“C” Is For Average

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Metal was born of the fusion of heavy rock, horror music, progressive rock and the nascent proto-punk movement. The history of rock is the history of rebellion and rule-breaking: from Friedrich Liszt making his strings break live at key moments on purpose, to Jerry Lee Lewis lighting the piano on fire, to the Beatles with their hairstyles and jackets which were radical for the time, to the Doors being suggestive on the Ed Sullivan show, through Hendrix burning his guitar, to Kiss being super-sexual and painting their faces, to Black Sabbath who sang about Satan and magic, to Metallica who combined neoclassical with thrash and had a hard-partying image, to Slayer’s seemingly outright Satanism. Metal is about taking things one step further, breaking the rules and being unique. Not about following them.

Good music aims for a grade of “A” by experimenting and breaking the rules, but in doing so, takes the chance that it will get an “F.” Think of good music as Icarus: he flies toward the Heavens (or in the case of metal: towards hell) aware he is taking a big chance. He may well crash and burn to the ground in pursuit of his musical ideals. It’s a risk Icarus is willing to take.

Today we have way, way too many bands following all the rules of their genre, and not enough acts pressing ahead. When I look at my local scene it is clear that the bands who have stayed together a long while, while following the rules of their genre, are the bands who have been most successful. Most of these bands have decent music and are listenable. But its not stuff I want to listen to more than once, or see live more than once. This is the curse of local bands: competent, good at following trends, but not so good that they break out and become emblematic of those trends.

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“The Marching Morons,” by Cyril W. Kornbluth

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One of our readers pointed out the similiarity between the movie Idiocracy and a short story by Cyril W. Kornbluth named “The Marching Morons” which appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction in April, 1951.

Like Idiocracy, the story involves a man who is put into stasis for centuries and wakes up in a new world where humanity has bred itself into oblivion. The Margaret Sanger style eugenics implications are even clearer in this story than in Idiocracy, told with both wit and compassion. Unlike the movie, this story addresses the question of how technology could persist, and comes up with the Nietzschean idea of an upper caste of intelligent people who have ended up enslaved to the masses of fools.

The story falls into the style which is convenient to call “honest” when we in fact mean realistic, with some aggression behind it in the telling of an important story that is mostly forgotten because of its political inconvenience. For Kornbluth, who was Jewish, to explore anything tinged with eugenics in the years after WWII was not only personally brave but ran the risk of great condemnation. Perhaps he was a victim of political correctness because it seems this story should have wider reach.

“The Marching Morons” is written in the older style of science fiction that readers of Ray Bradbury may be familiar with, which is not so much self-consciously “literary” content embedded in mass market writing but a compact, vivid style in which every detail is important but the big picture is not lost in the details. Kornbluth writes with what we might call passion but is more appropriately termed “urgency” in that this story takes place in a desperate time, and was written in a desperate time.

While the presence of this story in the heritage of Idiocracy seems obvious, it is also important to point to an earlier work which it would have been hard for any science fiction fan to miss: The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. In this book, a Victorian scientist travels to the future. He finds the planet is now divided into two groups: the Morlocks, brutal and crude creatures that fear the light and control the planet from its surface, and Eloi, light and graceful creatures of intelligence which live below the surface in menial circumstances.

As the protagonist explores, he discovers that the Morlocks have descended from the working classes of his time and have through evolutionary pressures become essentially Orcs, thoughtless and violent but obsessive. They live by feeding on the Eloi, to whom Darwin has not been kind because when intelligence is no longer needed for survival, it becomes a burden and the thoughtless and violent dominate it.

Apparently Wells was influenced by E. Ray Lankester’s book Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (1880) in which the author sets forth the idea that if a species gains a constant food supply, evolution pushes toward a suppression of form in a kind of marginal profit obtained by removing expensive features that are no longer necessary.

It may also serve as an answer to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, in which he posits an underground species of angelic human-like creatures known as Vril-ya will take over earth with superior intelligence. Much as Orwell answered Huxley, Wells answered Bulwer-Lytton, suggesting that instead of the utopian vision he portrays a Lankesterian degeneration of humanity lurked in the future, which is the theme held in common with both Idiocracy and “The Marching Morons.”

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Idiocracy (2006)

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Some say the role of art is to show us what is in the future by amplifying what we refuse to notice about the present. Idiocracy takes on this task by showing us what happens to a egalitarian, sex-obsessed, entertainment-besotted and distraction-oriented culture over five centuries.

Set in 2505, Idiocracy follows the story of two people chosen for a crionics experiment because they are average in intelligence, physical ability and motivation. Absolutely expendable in the present time, they spend a half-millennium in cryostasis and emerge into a changed world.

Following the long tradition of hyperbolic absurdist comedy, Idiocracy portrays the world in broad brush strokes and basic colors. It does this because if it got any subtler, we would recognize America 2015 A.D. in this mess. In the future, the Dunning-Kruger effect — by which the stupid are arrogantly confident and the intelligent timorously hesitant — leads to a population of morons.

In the future world, society is ruled by entertainment of the most Beavis and Butthead variety, constant sexual and masturbatory stimulus, and the type of consumer hell that was imagined by 1980s thrash bands. People are not only brick stupid, but hopelessly vapid, living in a constant flood of distractions while their world crumbles around them. Idiocracy amplifies present problems to their maximum: pollution, corruption, incompetence and apathy have become not just commonplace, but dominant.

