Those Meddling Kids: Lord of the Flies, Scooby-Doo, and The Wild Wild Net

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When you watch Scooby-Doo, one thing’s for certain: the monster is not real. It’s never a monster. The monster ends up being somebody — usually old, always hiding in plain sight — seeking profit or revenge. When they get caught by the Scoobies, they utter the show’s best and most famous lines: “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”

On one level, of course, Scooby-Doo is a fantasy for children. The heroes are older children (i.e., adolescents), who expose bad adults and see through their tricks. Shaggy is perched on one of two borderlines: he’s either an old teenager, who refuses to grow up, or else a young teenager, with a voice that’s just started to crack, and a beard he doesn’t know how to shave.

There’s something about the hoaxes, though, that can’t be easily explained. First of all, the crimes are bizarrely sophisticated. Vendettas. Profiteering. Corporate bullying. Such things crystallize over decades, including on the show itself, and “a decade” means very little to someone who is eight years old.

Second, the hoaxes work pretty well. This is surprising because they are just…so…incredibly…stupid. What are these criminals thinking? “A Halloween costume! Perfect! Now my crimes will never be discovered!” Apparently, and the crazy part is that they are right! In a world without the Scoobies, they “would have gotten away with it, too!” By the time the gang arrives, a whole town is usually being held hostage. All of this suggests that Scooby-Doo is premised on the idea of adults scaring other adults.

The show dramatizes, and celebrates, the overthrow of outdated prejudices: a prejudice becoms “outdated” when a new generation refuses to play along. The monster costumes represent everything adults will do to bequeath their prejudices to children, as in the old Rogers and Hammerstein song from South Pacific:

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Despite these interesting features, Scooby-Doo is a slapdash cartoon, not a work of genius. When the Scoobies expose a hoax, that is always a sufficient act, in and of itself. Everyone sees that “the emperor has no clothes” — i.e. that the “monster” is nothing to fear — after which the moral order is swiftly restored. However, as Slavoj Zizek writes in The Sublime Object of Ideology, ascribing such power to “the truth” is foolish. In modern societies, untruth and truth can (and do) co-exist:

We can see why Lacan, in his seminar on The Ethic of Psychoanalysis, distances himself from the liberating gesture of saying finally that ‘the emperor has no clothes’….[which is] the classic concept of ideology as ‘false consciousness,’ misrecognition of the social reality which is part of this reality itself. Our question is: does this concept of ideology as naive consciousness still apply to today’s world? Is it still operating today? In The Critique of Cynical Reason, a great bestseller in Germany, Peter Sloterdijk puts forward the thesis that ideology’s dominant mode of functioning is cynical, which renders impossible — or, more precisely, vain — the classic critical ideological procedure. The cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he none the less still insists upon the mask….

When individuals use money, they know very well that there is nothing magical about it — that money, in its materiality, is simply an expression of social relations. The everyday spontaneous ideology reduces money to a simple sign giving the individual possessing it a right to a certain part of the social product. So, on an everyday level, the people know very well that there are relations between people behind the relations between things. The problem is that in their social activity itself, in what they are doing, they are acting as if money, in its material reality, is the immediate embodiment of wealth as such. They are fetishists in practice, not in theory. (25-28)

Take the case of George Zimmerman, for example. The “monster,” in this case, is the (suddenly archetypal) young black man wearing a hoodie. He is summoned by Zimmerman’s defenders, who then analyze all of his dangerous characteristics. In a hoodie, a young black man is a mysterious, suspicious figure, and we have every right to worry. We cannot see his face. We do not understand where he is going, or why he is in such a hurry. We do not know which concealed weapons he might have decided to carry.

Zimmerman’s detractors, in turn, immediately begin mocking these racist anxieties and exaggerations. All sorts of people wear hoodies, they point out. They themselves are wearing hoodies, at this very moment, in order to protest Trayvon Martin’s undeserved death! Is anyone who decides to wear a hoodie actually doing anything illegal? In other words, the American Left busies itself with “liberating” the popular imagination from this new bogeyman: the black youth in a hoodie. They pull off the mask, and there, standing before us, are the gun lobby, and Southern racism, and “tough on crime” Republicans. Yet there is no political gain…and why not? Because of the way this “unmasking” is answered.

