes of Clintons and Condits. That doesn’t inspire idealism, or even interest.
The other question Cantor doesn’t answer is whether the loss of faith in national government, and the eventual eclipse of the nation-state, would be good or bad. Cantor’s tone is benign: We now have an exciting new task ahead of us, creating supra- and subnational political structures. Besides, he seems to ask, what’s so bad about a world without an overarching government?
Libertarian-tinged thinkers will find little bad about the situation. But others may wonder what can be good about citizens losing the ability to govern themselves. National government, for example, is one way people attempt to control their destiny. Most of us are imbued with a distinctively American culture, which contributes mightily to who we are. Can our distinctly American identity and the values it is based on survive in a world without American nationalism? America has been a tremendous force for good in the world. If the American nation-state loses its saliency, surely that is a tragedy of epic proportions.
Cantor doesn’t tackle all these issues, but he does force us to reexamine the world around us—and his Gilligan Unbound is a riveting and provocative read. If he’s right in his central thesis, then we will spend the next few decades grappling with a fundamentally new political world—and probably looking back fondly on the greatness that was Gilligan.
David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard