Bryan Caplan  

Chomsky Sci-Fi: They Live

"Do the Opposite": Hanson on E... The Language Barrier...

Way back in 1988, I saw John Carpenter's They Live, and last night, I watched it again. The plot: Aliens have infiltrated our society, and are brain-washing us by infusing pop culture with subliminal messages like "Obey," "Consume," "Watch TV," and "Marry and Reproduce." The hero finds some high-tech sunglasses that allow him to see the world as it really is, and away we go.

Some might call They Live a witty social satire, but to me it's more of a reductio ad absurdum of Noam Chomsky. If it takes ubiquitous subliminal messages to make us obey, consume, watch tv, marry, and reproduce, what is our "natural" condition? Apparently, to be free spirits who abstain, engage in daily social protest to relax, and remain single and childless!

I bet Chomsky would endorse the reductio, but... come on! From the youngest age, most people like to fit in, have cool possessions, and watch tv. It takes a while before they want to marry and have kids, but pop culture tends to glorify single life. And in any case, a slowly-maturing species that didn't feel a deep-seated urge to pair-bond and raise children wouldn't last. The aliens in They Live might as well send the subliminal message "Help your genes as much as possible." Talk about redundant.

The bottom line is advertisers are swimming with the current of human nature, while Chomsky is swimming against it. Madison Avenue urges people to do what they want to do anyway; people like Chomsky urge people to do the opposite. If people don't measure up to Chomsky's moral standards, the root cause isn't the media. It's people!

Wait, wasn't there another classic sci-fi movie that ended this way?

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Robin Hanson writes:

I liked that movie, even if it was silly.

Human lives are usually not as exciting or heroic as the stories we watch in the movies. We must sometimes wonder why. One theory is that we are not as noble or worthy as those story characters. Another theory is that stories give us a messed up idea of what nobility is. A third theory is that sinster forces have tricked us into not living up to our potential. Guess which theory is most likely to be defended in a story.

James writes:

This seems like a bit of a strawman. Where does Chomsky say you should never get married? Where does he say you shouldn't buy anything?

My interpretation of Chomsky is that he challenges the notion of consumer sovereignty, as Galbraith did in the Affluent Society. The issue isn't whether advertising is counter to human nature. The issue is whether psychological and sociological forces influence our desire to consume.

Economics does a good job of comparing systems for allocating resources to provide the goods and services that people want. It does a relatively poor job of explaining why people want the things they do. Psychologists, sociologists, and (perhaps) linguists have better tools to answer that question, IMHO.

My best,

-- James

Dezakin writes:

Its allways popular to attack Chomsky though. He often just makes observations, maybe with hints of opinions on the 'rightness or wrongness' of the way things are.

Ramon writes:
with hints of opinions on the 'rightness or wrongness' of the way things are

"Hints" is pretty generous.
I often agree with Chomsky's observations about politics and international afairs but I find kind of annoying the way he tries tu see politics in terms of right and wrong.

Chomsky's articles are usually denunciations of some sort of american hypocrisy (The US says one thing and does another). He describes how the noble purposes in american retorics are no more than cold interest, power struggles or domination ambitions. So what? hasn't he read Machiavelli?

James writes:

Hey! I was James here first!

Anyway, I think the real trouble with Chomsky is that he speaks very clearly in discussing what he dislikes but is generally vague in discussing how he thinks things ought to be. Consequently, none of his views about how to improve from the problems of the present can be given much in the way of critical analysis. If he were to speak more clearly about how things ought to be, I doubt that he'd be as well respected as he presently is.

Ramon writes:

Chomsky is the Einstein of Linguistics but that doesn't make him and authority in everything he wants to talk about. He has made a following of millions of fans by supplying them with " antiimperialist and big- bussiness-doesnt-want-you-to-know" narratives.

Supply meets demand. He is good at it. Otherwise, I don't see a genius.

Marcus writes:

The movie plays like a copy of Adbusters sprung to ridiculous life. Add Naomi Klein and Kalle Lasn to the list moonbats. The film would be funny if we didn't know that many people don't take the film as a parody.

Marcus writes:

From IMBD, an 8 of 10 star reviewer writes:

"This film has a commentary as relevant today as in the 80s".

A 10 of 10 reviewer writes:

"Clever sci-fi film with current cultural relevance"

A no star reviewer writes:

"This movie is hilarious, unintentionally."

Many of the 10 star reviews are scarier/funnier than the movie.

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