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Before I explain more, I should (following Zizek) pause here to mention Freud’s book On The Interpretation of Dreams. There, Freud narrates one of his own dreams, in which he confronts an unhappy patient, Irma, whom he has been unable to cure. According to Freud, the dream is born out of his own irrational desire to disavow all responsibility for Irma.

1. During the dream, he first tells Irma that she is not sick, and is merely imagining things. Naturally, therefore, his treatments will not help her.

2. Then, when he sees her again, he tells her that he has been given faulty data, making it impossible to diagnose her illness accurately.

3. In a third and final confrontation, Freud accuses Irma of having neglected the course of treatment he prescribed: how can she get hope to get better if she won’t accept medical advice?

Freud wryly observes that these statements are completely incompatible with one another. If Irma is imagining things, an incorrect diagnosis is irrelevant. If the diagnosis is wrong, then following Freud’s advice would obviously not help her recover. If the diagnosis is correct, and Freud’s advice will restore her to health, then she is not guilty of imagining things.

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Back to the George Zimmerman case. Is it true that people who look and dress like Trayvon Martin are criminals? Not always. “Of course!” respond conservatives. “These superpredators are out there, endangering everyone around them, and here’s the really terrifying part — a good percentage of the time, you’re absolutely right, they are not even wearing hoodies!” The “unmasking” of the hooded criminal only shows, from the perspective of a cynical subject, that the real criminals must have other defining traits. Critiquing fake superpredators proves, they imply, that real ones exist — otherwise, why would we even be having the conversation? Thus John Lott, writing for Fox News:

Even late in the trial, media coverage still showed pictures of a much younger 12-year-old Martin continually reinforcing the image in many minds that Zimmerman had shot a young child, not a six-foot, 17-year-old football player. Many readers might be surprised to learn that 17-year-olds are almost 50 percent more likely to commit murders than 28-year-olds such as Zimmerman.

In other words, OK, you don’t like our problem with hoodies? Well, he was also a football player – does that prove that Zimmerman acted with cause? No? OK, well, he was also seventeen. If more 17-year-olds commit murder than 28-year-olds, are you really going to argue that Zimmerman’s a murderer, and Martin isn’t? Like Freud, in his unconscious repudiation of Irma, people who defend “Stand Your Ground” laws are willing, at any given time, to change all of their facts and inferences, so long as the conclusion — that ordinary citizens must arm themselves against dangerous elements — can stay exactly the same.

This same dynamic can be seen with haunted houses. A tourist visits a haunted house (i.e. a tourist attraction); the haunted house has been installed within a space that was, once, a private residence that was believed to be haunted. Because all this is “entertainment,” the tourist expects to encounter fakes. Obviously, nobody tries to prove that the “real” ghosts are still around. Because there might be real ghosts, though, our paying customer will take nothing for granted. He inspects every detail of every spooky exhibit, listening for whispers, watching for “broken” carnival machines, and checking each exhibit for little incongruities. He is looking for anything that might deliver him to the land of real monsters. If pressed, the visitor of course denies that he believes in ghosts; in theory, he has gone to the haunted house despite this, merely to be entertained. In practice, meanwhile, he acts as if the ghosts were very real indeed, and, he does his level best to keep them alive.

The most poignant aspect of Scooby-Doo, then, is the way it serves up a fanciful aesthetic solution to real political problems. In the context of haunted houses (and the History Channel shows about them), the Zimmerman case, and “cynical” ideology, it is clear enough why the show’s villains get away with murder. The victimized communities do, and simultaneously do not, believe in the hoaxes. In theory, they are well aware of (let’s say) the pollution from the old mine on the outskirts of town. The mine leaches toxins into the town’s water supply, and the old man who owns it does not want anyone snooping around. In theory, since the town knows all this, there are already grounds for putting the man responsible behind bars. In practice, however, he is quite safe, protected by money, endemic poverty, politicians, private security guards, and lawyers.