The film shadows past stories on this topic, notably Brave New World. In that novel, eugenics — the science of managing the intelligence of offspring — was controlled by government to produce leaders, artisans and drones. In the idiocratic world all eugenics has been abandoned and people survive through the buildup of technology which manages the world for them, having grown too stupid to do more than press buttons. As in Demolition Man, which alludes to the Huxley book, future authorities depend on maintaining the appearance of order through the absence of conflict. Citizens are threatened by insane police, bribed with sex and money, and kept distracted by Roman empire style circuses with a technological edge.

What this film does well is to show us a vision of hell. It keeps this vision on the line between what we recognize and what we can imagine, but the allusions to our present world are too close to be ignored. The future culture represents a cross between pro-wrestling, redneck culture, barrio living and urban lifestyles. Consistently the lowest common denominator is revealed in everything. The future population seems to be mostly Hispanic and white, with relatively few African-Americans but a health number of people of indeterminate mixed origins. This fits the theme of this movie, which is taking America A.D. 2005 and exaggerating it to reveal the natural end result of the path it is on.

In the intervening decade, the gap between reality and Idiocracy has narrowed to an alarming degree. What cannot be denied is that the future, like the present, is insufferable. People are fools, but if anyone smarter than they are arrives, they call him an idiot and metaphorically crucify him for their own entertainment. Arguing with them is like talking to people on the internet who cite Wikipedia and big media articles, but do not understand them, creating a kind of circular debate where the only people who understand it are in the minority and as a result are ignored. People lack awareness of anything more than their immediate needs in their immediate future, and have not only a lack of empathy but something worse than apathy, which is total obliviousness toward all consequences which cannot be immediately visualized. In Idiocracy, ignorance wins out over knowledge and intelligence every time, and the only way to get anything done is to lie to people and play to their superstitions and ignorance. It is a cynical and yet strikingly accurate view of the future.

Where this movie becomes difficult is that it is a cross between political polemic and cartoon, although it is not animated. There is no subtlety, no depth of character other than vague goodwill, and every scene exists to prove a point on the outline of an essay which might be titled Too Much of a Good Thing: How Humanity Won All Challenges and Atrophied Into Mental Retardation. The underlying pro-eugenics theme does not focus, as most of them do or movies such as Gattaca flirt with, on the production of superior beings so much as on the proliferation of average ones, and how that in turn induces average to consistently lower itself to avoid excluding anyone. The most crushing scene occurs when lead character Joe Bauers attempts to explain simple reality to a group of future-idiots, and is mocked for his trouble by those who rely on supposed “superior” knowledge.

I doubt this movie will find any fans in our established elites, for whom the idiots of this hypothetical — and it is best to put a big fat question mark next to that word — future seem like ideal constituents. Nor will it find many political supporters, since it avoids taking a side and instead points numbly and ardently at the elephant in the room. It is however most effective as a type of conditioning, in that after watching this movie the traits of people around in stand revealed in their full selfishness/narcissism, denial and manipulative distraction. For that reason, it fits within the metal worldview of seeing our society as a hugbox of denial of its own decline, and the rot coming from within and being masked by — not helped by — the rhetoric of peace, love, equality, subsidy and happiness which is the opiate of our fellow citizens as they zone out and wait to become idiots of the future.

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Metal is a rebellion against Idiocracy

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For years our media saw heavy metal as a kind of deviation from normal pop, which was presumed to be innocent and healthy. Metal, on the other hand, embraced the dark and obscure, the labyrinthine and the terrifying, and — unlike most pop — failed to condemn war, conflict, murder and occultism as “evil.”

As time goes on, it becomes clear that the terms “good” and “evil” are frequently inverted, with each taking the meaning of the other. For example, totalitarian dictators have a tendency to portray normal life as evil in order to make their systems of control seem “good”; conversely, pop music and other products like to pretend they are good and metal “evil” in order to infiltrate your headphones.

Increasingly, however, research shows that pop music is instead the siren call of a civilization collapsing into idiocracy, or rule by morons for idiots. As portrayed in the movie Idiocracy, this state occurs when the thoughtless and incompetent outbreed the intelligent and insightful, resulting in the ultimate consumer society of know-nothing, apathetic people.

That condition could also describe pop music in its current form. Recent research points out that pop music is indeed dumbing us down. In a recent article entitled “Scientists Prove That Pop Music Is Literally Ruining Our Brains,” Jordan Taylor Sloan argues that:

Research proves what our parents have been saying all along: Modern pop music really is worse than older generations of pop music. Not only that, it has negative effects on your brain, too — if you’re chiefly a pop music fan, you’re likely to be less creative than any other kind of music lover.

In 2008, Adrian North of Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University published the largest study yet of musical taste, involving 36,000 people, 60 countries and three years of work. He asked each participant to rank their favorite genres of music. He discovered that the most common characteristic among all genre listeners was creativity. However, one group of listeners showed a genuine and significant lack of creativity: pop music lovers.

This suggests what metalheads have said for years is in fact true: metal embraces not just forbidden topics, but acts out the forbidden idea that some music is indeed brain-dead and should be avoided. Wimps and poseurs leave the hall!

Further, heavy metal — by the complexity of its composition, the intricacy of its thought and lyrics, and the technicality of its instrumentalism — acts as a counter-force to this great dumbing down. Unlike music which tries to be popular by challenging no one and making sugar-laden over-processed musical junk food for the inattentive, heavy metal engages its audience and speaks forth social taboos in order to expand the mind and challenge the intellectually sedentary.

It is unlikely that the mainstream media will take note of this. It only takes note of metal when it is “socially conscious,” or flattering our current pretenses of being an upward society moving toward Utopia, instead of a dying civilization creating dystopia through oblivion toward reality as a result of popular narcissism. But parents might take note as they see their children become glazed-eye zombies in the hands of media designed to support idiocracy, not challenge it.

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