We got radicalized on UHF

In furthering my theory on how older generations played themselves, let’s take a look not at music this time, but visual media like television and film.

This excellent article recently appeared from Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson breaking down how, of all movies, Weird Al Yankovic’s screwball comedy UHF actually ends up advocating for the workers controlling the means of production, also known as socialism.

We’ve seen it all before: sneering men in suits try to crush the spirit of a wild dreamer who has a wildly popular idea but can’t quite stand up to the big bully and all of his big dollars, but something always happens. In 1989’s UHF, the community pitches in to collectively own the TV station. In 1984’s sublimely titled Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo the greedy land developer is thwarted in his quest to turn a community center into a mall. In 1987’s less sublime Ernest Goes to Camp, the titular character and a group of kids save the camp from an unscrupulous mining corporation. The list goes on and the tropes even persist to the modern media era, mostly with Disney fare like 1995’s Heavyweights, where the kids defeat the nasty corporate sleazeball by, um, borderline violent revolution?

You might be noticing a theme here with these films, and it’s not just movies that I enjoyed watching in my childhood. These are movies that are either:


A) explicitly for children
B) watched mostly by children
C) (and let’s be honest) pretty cheaply made/written

A movie like UHF wasn’t meant to have much plot. The creators, in a later interview, even talked about whether this sort of film needed a plot at all. So why is it that so many movies built to be light on plot or built to be watched by children have this similar plot, and why does the plot always seem to fly in the face of capitalism, particularly in the middle of the Reagan era?

The easiest answer is because it’s a simple story that’s simple to write, simple to produce and, most of all, simple to feel. For all of the banging on that the no-step-on-snake folks like to do about how capitalism is just basic human nature, we never saw a movie where Ernest successfully restructures the summer camp to generate more profit. Breakin 2 wouldn’t have as satisfying of an ending if Boogaloo Shrimp has negotiated for a mixed-use space. UHF would have been weird if Lee Iaccoca or someone had shown up at the end and buy the station for the good corporations. Folks know corporations aren’t their friends. Folks know that the pursuit of money eventually will come at the expense of someone else’s basic needs. Folks know deep down that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and they sure as shootin don’t want to sit down for a rollicking comedy that reminds them of that. They want something better, they want to dream of something better through their media. At the end of the day, people want to be taken care of, and socialism allows for that. Capitalism doesn’t.
As such, quick and easy writing for television and film often fell back on stories that would get the best bang for the buck with audiences across the board. Ironically, it’s the very psychocapitalism that demands schlock churned out to maximize the bottom line (and can’t even do THAT right as UHF was badly marketed, scheduled to open against titan’s like 1989’s Batman, and flopped at the box office only to find new life on video) is the exact same system that wound up giving the kids that grew up watching it the strong sense of justice that lead to Occupy and Bernie Sanders once everything fell apart in 2008.

(Fun side note about UHF: my brothers and I found it on a taped tape in the home for the disabled my mother was working in at the time. It was one of those long play cassettes, and Weird Al was sandwiched in between Pretty Woman and Back to the Future Part Two. My brothers and I watched it so much that we sort of ended up permanently borrowing it. When we finally tried to return it, the home told us to keep it… but, unfortunately, we did have to return Ghidrah the Three Headed Dragon. Our indoctrination, our buying into the U62 station if you will, was done through the generosity of someone who freely distributed the means.)

The same issue can be seen on the mass produced television of the era: Transformers, GI Joe, Thundercats and so many other properties considered nostalgic favorites relied on simple stories because there wasn’t really time or money invested for nuance. The best part is, in the case of the shows listed above, the shows combined a radical message of justice with another message: there are folks that oppose you, folks that only want to take and subjugate and exploit others, and those people must be literally fought to ensure peace. There does not exist an episode of Thundercats where Mumm-Ra can be reasoned with or a compromise can be negotiated with Cobra Commander, and Bumblebee never chided Optimus Prime on the ethics of punching Decepticons. Like it or not, these media experiences were formative to an entire generation’s concept of how the world should be, and because of base capitalist desires to produce faster, cheaper, and bigger, the shows instilled in many of us foundational left-wing beliefs of peace, love, justice, compassion, and so on. Because of lazy and easy writing to make money and sell toys, psychocapitalism again shot itself in the foot. The suits created an entire generation of kids who were told at the end of every GI Joe episode, in the cheapest and bluntest way possible, not to cheat or lie or be cruel… except to those fascists in Cobra Command.

oops! Looks like psychocapitalism played itself again, and now like nearly every one of those cartoonish villains (that now resemble the average oligarch just a little too much) they are locked in a battle they can never win, condemned to forever shake a fist as their armies retreat and shout “foiled again!” Just to come back tomorrow, same time, same channel, to fight it all again… and now, thanks to their own greed, we’re ready to fight back.

Yo Joe. Transform and roll out.

A L I E N A T I O N

In the latest example of bafflingly contradictory takes regarding Millennials, these two articles appeared independently of each other a scant two days apart. This isn’t the first time this has happened to somewhat comedic effect, as this screenshot I took in 2014 shows:


So why does this happen? Why are things so topsy turvy? Why does nothing make sense? Well, I’d argue, it doesn’t make sense because it’s not supposed to, and it’s not going to.