The locals therefore behave very much as if there really was a monster lurking there, lethal and impervious. The owner may not dress up as a fluorescent fish monster, but he certainly will take pains to market himself, and his property, in one way or another. He expects the locals to corroborate his story; most of them do. This is the “monster” that the Scoobies hear about. The people are suffering, disenfranchised, frightened. Adults scaring adults.

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Once you start looking for this particular kind of suspended disbelief, it shows up all over the place. Recently, I was reading The Lord of the Flies, which I remembered as being terrible. It’s much, much worse than I remembered, as long as it is pointless.

It is a blatant rip-off of Conrad, and this is actually the best that can be said about it. Everything not present in Heart of Darkness, and therefore attributable to Golding himself, is inexcusable. One could cite many such things. Golding’s style, for instance. He is one of those writers who does not let his meanings get in the way of his metaphors. He never misses a chance to personify anything and everything in sight:

Then the clouds opened and let down the rain like a waterfall. The water bounded from the mountain-top, tore leaves and branches from the trees, poured like a cold shower over the struggling heap on the sand. (161)

More importantly, though, Golding’s book is a shoddy, embarrassingly frank ode to British imperialism. The children separate into two groups, civilized and savage. The savages are devil-worshippers, and do everything that native peoples do, as recorded in all the authoritative works of Victorian anthropology that Golding could find while researching his novel circa 1953. Every single term that Golding uses to describe “savagery” is offensive. Everything that comprises the society of savages is a parody of something real. Meanwhile, Golding hides out behind the children, who don’t know when they are giving offence, and behind the implicit promise that he’s about to deliver a general theory of evil.

It makes no difference, at all, that these terms show up in the mouths of children. That is exactly how European colonists viewed the adult members of non-Western civilizations – as unrealized, unenlightened children. Moreover, the focal point of the novel’s suspense and horror, “The Lord of the Flies,” has no real menace. We merely feel sorry for Simon, and regret the fever that leads him into conversations with the head of a slaughtered pig. “The Lord of the Flies” seems a fitting villain here, amid swarms of pre-pubescent boys. It’s a scary monster, but also a silly one. It speaks with Satanic gravitas at certain moments. At others, it sounds like a parent, or a “schoolmaster”: “’Come now….Get back to the others and we’ll forget the whole thing….This is ridiculous! You know perfectly well you’ll only meet me down there—so don’t try to escape!’ Simon’s body was arched and stiff. The Lord of the Flies spoke in the voice of a schoolmaster” (150).

It is a perfect analogue of the Scooby-Doo monsters. The pig’s head is a mask, created expressly in order to teach children lessons in fear. In the novel, it speaks in adult voices — meanwhile, in real life, teachers give it center stage, adding their own stern warnings about man’s inhumanity to man. We adults are not afraid of the pig’s head. It is merely an instructive example. We are afraid of what would come next, and would replace the head, and dwarf its capacity for evil, one day, when these boys come of age. The pig’s head can’t talk, and isn’t real, but there is darkness in the heart of man, and this is only its first, tentative sign.

That’s a claim he’s keen to make, because if Golding seems to be writing about a universal evil, then his novel is about human nature, and can avoid being charged with nostalgia for the British Empire and the British colonies. The boys can be rescued, and their evil stamped out like a campfire, because they are boys. Meanwhile, around them, more “fully grown” evils ravage the cities, threatening the entire human race! Bombs go to ground, and detonate. Planes fall out of the sky. Armies are raised, and sent forth!

I truly wonder how many people, teachers and students alike, have described the island as a “microcosm” of the “bigger evils” that are taking place somewhere “around them.” Like the fake ghosts in the haunted house, and the “hoax” that substitutes (in Scooby-Doo) for venal, localized forms of exploitation, the pig’s head is designed to be laughable. We go quickly from being glad the boys are safe, to being frightened for our own civilization. Humanity is not part of any larger whole, and ineligible to be rescued. Perhaps there is great moral strength to be gained from this dreadful invitation to panic, in a completely generalized way, about the fate of civilization. O, civilization! Thou art so fragile, standing forth against a darkness both relentless and vast…

Alternatively, Golding could lay it on less thickly, and choose instead to worry about his own unexamined assumptions, including where those assumptions come from, historically speaking. When I think back on the history of islands, they are so often like Golding’s island. They are pristine and uninhabited…or basically uninhabited…I mean, aside from the savages living there. When I consider the history of men like Ralph, with their megaphones, and their emblazoned flags, high up for all to see, and their conviction of ruling by necessity, through force of personality, making decrees by divine right…what I see is not the history of all mankind, but a specific pattern of violence and injustice that is (sadly) inseparable from the larger story of “civilization.” I see a long, jagged wound that is still not fully healed.

