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Diamonds in the Rough

Homer Simpson Goes to Washington: American Politics Through Popular Culture, Edited by Joseph J. Foy (University of Kentucky Press, July 2008)

Once in an undergraduate class on American literature, one of my classmates noted that our teaching assistant had referenced The Simpsons during the discussion of nearly every text we had read. The student was not a fan of the show and was somewhat irritated that a prime-time cartoon frequently infringed upon our debates over Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Melville. Our instructor responded by asking how many of us were regular viewers of The Simpsons; this being a college campus in the late ’90s, the vast majority of us raised our hands. Our teacher then went on to explain that he used the show in class primarily because it provided a referential touchstone for all the students and because the show was very accurate satire of nearly every aspect of American life.

When our class met on the following Tuesday, the student in question raised his hand at the beginning of class and noted that The Simpsons episode that had aired over the weekend—the “tomacco” episode—touched on some of the issues dealt with in our current read, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and our discussion took off from there. Our teacher, the method, and Matt Groening were vindicated.

Homer Simpson Goes to Washington: American Politics Through Popular Culture, edited by Joseph J. Foy, presents a collection of academic essays examining the connection between “low culture” (The Simpsons and other popular entertainments ranging from Chappelle‘s Show to folk music) and the realities of the political landscape. Although it provides some excellent demonstrations of using media to teach historical and political concepts, Homer Simpson unfortunately rarely offers more than a cursory glance at its subjects and their interaction with reality.

The book begins with a piece on the film V for Vendetta, based on Alan Moore’s politically charged graphic novel. The essay, “R for Revolution,” falls into the same unfortunate trap as many of the other works in this collection. It examines the film, explicating the differences between the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke, and it does essentially accomplish that. However, the essay falls short of any real introspection into the implications of these differences either on-screen or off. The author, Dean A. Kowalski, merely presents one of Hobbes’ or Locke’s ideas and then notes a character or plot point of the film which exemplifies this idea.

This approach is pervasive throughout the book, apparent in essays on The West Wing, Bulworth, Chappelle’s Show, and most particularly in the closing chapters on folk music. One of these chapters is comprised mostly of what amounts to a 9-page list of popular protest songs, each paired with the corresponding social issue that gave rise to it. Doubly unfortunate is the fact that there are some worthwhile essays in the book that get lost in the shuffle.

One such piece, “Entertainment Media and Political Knowledge,” actually digs a little deeper into its analysis of the late night faux-news (Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, mainly) and its attendant viewership. This piece examines the real relationship (through polls and studies) between what people watch and what (and how much) people know. The conclusion, that these shows do provide important information—but primarily only to people disinterested in politics—is an interesting one and leads to speculation as to how these programs might better improve voter participation. Similarly, Timothy Dunn’s essay on 24 and torture (an unusual case where the show 24 has entered the political debate since Rep. Tom Tancredo’s name-checking of Jack Bauer during a Republican presidential debate) advances beyond mere summation and uses the ideas and issues found in the show to debate the wisdom of torture as state policy. In doing so, it stands out as the most memorable and interesting of the essays in this collection.

As my teaching assistant demonstrated, “low culture” can indeed be used to facilitate teaching and debate of real-life issues. “Low culture” is limited, however, just as “high culture” is, when it is subjected to a mostly facile examination. The real heart of the conversation, the meat, has to come from much more rigorous treatment than are given to most of the subjects in this book.


James Arnett


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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