Chomsky Sci-Fi: They Live
By Bryan Caplan
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?