You can paint these disgraces gold if you want, as Golding does with his absurd bursts of sunlight: “The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid nearer and nearer the sill of the world” (41). Still, there’s no getting around the fact that “civilization,” in The Lord of the Flies, is merely a nice name for the first global era, one controlled by colonial governments, those havens for intolerance, violence, and greed. It would be a shame if the atomic bomb was a kind of amnesty, permitting novelists like Golding to wind the clock back, a century or more, eager for another chance to live in bygone eras, repeating all of those enormous mistakes.

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danah boyd is very much part of these conversations, when it comes to studying what children do online. The Internet is another domain where relations between adults are triangulated through children, as with colonial nostalgia in The Lord of the Flies, and localized corporate exploitation in Scooby-Doo. Her new book it’s complicated is (as the boing-boing editors have also said) the best book I have ever read on the subject of modern online environments (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Now, full disclosure: it’s complicated is sometimes a little underwhelming. The reason for this, though, is a good one. The Internet is not that big of a deal, in some ways. It hasn’t changed everything about human life. In some cases, even when a form of socializing or rhetoric moves online, it’s still pretty much the same there as elsewhere.

In exchange for this quality of anti-climax, one gets a book devoted to settling down the hysterical conversations, taking place continuously, about children and the Internet. boyd finds, not surprisingly, that the monsters of the Internet – sexual predators, Internet “addiction,” oversharing, and “trolling”/cyber-bullying – are largely fictions. They have been so gigantically overstated that no matter what incidents first caught fire in the press, our perceptions of the risks and requirements of life online are frequently little more than paranoid delusions. Nor are we the innocent victims of yellow journalism. boyd does a great job exposing the vested interests of people who get the Internet wrong. She focuses above all on parents who extensively and intrusively (those being the key words) monitor their teenaged children; she also calls our attention to corporations who profit from misunderstandings of the Internet. Her assessments of sharing — what, where, and how children share data about themselves – are particularly striking. She’s lucid, unpretentious, and surprising. Take this passage, for example, on why teenagers are sometimes (basically by accident) “found out” for having put all kinds of problematic things online:

Teens’ struggles to make sense of the networked publics they inhabit— and the ways in which their practices reveal cultural fractures—highlight some of the challenges society faces as technology gets integrated into daily life. At the same time, teens are as they have always been, resilient and creative in repurposing technology to fulfill their desires and goals. When they embrace technology, they are imagining new possibilities, asserting control over their lives, and finding ways to be a part of public life. This can be terrifying for those who are intimidated by youth or nervous for them, but it also reveals that, far from being a distraction, social media is providing a vehicle for teens to take ownership over their lives. As teens turn to and help create networked publics, they begin to imagine society and their place in it. Through social media, teens reveal their hopes and dreams, struggles and challenges. Not all youth are doing all right, just as not all adults are. (212)

(One note about boyd’s style, before we get back to the subject at hand: While there’s something a little wistful about the way she uses her graduate school chops — writing about teenagers as digital flaneurs and quoting The Death and Life of Great American Cities – it’s also genuinely nice that she approaches this work with a range of tools, and a substantive background in critical theory.)

Given that the Internet “monsters” are a way of making sure that new generations are “carefully taught” – more bogeymen, more masks — boyd enters the fray ready to draw blood, and does so, to her great credit:

Not only are today’s teens reproducing social dynamics online, but they are also heavily discouraged from building new connections that would diversify their worldviews. The “stranger danger” rhetoric discussed in the chapter on danger doesn’t just affect teens’ interactions with adults; many teens are actively discouraged from developing relationships with other teens online for fear that those teens may turn out to be adults intending to harm them. Not all teens buy into this moral panic, but when teens do make connections online, they focus on engaging with people who share their interests, tastes, and cultural background. (173)

boyd is also very perceptive about the difference between teens using technology, in the context of vibrant, socially active lives, and adults using technology, primarily in order to do work. When adults step back to “understand” technology, their own experiences are big influences on what they see. Naturally, what they see are devices that combine agonizing demands (being always available to stakeholders by e-mail, for example) with problematic “distractions” (Facebook is a click away, but so much to get done!). They want to love their technology, but they are being negatively reinforced in the opposite direction, every day. They have a tough time seeing the way that, for a teen, the same devices can be both endlessly rich, and easily combined with a range of other activities.

