The Magazine

Farewell to Greatness

America from Gilligan's Island to The X-Files

Sep 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 01 • By DAVID BROOKS
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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