I’m a substitute teacher. In today’s school climate, it’s not exactly the high rung on the ladder. Today’s schools barely resemble the ones of ten years ago, let alone the ones I trained to teach in almost twenty years ago. Things change quicker than ever, and trying to rely on anything taught to you by a middle-aged professor in 2003 is an absolute joke. The classes, the student, the buildings themselves, everything has changed and you either change with it or get left behind. You either embrace the madness or get consumed by it. As a substitute, this is actually easier as I don’t have lesson plans, year-long curricula or delicate student & staff relationships to manage. If I don’t like a school, I just don’t come back tomorrow. A lot of full-time folks don’t have that option, and so it’s a lot harder to embrace the madness for them.

There are far fewer rules in today’s schools. Gum? Allowed. Drinks? Yep. Food? Sure. Only the biggest grumps in the teaching world hold a hard line on things like gum or wearing hats, and when you do it’s a constant struggle to keep that authority, and it is draining. But let’s go further: shouting for no reason? Happens daily. Throwing things? Almost daily. Swearing, sexual harassment, homophobia, racism, casual violence? It wouldn’t be a day at school without it in the average American school… and that’s not even getting started on school dress codes, if your particular school hasn’t long ago given up on them.

For someone who went to high school in the Britney era and saw administrators try to cut back on exposed skin, this used to be hard to deal with. I used to rail against it, decry the downfall of society, imply parents and students and communities to have more decency and police themselves and everything else that might have sent me down the alt-right path of skulls and swastikas… if it were not for my return to subbing in 2013 after a break of a few years. I resolved that this time, I would not let the students “get to” me, that I’d let it slide off my back, that I’d force myself not to care… and something amazing happened. I didn’t stop caring, but I started seeing the bigger issues at play and realizing that everything I’d believed about the world up to this point was at best misguided and at worst a malicious lie. I was subbing in rural areas now, and suburban ones, and I noticed the same issues happening there as in the urban ones I was sure was more poisoned than the sainted ones of my youth… but the same problems persisted. Why?

There’s a systemic issue, a larger issue in society that no amount of self-policing and gumption will solve. These students, first in the urban centers and now into the suburbs, are seeing how broken the system is as they see a woefully outdated educational model fail to prepare them for the nightmarescape they see every night on the news. Band-aids over gaping wounds appear all over the country in mass-shooter drills, means-tested tax incentives, and half-measures on basic needs like healthcare. One day in class, after a presentation on the students’ future career prospects, I waited until the full-timers had left the room and then scrawled on the whiteboard “DO YOU FEEL PREPARED?” and not a single student answered “yes.” It was then I started down a path where I realized it wasn’t parent v. child, teacher v. student, middle class v. lower class… it’s everyone that is suffering under the system v. the system itself

But what does this have to do with all these articles about Millennials? Well, it all comes down to the concept of alienation.

No workers are substitute teachers in the school of life. We’re immersed in this madness up to our necks, and on the daily. And embracing the madness of our current psychocapitalist system when you can’t just check out at the end of the day is damn near impossible. The students in the urban areas, some of the least powerful people around, experienced this alienation first: it doesn’t matter what we do, the system doesn’t care, so you disconnect from it. As psychocapitalism digs further and cuts deeper in pursuit of yet more profit, the same feelings start to spread into more affluent and privileged areas. Any futile attempts to mitigate the situation, as good-hearted as they may be, only serve to further highlight the flaws in the system and drive people further away. We soon see two sides of each generation: those who are alienated from society, and those who are not. In the interests of keeping their current comfortable situation, thought leaders and decision makers take an obvious course: one of these groups must be celebrated, the other demonized, and this is how we wind up in the even further alienating phenomenon of contradictory coverage.

When you see two articles that say “you should be having kids” and also “you shouldn’t be having kids” what’s being said is “certain people we approve of should be having kids, and it’s your fault if you are not those people, and you should feel bad about it.” When two articles say “Millennials are relying too much on late-stage capitalism gig economy to avoid adulthood” and also “Millennials are literally selling their future earnings to investors upon reaching adulthood” what’s being said is “the good ones are spending their money this way, and if you spend your money this other way you are one of the bad ones” Whether any of this is sound or helpful advice, however, is irrelevant as most of the generation has either checked out and embraced the madness or been consumed by its misery. It becomes another front in an age old war, where the elderly do their best to stand athwart history yelling “stop” and delude themselves into thinking this time, as opposed to when they were the youth of tomorrow, the adults will surely win.

There’s a certain… finality to our current psychocapitalist system. We’re getting to the point where we just are running out of things to sell, buy, market and exploit, including our very own habitable planet. We’re running out of areas for growth in a system that demands constant growth, and without that growth collapse in inevitable. There’s a distinct feeling that those at the top, knowing the party is almost over, is simply speeding full bore into that inevitable nightmare, because the faster it all goes before the crash, the more money they stand to make which will come in handy when it all hits the fan.

The big question now stands as to how much the rest of us will allow them to pillage or hoard when it all comes crashing down and the alienated are finally given a place back in a society that doesn’t treat them like a replaceable machine part but as a valuable and meaningful human being. The longer we wait, I fear, the harder it will be to pull folks back from that alienation: we’re already seeing some folks so deep into the alt-right and the rising neo-fascism worldwide that it ay be very hard, even impossible, to show them a better way in possible. Time will tell, but the key is action. Do something, say something, get out there and let anyone and everyone know that a better world is possible. A world without greedy bosses and hoarding CEOs but a world of cooperation and mutual understanding, a world without efficiency and profits at all costs but instead shared prosperity where no one is king, but everyone does okay. A world without alienation from work, life, love, and society where people not only feel prepared to survive, but know they can thrive… but it can’t exist while an oligarchy repeatedly siphons all the money, power and prosperity to the very top.