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One of the most dynamic sections of boyd’s book touches on the issues of Wikipedia, online research, and the way such things are managed in schools. I am a huge fan of Wikipedia, and I have been waiting for many years for somebody to defend it as successfully as boyd does, here. What boyd says about the site is absolutely right, and deserves to be quoted in full:

Wikipedia has a bad rap in American K-12 education. The de facto view among many educators is that a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit must be filled with inaccuracies and misleading information. Students’ tendency to use the service as their first and last source for information only reinforces their doubts. Ignoring the educational potential of Wikipedia, teachers consistently tell students to stay clear of Wikipedia at all costs. I heard this sentiment echoed throughout the United States. In Massachusetts, white fifteen-year-old Kat told me that “Wikipedia is a really bad thing to use because they don’t always cite their sources. . . . You don’t know who’s writing it.” Brooke, a white fifteen- year-old from Nebraska explained that “[teachers] tell us not to [use Wikipedia] because a lot of—some of the information is inaccurate.” These comments are nearly identical to the sentiments I typically hear from parents and teachers. Although it is not clear whether students are reproducing their teachers’ beliefs or have come to the same conclusion independently, students are well aware that most teachers consider Wikipedia to have limited accuracy. When people dismiss Wikipedia, they almost always cite limited trust and credibility, even though analyses have shown that Wikipedia’s content is just as credible as, if not more reliable than, more traditional resources like Encyclopedia Britannica.18 Teachers continue to prefer familiar, formally recognized sources. Educators encourage students to go to the library. When they do recommend digital sources, they view some as better than others without explaining why.19 As Aaron, a white fifteen-year-old from Texas explained, “A lot of teachers don’t want you to use [Wikipedia] as a source in a bibliography because it’s not technically accredited. And they’d rather you use a university professor’s website or something.” (186)

How does this fit with the theme of “adults scaring adults,” indirectly, through children? Well, first of all, boyd’s right about this pervasive belief that Wikipedia is full of errors. It’s an exaggerated claim, and it’s a shallow one as well. Wikipedia often has errors that are both minor and easy to spot. For example, many entries about works of literature give second-rate, or downright awful, interpretations of the text. That’s too bad, but it’s not a dealbreaker. The data tends to be correct (date of publication, basic themes, etc.), and sometimes that’s all you need. Many historical entries use direct quotes from other websites, in an effort to provide higher levels of detail. It’s easy to spot when this happens. Such errors do not prevent Wikipedia users from reaping the majority of its benefits. The reason Wikipedia feels so obscurely, dangerously, and permanently wrong, has to do with its corporate structure (or, more accurately, its lack of one). Wikipedia runs on open-source collaboration and vast amounts of volunteer work. It’s a model that doesn’t make sense to Americans, because it contradicts everything we’ve been taught about the profit motive. Admitting to the value of the Internet is also bad business for the tiny class of privileged American intellectuals who benefit from the way traditional academia limits access to knowledge, in order to maintain institutional prestige and justify its own hierarchies.

There is a migration of valuable content currently underway. The best that is being thought and said is no longer exclusive to the brick-and-mortar academic institutions that require entry fees. It’s on the Internet, where it is available for cheap or free, including it’s complicated, which boyd has released for free: you can read it here.

Come to think of it, you know who else worked for free? The Scooby-Doo Detective Agency, that’s who. Good for you, you meddling kids!

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Until next time, this is Kugelmass, saying…

“How much money is he charging you to use my place?”
“There is no money.”
“No money?”
“Free to all.”
“Well. Isn’t that something.”
“It is, actually.”

-Fight Club

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