Lisa, the Post-Modernist Simpson

I think that cartoon characters are very revealing of broad cultural values because they are only crude sketches of real people. To be funny they have to represent characteristics which the broad cultural audience will recognize. I think this is especially true when the portrayal of the characteristics appears as an unconsciousness inclusion on the part of the writers.

On the Simpsons, each character represents a certain subculture or subtype within American society. Ned Flanders represents the deeply religious, comic book guy the obsessive nerd, professor Fink the science geek, etc. Lisa Simpson represents the leftist. She’s a vegetarian, a Buddhist, an environmental activist, anti-gun, anti-nuke etc. Especially in the early episodes, her most common role is that of the unheeded voice of reason. Other people ignore Lisa’s sage advice and come to some bad end. Those Simpsons episodes become something like Aesop’s parables for leftists.

I find one recurring theme extremely telling of the zeitgeist of the contemporary Left that has broad implications in many areas from Law to Science.

About once a season, Homer blunders into some kind of power or authority. He thrashes about until sage Lisa tells him he has a responsibility to use that power for the greater good.

In episode 612, “Homer the Great”, Homer joins the “Stonecutters” who are a satire of the most paranoiac view of the Masons. Due to a birthmark, Homer is hailed as “The Chosen One” and granted the leadership of all the Stonecutters. At first he has a lot of fun but finds that power does not bring happiness. Lisa convinces him to use his power for good and Homer starts making the Stonecutters do publics works. The Stonecutters themselves, however, just want a social club so they all quit to form a new club called the “The No-Homers.”

In episode 1506, “Today I am A Clown”, Homer takes over Krusty’s TV show. At first he is very popular, talking with Lenny and Carl about mundane matters, but Lisa convinces him that he should use his position as a TV host as a pulpit for social activism. The great unwashed masses aren’t interested in “more important issues” and the show tanks.

Lisa never stops to ask what the people who granted that power or the people who will be affected by the use of that power want. She doesn’t ask if Stonecutters want to do “good works” or if the TV audience wants to hear about “important” issues. She just advises Homer to wield the power that dropped into his lap. Homer’s attempts to use his power for good always fail, not because Homer is dumb and uses his power incorrectly but because the ordinary people reject the wisdom he channeled from Lisa. Homer doesn’t fail, the people do.

Lisa’s unquestioned acceptance of Homer’s right and responsibility to exercise his chance-won power reveals the post-modernist attitude towards authority and power. For the post-modernist, there is no greater good than the politics of the moment. Each individual is expected to make an assessment of what constitutes the greater good and then to act on that assessment using any means at his disposal. The post-modernists have rejected the idea of “roles” that people assume in order wield certain powers. People don’t “wear different hats” and exercise power in accordance with the role defined by the respective hat. Instead, they view the hat and the role that comes with it as mere tools of power. The moral use of power depends wholly on the morality of the person wielding it. Failure to use any power one might obtain is the ultimate immorality.

When a post-modernist becomes a judge, journalist, academician or politician he does not view himself as limited by any traditional constraints on those roles. Instead he views the power granted to such individuals as a tool to be used as they, and only they, see fit. They are post-modernist leftists first and judges, journalists and academicians second (if at all). They think of themselves as secret agents adopting certain roles for power and camouflage while they pursue their own vision of what is right. They mock those that do work within traditional boundaries as either deluded or hypocrites.

Post-modernists are quick to claim the privileges and deference traditionally granted those roles but they reject any of the limitations or obligations tradition also placed upon them. Post-modernist professors expect people to defer to their presumptive expertise but not to question whether they have turned their campuses into political power bases for this or that movement. Post-modernist judges expect all to defer to their rulings without asking if they are in keeping with precedent. Post-modernist journalists expect to be believed no matter how shoddy or biased their work is, and react with outrage if they are questioned in the least. (Fake-but-accurate is a post-modernist concept.)

The bloody knife-fights over judicial nominations and the general erosion of respect and trust for the press and academia are driven by an increasing awareness by the general public that many people working in those areas do so only to exercise the power those roles give them. Post-modernists destroy the very institutional roles whose power they covet. By abusing power they prompt a counter-reaction to limit the power of the institutions themselves. The independence of the judiciary is at risk. The reputation of academics in the humanities is in complete shreds and they are roundly ignored. Journalists are trusted less and less every day.

I think the rot has also spread to the sciences. I think the Lancent Iraqi Mortality Survey is a textbook example of post-modernists abusing the power of their roles, in this case scientists and scientific-journal editors, in order to advance their political goals. They can do so with perfectly clear consciences because their morality tells them that the politics of the moment are more important than the long-term integrity of the institutions they work in. In their morality, spin-marketing a weak study is a small price to pay to wound their political enemies.

We are rapidly evolving to a state where large numbers of very bright people in control of major institution have what is essentially a fascistic view of the attainment and use of power. They believe that power is not legitimately exercised — and limited — by institutional roles, but rather by those who will simply take all that they can get however they can get it. This evolution will eventually kill a free society.

It is hard to look at a character like Lisa Simpson and see the first multiplying cells of malignant political and social cancer…

… but that’s what she is.

12 thoughts on “Lisa, the Post-Modernist Simpson”

  1. “…large numbers of very bright people in control of major institution have what is essentially a fascistic view of the attainment and use of power.”

