Swift to Judge: Satire and Culture in Gulliver’s Travels and Idiocracy


No one can argue that Mike Judge’s mediocre comedy deserves as much criticism and examination as Swift’s literary masterpiece. Idiocracy is light entertainment with social criticism wielded as a blunt instrument as opposed to the scalpel like precision of Gulliver’s Travels. But because Idiocracy is a satire of our society it does benefit the viewer to think about it critically. It has become popular for people to call Idiocracy a documentary when they lament some stupidity they have witnessed. Mike Judge did a good job on zeroing in on the most bemoaned cultural trends, like product placement, reality television and uber-machismo. It is a movie that proposes that our future generations will be massively idiotic because smart people aren’t breeding as fast. A troubling concept that sounds like eugenics, the idea that people should breed based on genetic factors (Novak). But because it is a light-hearted comedy it does not bear much weight. Judge focuses on the evolution of an uneducated culture that is becoming overrun with product placement and denies its major problems by allowing itself to become distracted by entertainment. The idea for Idiocracy was planted when Judge witnessed two women fighting in a line for the teacup ride at Disney Land (Sailer). He wondered if Disney would have expected this kind of thing to happen at his park. The future is most often portrayed as an advanced society even in dystopian visions. Judge wondered if our actual future would be stuck in an arrested development that looked like the Jerry Springer show set in a Costco (Sailer). Companies could become completely ubiquitous, an inescapable presence in all areas of life including our government, schools and even bodies and speech. Every generation has the general outcry that their society is dumbed-down by popular entertainment and unwilling to be more engaged with current events and politics (Novak), but even with smart phones making constant mental stimulation an option the future will probably continue to have people who seek knowledge and people who can’t be bothered.

Idiocracy is a satire of modern popular culture that openly mocks the lower classes but has been interpreted as a sly poke at the liberal elite. In future the entertainment is crude and violent. The food is unnatural and name brand based. Laziness and animalistic gratification are the normal functions of every person. The future people are like the yahoos, foolish and unable to advance their culture and learning. Judge has made a film that causes people to be prideful. The future idiots are living in a world that is scorned as idiotic, but looking past the silliness is a condemnation on the uneducated poor. Those who do not have access to education, living in food deserts. The monster truck rally fans and the fast-food workers are the current day idiots whose culture survives through the cockroach like breeding of trailer trash stereotype Clevon. The implication of Clevon’s seed being the progeny of the future and the affluent, educated couple who end up not breeding and dying out could be viewed as Judge making fun of the pearl-clutching elite and their fear and scorn of the poorer hoi polloi.  However, unlike the Yahoos, the future idiots are lovable and Joe and Rita decide to stay with them and help them improve their society. Gulliver sets out to travel and record the truth for the betterment of England and knowledge, yet he becomes so enamoured of the houyhnhnms he cannot bear his own people when he returns. Could Mike Judge and Jonathan Swift both be mocking the prideful, educated class? If Joe had not arrived in the future, would they have evolved into Yahoos?

Joe “Not Sure” Bauer and Gulliver are uncomplicated and straightforward. Joe and Gulliver are both appalled by the animalistic idiocy of the yahoos and the people of the future. Both heroes end up adapting to the culture of the people they have befriended. But where Joe wants to stay in basement, Gulliver seeks out travel. Joe is more intelligent than the future people, Gulliver is typically the more intelligent of the people he meets, barring the houyhnhnms. Joe stays in the future to lead the idiots and attempts to improve their world. Gulliver reluctantly returns to his world and shuns his own people, instead of trying to impart the ways he has learned from the houyhnhnms to them. Gulliver’s wife is appreciated only for her status and treated coldly by Gulliver, Rita is a prostitute who deceives Joe to believe she is an artist. Joe respects Rita and wants the best for her. Rita is ashamed at being a prostitute but Joe’s good nature leaves one to believe that he would accept her past and still be respectful of her.

The two heroes’ character trajectories are a contrast. Gulliver begins his journey with scientific curiosity and a desire to learn about the world abroad. He returns home disgusted with his own race and given to horse-like affectations. Joe Bauer is introduced as a mediocre man whose only aspiration is to stay in the military library basement until his pension kicks in. He misunderstands the motivational phrase ‘lead, follow or get out of the way’ and strives to get out of the way. He ends up being the smartest man in the future and becoming President of the World. Gulliver is in awe of his logical, peaceful houyhnhnms and sees them as the paragon of society and the only culture worthy of living in. As he explains the English legal system to the master horse it is evident he is realizing how foolish and idiotic it must appear to a purely rational being like a houyhnhnm. How can it benefit society to have a system that engenders deceit and selfish gain within its people? In the court scene in Idiocracy, Joe attempts to appeal to reason in explaining his case and what his situation is, but the future idiots mock his foppish speech (they use a more offensive word) and his own lawyer speaks against him in order to get some money out of the case. Joe’s bafflement at the inability of anyone to see reason is similar to the Master Horse.

The Yahoos are more like dumb animals than humans, naked, violent and fearful, throwing their faeces at Gulliver when they first meet. When Joe’s capsule crashes into Frito’s apartment he is sucking food through a straw, laughing at a show called ‘Ow, my balls!’ and his chair is also a toilet. These introductions establish the yahoos and the future idiots as mentally and emotionally inferior to the heroes. Frito and the future idiots still have language and culture, but it is merely leftover from a past that had more intelligence. Like the yahoos, they are incapable of learning, value money for its own sake and are prone to violence. Unlike them, however, they revel in their lower state and seem cheerful and desirous of fixing the problems they face, even if they are too dumb and lazy to attempt anything serious. The Yahoos are miserable and hateful and any resemblance to humanity is horrifying, not humorous. Swift and Judge are both making us look at our basest natures but Swift creates a vision that is reprehensible and sickening, where Judge creates characters that have redeeming, comical charm.

Jonathan Swift and Mike Judge have each created works that are in popular entertainment formats, Swift the Travel Journal and Judge, a comedic movie. They use these mediums to satirize their cultures and illustrate what they think is going wrong. Swift’s yahoos and Judge’s future idiots may have been meant to cause reflection and show how humanity’s tendency to fulfil their own lusts and lower instincts leads to the degradation of society. They manage, however, to create characters that mimic the stereotypes of the class that is viewed as lowest in their own societies. The Yahoo’s are a rough sketch of what many people imagined foreign tribal cultures were like. The future idiots are what the elite, educated class very likely think the poor are most like. Fast-food eating, reality show watching, bickering degenerates. Swift’s Yahoos are overwhelmingly negative and depressing and although he mocks just about every class in Gulliver’s Travels, the yahoos are the most reprehensible. The future idiots in Idiocracy are not who we hope to turn out to be but they sure do enjoy themselves.

Sources Used

Novak (2014, June 29). Idiocracy is a cruel movie and you should be ashamed for liking it. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/idiocracy-is-a-cruel-movie-and-you-should-be-ashamed-fo-1553344189

Sailer (2013, May 24). Mike Judge Interviewed by Alex Jones about “Idiocracy” [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://isteve.blogspot.com/2013/05/mike-judge-interviewed-by-alex-jones-on.html

Swift, Jonathan, ed. David Damrosch, and Stuart Sherman. “From Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. New York: Longman, 1999. 2392-2447. Print.