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."