    This reminds me of the leftists I’ve met who argue that all citizens are legitimate targets of terrorism, because if they had ‘properly’ exercised their responsibilities as citizens of a democracy, then the government and society would not have done anything to provoke the terrorists. Oy.

    Very good essay.

  2. If that is post-modernism, then I confess I have no idea what post-modernism is (yet again)… care to inform me what definition you’re using here? Thanks, Steve.

  3. Shannon,


    Wonderfully perceptive (in the broad sense – I’ve yet to see one Simpson episode so I guess I’m culturally illiterate). You’ve nailed that kind of “nanny state” approach.

    The essense of post-modernism seems to be a refusal to submerge the ego, to let others be who they are.

  4. It’s not just you Lotharbot, Shannon’s post is inside the “front cover” only it seems.

    My favorite Simpson’s episode is the “Tomacco” one. Homer blends Tobacco with Tomatos and gets a new crop! All’s well until the local cows get into the field and get addicted. I forget if Lisa played the role of the anti-GM hippy on that one or not.

    I’m a GM-technology supporter, but I still loved it!

  5. My favorite Lisa moment is in the episode “The Class Struggle in Springfield.”
    (# 142- 2/04/96- Marge gets an expensive “new” dress at the outlet mall. While wearing it she meets a former schoolmate who invites her and the family to the country club.)
    Lisa is angered by class injustice when sees Kent Brockman’s daughter berate a waiter for bringing her a baloney sandwich. (She insists she asked for “abalone.”)
    But Lisa’s indignation evaporates as she sees a man riding a pony. Later when she herself is riding that pony Lisa (the people’s champion) shouts to her mother “Look Mom, I found something more fun than complaining.”
    Is that post modernist?

  6. Shannon – don’t forget that Lisa’s plans and pronouncements always end in disaster and tears. The message in the Simpsons, if there is one, is that we are all losers and only love redeems us. The Simpsons are no more liberal on Lisa’s account than they are evangelical on Ned Flanders’ account.

  7. And here I thought the message of the Simpsons was “people are funny!”

    But yes, Lisa does represent the post-modernist leftist mindset of “do good, or at least do the thing you think is good based on your naive assumptions”…

  8. But Lisa, for all her irritating characterists, is basically a nice and well-meaning person. I’m not at all sure this can be said about today’s crop of “progressive” nihilists.

  9. Some people feel that just because they are highly educated that they are superior to those who have lesser education. There is the empirical fact the comparing themselves one on one vs all comers they emerge superior.

    And this finding encourages elitism that expresses itself as disdain for those conventions that shackle the little people and an expectation that as a member of the elite they are immune to censure.

    If a few of the masses die as a result of the action of an elite, it is the fault of the masses for misunderstanding their betters.

    Membership in an elite can be given to new members only by existing members. There are no elections. Elites are dedicated to making the status quo work “properly” because they cannot agree on a common vision for the future that differs at all from the present.

    The Newsweek article is a typical elitist criticism of Bush Middle East foreign policy. Bush’s policy repudiates the fundamental tenets of the Elitist Middle Eastern policy which has been maintained since the Crusades by a consensus of highly educated members of the elite who all have framed their diplomas and hung them on the wall (all earned, none honorary). Bush is not a member of the elite because his education is suspect, he has engaged in commerce, and he is a red-neck republican.

    Because the elite know Bush’s policy is unquestionably wrong, it is acceptable to damn it with made-up factoids (after all, who has time to abandon valuable research to find true factoids that every one knows must exist.)

    The same is true of
    1. the lancet article
    2. global warming
    3. marijuana laws
    4. driving “under the influence”
    5. protecting endangered species
    6. speed limits
    7. gun control
    8. out-sourcing jobs to other companies, cities, states, countries or continents
    9. NEA control of public education vs NCLB
    10. etc

  10. Shannon, What a fun essay! Almost removes guilt about consuming low-brow cultural products, seeing that they can be redeemed in this fashion. Your method of explication might lend itself to other cultural events, like the OJ Simpson trial. I’ve looked at media events, and felt that they were significant, but I have been unsure just what they might signify.

    In reading blogs of varying idiotalogical persuasions it’s fun to see what they’re talking or not talking about. Your Lancet expose has provoked quite a response here at Chicago Boyz, and the issue even takes a pride of place spot at the top of the blog. The Simpson essay continues the saga with a dark and sinister reading of scientific crimes. Would it be fair to characterize this reading of the Lancet article as a literal reading, very insistent that it meet truth claims in a particular way? Would that be comparable to a fundamentalist reading of the seven day creation story as a seven day story?

    My own reading would be more like a mainline protestant reading of the creation story as a myth. I look at the Lancet story, see a claim that a lot of families have been affected in bad ways by a war, and think, yes, that’s plausible. Liberal blogs seem to take the Lancet study pretty much at face value, and read it in an uncritical manner. This style of reading acknowledges human costs, but elides your concern about violating the canons of scientific research.

    The literal, fundamentalist reading style is showing up on liberal blogs in their reading of the “smoking gun memo” from England that suggests the war was decided on, and then work on a politically palatable rationale for it began. They might see it as a violation of the canons of truth in public discourse. Other blogs might not comment on it at all, or read it more mythically as a minor episode in the heroic struggle to instill democracy in the Middle East. Would that be more of a mainline protestant “liberal” reading of the memo?

    At any rate, thanks for an excellent essay—very thought provoking.

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